I had a sleepless night last week. I was blighted by a creeping concern about a work issue. It was the kind of worry that stubbornly settles somewhere between your heart and your stomach. It tied knot after knot. It paraded worst case scenarios across my ceiling all night long. This was the type of concern usually eased by communal discussions in friendly robing rooms or an improvised summit around the chambers’ photocopier. But I had not seen a colleague in person for months. I desperately missed the ready access to collective wisdom and shared experience that so many of us lean on during the difficult days. I felt restless and unsettled.
As the sun rose, I found relief almost immediately. I telephoned an experienced, approachable, no-nonsense QC. Having been in chambers for some years, I felt able to swallow my pride and simply ask for help. A quick call, some solid advice, the weight lifted.
As I marvelled at this work-from-home worry resolution service – I was still in my pyjamas – it occurred to me that it was only available to me because I had spent ten years not working from home. The relationships we cultivate, the confidences we nurture and the precious trust built between practitioners cannot be replicated on Zoom.
What if I was a brand-new barrister? Doubtless, the QC would still be generous with her time and willing to help – but would I have been brave enough to call? Would I have exposed my deepest worries, raw and unfiltered, to a stranger at the very top of the profession?
When I was a new barrister, burdened with worry, I used to lurk by the chambers’ kettle. It was a tried and tested technique. Everyone needs a cup of tea eventually. An average kettle takes about two minutes to boil. A captive audience. ‘Such a coincidence to bump into you here at the kettle,’ I would venture casually without mentioning my stake-out, ‘I just wanted to pick your brain…’ We often talk about the finest traditions of the Bar. The finest of all must be the generosity of time, advice and wisdom we give to each other. The formal structure of pupil supervisors, allocated mentors and specialist groups have an important role to play in the development of any barrister. We can try to recreate those online. We can have digital coffee mornings and advice-giving webinars. At least one court has an online robing room. But, try as we might, nothing can replicate the slow, steady growth of professional relationships rooted in real life and shared experiences.
Lockdown has forced the profession to experiment with the idea of mass working from home. We should identify and bank the benefits. We can reduce avoidable commutes, ease burdens on those for whom travel is a particular challenge, alleviate the stress of unnecessary hearings, assist caregivers and make the profession less London-centric. But we must guard against the risks, too. I have built my network. You may have built yours. We can sit in our living rooms and reap the rewards. But it is a selfish, unsustainable model for those who come after us without the connections that we have been fortunate enough to build in person. It is particularly likely to impact on underrepresented groups and those who arrive knowing no one in the profession at all. Pre-virus, many chambers were already beginning to empty and footfall was already beginning to slow. Juniors were already waiting a little longer at the kettle to find a willing ear or a sympathetic shoulder.
As we conduct advocacy from our kitchens we have also lost the ability to learn from each other. Junior practitioners in their early days would spend time in the public gallery waiting for their case to be called on. When I was first let loose in the crown court (‘… a mention to fix a date Miss, remember your wig and do not mess it up…’) I used to deliberately get to court early and soak up the advocacy around me like a sponge. I would pinch phrases, steal tactics and work out judicial likes and dislikes. I would watch the other barristers backstage. Law school does not teach you the delicate choreography required to navigate an opponent with a short temper, an usher with a long list and ambitious listing times at opposite ends of the building. Formal training is crucial – and those of us that teach advocacy are dedicated to recreating it online – but it is in those early days, watching others, where the real schooling begins. It might be argued that new practitioners could log into court a little early to watch a masterclass in online advocacy. I hate to break it to my esteemed colleagues but none of us are conveying the true art of oration or the elegance of the spoken word by yelling ‘YOU NEED TO HIT THE UNMUTE BUTTON’ across our kitchens.
As the horizon of lockdown appears to draw a little closer, it is for us to analyse when digital working might help and when it might hinder. For many, the lockdown has been a wake-up call to unsustainable, unhealthy working habits that we blindly follow without question. Steps have been taken to dent the fetishisation of the work-till-you-drop culture at the Bar, but it sometimes still prevails. The 4am emails, the unrealistic timetables, the constant need to be available, and the race to respond. For some, lockdown has been a rare opportunity to take stock. A talented third-six pupil, Beheshteh Engineer, tweeted recently that the slightly slower pace of lockdown had enhanced her professional and personal life: ‘…today, I was a better lawyer than I might have otherwise been… I had a full night’s sleep, papers well in advance, I didn’t waste hours travelling and I didn’t have other concerns that I’d normally have’. In calling for the profession to not instinctively revert back to the status quo, she asked ‘is there not a better way?’
It should be to our shame that any change will be too late for some. The ‘better way’ - if it comes at all - will only be after we have haemorrhaged some of our best. Jodie Anderson, a talented junior, tweeted a photo of herself in her wig last week. It caught my eye because she is grinning, her eyes are bright and happy. I have not seen anyone in a wig smile like that for a long time. I was intrigued. Then I read the text beneath the photograph: ‘Eek. What a day! After 5yrs at the Bar, I finally hung up my wig today. I have no regrets. I found the criminal bar self-destructive & unsustainable. But most importantly, I am SO happy to be joining the most amazing charity…’ As I read her words my emails pinged, my phone vibrated, the clock on my next deadline ticked a little louder and I was acutely aware of the constant hum of stress that permeates my working life.
We owe it to the next generation to listen to their words and to heed their warnings. This enforced break from the courtroom is a rare opportunity to step back and to survey the damage we have done to the system and to ourselves. As we reset after lockdown we should cautiously assess the correct balance between working-from-home and the collegiate principles this profession depends on. We should carefully analyse what needs to remain in the courtroom in the best interests of those we serve and those we teach. We should take a long look at our working practices and our habits. We should take the time to listen to voices from across the Bar. If we aspire to be a healthy, productive, and diverse profession then, as we emerge from lockdown, we need to carefully write the rules of our new normal.
Published on 26 June 2020