Lockdown Lawyers: a pandemic of poetry

Jon Whitfield QC shares the story behind the poetry collection written by legal aid lawyers struggling to deliver justice for all during lockdown


Like all good stories, Lockdown Lawyers has a beginning but I’ll start a little down the timeline in late April when a friend texted to say he had been asked to write a poem. He passed the enquiry in my direction and, half an hour later I was contacted by Emma Trevett, a paralegal and member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), all of whom work in publicly funded practice.

‘Imprisoned by Skype, Half-dressed jocularity, Invoicing dwindles’

With the onset of COVID-19, YLAL meetings had moved online and to raise spirits a poem would often be read. Emma had the idea of asking lawyers to write poetry and raise funds for the Law Centres Network, a charity that provides support for people who are unable to access legal advice. There are no fat cats in legal aid. Emma harnessed the power of social media to garner support and that’s where I came in.

‘We live in a world on two different axles’

‘Would I write a poem for Lockdown Lawyers?’ she asked. ‘Of course,’ said I, thinking it was a fun idea and the poems would go on Twitter or a blog to raise a smile or two during the pandemic.

A week later I emailed Emma two poems and we started talking in more detail. She had received many contributions and it was then that I realised this could be more than just a bit of fun. Lawyers use words all the time but usually for serious forensic reasons and, importantly, for or about someone else. This was asking lawyers to wear hearts on sleeves and write about themselves, something we rarely do.

I need to get a bookcase for the background of my Zoom, I need to get a bookcase for an intellectual room’

Lawyers are often portrayed as callous, hard or aloof and many are, but others employ this façade as a defence mechanism to keep the stresses of work at bay. Anyone in legal aid practice will know the feeling of this:

I sit quietly at my desk as the telephone screams at me’

The problem is that living by a mantra of ‘stay strong, keep your distance’ changes a person. In the long term it is not healthy and letting the façade slip a little is, to my mind, a good thing. I am sure many lawyers enjoy reading and writing poetry much the same as they do art or music, but this project appears to have touched a nerve. I don’t think Emma or I imagined quite how many people would become involved as writers or supporters.

As we discussed the potential for publishing and fundraising, we thought of the Legal Action Group (LAG) who specialise in high quality affordable legal publications. Esther Pilger leapt at the chance of doing something different and has been immensely supportive, but ideas are one thing, making them work is another. So began a six-week whirlwind of brainstorming with long days and late nights. Creating an ‘ethos’ to promote the book, writing poems, chivvying poets, editing poems, negotiating the edits and re-editing, creating a cover, blagging sponsorship and endless tweets as pre-publication teasers – but it was all worth it. On 2 June we published the first collection of poetry by barristers, solicitors, judges and family members.

‘I want to be a lawyer mam, I’ll be a lawyer Dad, I’ll make you proud, I’ll drive you round, And take you both to town’

Well that poet has made the grade. Why did I jump at helping the project? First, words have been my life. They are a constant source of inspiration, entertainment and enrichment. They have given me a living and they have secured the lives and wellbeing of others. Second, the legal profession is terrible at letting off steam. The weight of soldiering on is enormous and destructive. There are many who continue working until they are ill or worse. As one poet says (with a little help from Elton and Bernie):

Covid saved my life tonight

I can believe it. I felt Lockdown Lawyers was an opportunity for a beleaguered and maligned sector of society to be heard. The emaciated impecunious downtrodden misunderstood, reviled and mistreated alley-cats of the legal profession could tell it how it is. From the heart and in their own words – and the result is so full of heart.

Though my back will still ache. But I’ll stay happy. For your sake’

Third, it was a brilliant idea and both Emma and I hoped it would raise a smile as well as raise much needed funds for the Law Centres Network.

The quality of the poems, the honesty in style and content is clear. Anger at decades of cuts and abuse by government; concern at being forced out of business; worry at leaving vulnerable people helpless; fear of putting lives at risk to assist and advise others.

There are huge problems in a justice system decimated by successive governments and many poems speak of this, but a far stronger thread is the spirit of those who battle on in this line of work. The humour and camaraderie, the feeling of a difficult job well done and the satisfaction of helping someone achieve justice whatever the personal cost or energy required. It rings out clearly time and again.

As Emma put it, ‘Lockdown Lawyers has seen legal aid lawyers from all over the country come together to create something positive and remarkable during these unprecedented times.’ When writing the preface, I was reinforced in my belief that it is only because of dedicated lawyers (supported by their long-suffering families and staff) working themselves to a standstill to keep a broken system going that we have a legal aid system at all. It is typical that despite the endless worry of practice, multiplied by the pandemic they still find time to support each other, smile, be creative and say ‘we are still here!’

While the messages are layered these poems are wholly understandable. There are tears and laughter and an honest record of a legal system on its knees, kept going by ordinary people doing an extraordinary job at very great risk to their physical and mental health. This book is entertaining and funny, sad and serious but above all it is true. Best of all, with the production costs covered by sponsorship the money from each sale goes to the Law Centres Network (LCN) charity.

So that’s the middle of the story. Where will it end? Who knows, with over 50 contributors, hundreds of well-wishers and enough books sold to take us into a second print run, the future is looking rather good. We have joked about the possibility of a second volume. I have even started idly thinking about the possibility of a lawyers’ poetry society. Perhaps this is a beginning after all. In the meantime:

I must go down to the courts again to the Royal Courts on The Strand...’ 

 

Copies of Lockdown Lawyers can be purchased through LAG. Since writing the above, we have raised £2,473 for the LCN and sales continue.

Category: 
Issue: 
Author details: 
Jon Whitfield QC

Jon Whitfield QC was called to the Bar in 1985 and took silk in 2010. He defends in cases of homicide, terrorism and fraud, advises in regulatory proceedings and sits as a judge in Mental Health Tribunals and the Court of Protection. Professional life is set against a love of nature, observing, photographing and writing about those small occurrences that would otherwise go unnoticed. He is a trustee of Winchester Poetry Festival. His poetry, photography and books can be found at: www.jonwynne.co.uk