There are few relationships more delicate than that between barrister and clerk. It’s a topic ripe for a whole article. But for now let’s look at one aspect of that relationship – what to do when you, as a barrister, are overwhelmed with work. When you’re lurching from one case to the next with no respite. When the rest of your life has to be squeezed into a couple of hours on a Saturday morning because every other waking hour must be dedicated to prepping cases; drafting, typing, printing, paginating, writing, reading, reading, reading ………
How do you tell your clerk enough is enough when though officially employed by you they can, in truth, make or break your career?
One of the most common issues practitioners approach us about is overwhelm. Seemingly ‘very together’ people tell us they are at the end of their tether. That they’re not sure they can carry on. That they sit there on their sofa at midnight most nights with a lever arch file of papers on their lap unable to take another word in because they are so tired. So exhausted. So fatigued. ‘I didn’t sign up for this,’ they say, almost in tears.
Being a successful barrister is not unlike being a successful actor (but without the glitz, glamour and Botox )! Your busyness is a sign you’ve made it. You’re at the top of the tree. And your agent (clerk) is happy. Why annoy him/her by whingeing? After all he’s hardly sending you down a coal mine. Just to a 30 minute directions hearing in Swindon. And what if that hearing turns into the trial of the century and you turned it down just because you were ‘so tired.’
So, we do that Swindon hearing. And the ‘quick emergency hearing’ listed afterwards that ends up going on until 7pm.
We do it all and internally we’re screaming. And life is awful. And we’d rather be doing anything than this. And we may unfairly look to blame our clerks.
And that way madness and heart attacks lie.
So, family law Barrister Mary has some tips for dealing with this delicate relationship:
1. Don’t expect clerks to understand your stress, exhaustion and hatred for your work. It’s not fair to expect it of them. It’s not their job to do so. It’s your job to look after yourself. Their job is to fill your diary and such an expectation of them contradicts that job.
2. Clerks want clarity so they can do their job properly. Are you available to take a case or not? Don’t say ‘I might be available if it’s any easy, short directions hearing in a local court and I’m 5th respondent who is not opposing any applications.’ They have enough uncertainty, juggling many balls and the diaries of other members of chambers to babysit you. If you don’t want to work on a particular day, tell them. It frees you and them. It’s about making your own mind up about any given day. If you dither, they will book you in.
3. If you’re too tired, say so. Tell them I can’t do the case because I’m too tired and won’t be able to do it justice. Working when I’m too tired would compromise my professional reputation and I don’t want that. Just telling them ‘I’m so tired’ is simply asking for sympathy which they can give but they’ll book you in anyway! ‘Too tired’ is definitive. It shows you’ve made the decision that you won’t work for the sake of the case and importantly, your own wellbeing.