Take a successful break

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Lucy Barbet's tips on how to plan, communicate and execute a career break, and get your practice up and running again quickly

Taking a successful break is entirely possible. All it needs is some careful planning and the engagement and understanding of everyone involved.

Going on parental or extended leave is not something which has to be kept quiet until the last minute. Being upfront with your plans makes the process run smoothly and lets everyone (including you) feel a sense of certainty going forward.

Planning starts when you know that you are likely to be taking of a period of leave. The first people to engage are your clerks and your marketing team. They are crucial to communication and support relating to your leave.

Be as accurate as you can with the dates during which you intend to be away from chambers. It goes without saying that there needs to be some flexibility but this will help your clerks and clients when planning for your absence.

Before you go

Communication is a key part of the planning and execution of a successful break.

  • Let your key clients know that you are going to be taking leave. Try and do this personally if you can. Solicitors like to hear from you, rather than your clerk. There used to be some reluctance to do this, as it was generally felt that it would deter solicitors from instructing. But by being upfront and discussing with solicitors how you might take an existing case forward to the point at which you need to hand it over, and let them have some suggestions as to who might look after the matter in your absence, you are including them in your planning. You should also let them know whether you are happy to be contacted during your leave, either directly or via your clerks.
  • Discuss with your clerk how much contact you want to have with chambers whilst you are on leave. Would you like to remain on the chambers’ general email and/or the email groups to which you belong? Would you like to hear from your clerk once a month? Would you like to be invited to any chambers’ social events during your period of leave? O would you just like a complete break? The choice is entirely yours, but try to be as clear as you can and stick to the agreed level of contact. You can always change your mind later on.
  • You will want to let your colleagues know that you will be going on leave but don’t be afraid to inform them how you feel about being contacted while away. If you are keen to keep in touch with colleagues, perhaps those who have recently returned from parental/extended leave, or others who have experienced it, you could suggest setting up a WhatsApp group which could be helpful if you need some advice or just to keep you in the loop with chambers’ business.
  • If you are not keen on a group chat, you could discuss with your clerk or your E&D committee whether you might be assigned a mentor, perhaps someone with recent experience of parental leave/extended leave, who could be a single contact during your time away and to help with preparation for your return and be on hand when you return.
  • Much closer to the beginning of your period of leave, you may wish to discuss with your marketing team whether to let clients know of your impending break more widely via social media channels. Again, we may have shied away from this in the past, but social media has the advantage of keeping everyone up to date, and your name on a client’s screen.

Before your return

Communication when planning for, and on, return:

  • Arrange a time to speak to your clerk roughly six weeks before you intend to return. This is your opportunity to discuss how you see your return to work. You will need to consider matters such as whether you intend to work full or part time; whether you will work in chambers or from home; which areas of law you would like to concentrate on; what your financial targets might be in the first year; your availability for hearings (virtual and/or in person); and whether there is any flexibility in your childcare or other caring arrangements (if relevant). Remember this is only a starting point and your clerk should liaise with you regularly on your return (ie once a week) to see how things are working and if anything needs tweaking. Be prepared to make changes to your original plan. You will only find what works for you best through trial and error. Most importantly, keep talking with your clerk – they are there to help you. Remember, you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to every piece of work that is offered to you, just because you feel grateful to be receiving instructions. Your practice should be on the same trajectory as before your period of leave and your clerk will continue to work with you to help achieve your goals. By the same token, understand that there may be a period of adjustment on return, so don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure to accept instructions with unworkable deadlines. Keep all lines of communication open.
  • Get back in touch with your key clients to let them know that you are returning and the date on which you will be available to receive instructions. Again this is better coming from you, rather than your clerk, and will open up a line of communication between you again.
  • Liaise with your marketing team to agree wording for an announcement about your return to work. Ideally your clerk will have lined this conversation up for you.
  • Keep in touch with your What’s App support group or your mentor in chambers.

Levelling the playing fields

These past few months have been very strange and difficult for many reasons. However, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way that we work. Notwithstanding the terrible difficulties being faced by the criminal Bar, I really feel that for many the indisputable ability to connect and work remotely will level a number of previously uneven playing fields:

  • virtual hearings are accessible wherever they are being held;
  • multi-day hearings will not necessarily require an overnight stay away from home;
  • marketing is all being done online whether coffee, drinks, webinars or roundtables. There is no need to make arrangements to stay late or dash out early to a breakfast seminar; and no disadvantage to those whose caring commitments prevent physical attendance.

So, while it is likely that, in due course, we will revert to some form of normality, and while there is always a need for some personal interaction, the Bar has realised that a practice can be run and managed remotely. Going forwards, suggesting that a conference may be held remotely, or inviting a solicitor to a virtual coffee or drink, will be entirely acceptable.

At the moment, the extent to which in-person hearings will return remains to be seen and will inevitably depend on the jurisdiction in which one practises, but there can be no longer be any doubt that virtual hearings are entirely viable.

Finally, two stories of successful returns to work: one member of chambers took an eight-year break, but has reached the dizzy heights of appointment to the Court of Appeal. During lockdown I welcomed back a member of chambers after a 10-year break; her practice is already up and running again.

So you see, a successful, planned break is absolutely possible with the right communication and the support and understanding of everyone involved.

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Lucy Barbet

Lucy Barbet is Chair of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks. She is Joint Senior Clerk at 11KBW.