We can take the heat but don’t want to burn by Rehna
Recently I ate takeaways three nights in a row on a post 11 pm train after leaving chambers. Nothing to assail the delicate nostrils of my fellow passengers, just a sandwich. But, yes, gentle reader, I became that person; the one who eats meals on public transport to save time. I wasn’t the only one. Other passengers, too, wearily bit into burgers and even the odd kebab.
On the morning trains people around me regularly tuck into shop bought muesli bowls, as, with their other hand, they answer a backlog of emails on their iPads .
Women who do their makeup on trains are often admonished in the letters page of the Metronewspaper to ‘get up an hour early and do it at home’,
If they did, they probably wouldn’t bother going to sleep at all. These are silly early trains. Crack of dawn o’clock transport. So early that one colleague confessed that for the sake of an extra 30 minutes in bed, she once ended up brushing her teeth in the toilet cubicle of a Virgin train, on her way to court.
When did life become all about work?
Was an Act hastily passed while we were kept busy marvelling at Caitlyn Jenner’s womanhood, that decreed that we should spend every waking moment on high alert for the latest development in some residence and contact dispute?
It can’t be good for us. Much as many of us do thrive on pressure and the many and varied demands on us (if you want something done, ask a busy person), too much of it can cause untold long term damage. A wheelie full of heavy bundles may be the sign of a burgeoning practice but it’s also ultimately a killer on the back.
However, while colleagues will speak willingly of physical aches and pains, they’re less likely to about the unseen consequences of a relentless workload.
One of the unspoken expectations for a successful career at the Bar is that you fire on all cylinders at all times, constantly be operating at 100% , always be at the top of your game.
Most of the time we are – of course, only to then fall ill on the first day of a much deserved holiday or the Christmas break but generally we manage it. There’s a buzz about advocacy that can allow it. You can get excited about delving into a case to find the killer cross examination or the case changing submissions.
That buzz dies, however, after an exhausting period of back to back cases that seep into your bones, and worse, into your psyche.
There was an excellent article recently in Counsel magazine by Lee Moore, founder of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers about Secondary traumatic stress. I highly recommend that you read it. It examined the situation of lawyers who suffer the condition because months and years of exposure to horrific, inhuman abuse of children embeds the trauma in them. The article highlighted the cumulative effect of working on traumatic cases and the psychological and physical symptoms that can arise.
There is also, of course, burnout. We all know it can and does happen but few at the family Bar, certainly, will talk about it or acknowledge it as anything other than something to be mentioned in hushed tones only when something dreadful happens to a colleague.
Lee Moore makes a number of recommendations in the article including that judges, advocates and staff should not be working back to back child abuse cases without respite.
We all know that self care should be a priority but how many of us in the profession truly make it that? How many of us secretly believe that if we own up to being less than 100% we have somehow ‘failed’.
And how many of us, in reality, turn down a case … for the sake of our health?
It’s an issue that’s been troubling me recently not only because of my late night, joyless snacking on trains but because I’ve been through weeks when I’ve lurched from cases of double murder to head injuries to sexual abuse without respite.
When I found myself talking to a colleague (who herself was working on something equally awful) about the horrors of a particular case, I realised how much I needed to offload the knowledge of it.
The content of our work is bad enough but family practitioners now have the additional soul destroying numbness of drafting endless practice directions to contend with.
‘When I pick up 3 lever arch files on a new case at 6 pm, for hearing the next day, before I can even begin proper preparation and work out my questions and submissions, I have to check that the wretched practice directions have been prepared’, an exasperated colleague complained recently. Invariably the documents have not been prepared. So there goes the first 3 hours of the evening churning them out – before you even settle down to actually prepare the case.
I recently tweeted that family law now is 95% secretarial work, typing practice documents no one reads and filling in CMOs no one understands.
My little lament got liked and re-tweeted more than anything I’ve ever posted save perhaps photographs of Michael Fassbender!
A lot of practitioners, it seems shared my pain.
I’m not sure what the answer to it all is. Reducing a workload, of course or simply leaving the profession as several colleagues have done.
The Bar’s new Wellbeing initiative, therefore is a welcome one. Friends of mine who work in the big city law firms can’t believe how little support there is for barristers. They themselves have access to gyms, meditation classes, medical professionals and the like all to ensure that they function at an optimum level – for their personal good but also for the good of the whole.
The Bar needs to catch up fast before it loses talented, strong people who can’t, however, continuously take a workload that would bring Superman to his knees.