Finding our families

Some thoughts, based on the experience of someone I love : about the irrepressible drive to find out who we are, and how technology and our increasing connectedness make it possible to find family connections where once there would have been a dead end.

A DNA test kit costs about sixty quid. The sort that people buy one another for a christmas present. You know the sort that gives you (in my view) pretty generic useless information about your so-say ethnic make-up. It's only as good as the database, and not all ethnicities are well represented so I'm pretty 'meh' about these. (my proof-reading loved one interjects here to say that 'I think it’s probably worth pointing out that ethnicity is actually about a common cultural or national foundation which is just as much a fallacy as putting everybody in boxes of ‘race').

But what not everybody realises is that this is merely a gateway to much more powerful tools. DNA test kits also offer a chance to have an insight into personal health dispositions : Am I am I likely to develop lung cancer or die of heart disease etc? And for those with children, there can be a desire to be able to inform your own children about their physical and possibly mental/emotional inheritance.

Once you have submitted your DNA for testing you are offered a choice by the service you use to make your profile public and, separately, you can upload your data to OTHER services that will make them available to a new set of users - the sort that people can use to find distant relatives. Probably best not to do this by the way if you are a serial killer (top tip there) because law enforcement agencies can potentially use that to match you to all the DNA you left at those crime scenes. But in more positive applications you can use these databases to find fifth cousins once removed you didn't know you had and to plug gaps in your family tree. Why not you might say? Although I suspect most adopted children now know that they are adopted, not every adopted person knows that somebody else is looking for them...not every relinquishing parent knows their child is trying to find them again. And not every looked for biological parent will turn out to match up to the idealised soft focus image in the minds eye...

Of course most of us have families with some sort of unspoken secret - as you get older you realise its par for the course, and so whilst these escapades online into our ancestry can be embarked upon without too much careful thought they can suddenly take an unexpected turn, when you discover a half sibling you didn't know existed or some unforseen displacement of children within the family (typically children born out of wedlock and taken in by grandparents or aunts). I speak from experience when I say you may uncover things you'd rather you hadn't, that you couldn't have made up, or that just raise more questions you can't answer.

Once you are on a DNA database and have ticked all the boxes that enable the websites to compare profiles and suggest possible relatives to you - and to suggest you as a possible relative to them - you begin to be sent suggestions with names and locations - this person might be your second cousin. Even if you don't reach out and start a conversation to find out more, in combination with what you already know about family names, the family tree and particular surnames or key dates, this information can be powerful. And in some cases it can be enough to open up a whole other line of enquiry in finding a lost parent where you'd previously reached the end of the road. Because if you can find your second cousin, you can often work your way back combining names, social media profiles, public records and your own snippets of information - until wham. There is the facebook profile of your long lost sister, father, mother, child. Should you contact them? How should you approach it? What do they know about you? Will they welcome your contact? Do their family know about you? And of course you won't be ready for it. Because who ever can be? And half of you always knew you would find them one day and the other half always believed it would never happen.

Some people will move in ever decreasing circles to find their lost person, and when they arrive there will be a hole, because that person has passed. But for many making contact with their surviving siblings, spouses or children may help you build a picture of the unknown parent or brother you never got to meet in person.

I often wonder what preparation adopters are given to handle this time in their child's life, probably as a young adult - but maybe in their thirties, forties, later - when that gnawing need just to know, to see for themselves, bursts to the surface and has to be satisfied. I wonder what preparation and support is in place for the adopted children to safely manage this.

It's one thing for a troubled teenager to look for his biological family on facebook - the grass of course is always greener when you are a teenager and your parents are trying to maintain boundaries - and every teenager is wresting with their own identity. For the adopted teenager this must all be magnified and overwhelming. That is its own world of worry for those who adopt. But even for those who weather the teenaged years are relatively unstormy, I tell you this stuff doesn't go away. At some point that need to know can't be ignored any more. And the potential for DNA databases to be used for biological parents and children and siblings to locate one another after adoption - even across international borders - is vast - providing of course one of them has made their DNA profile available and at least someone towards the other end of the family tree can be connected to.

I don't hold myself out as an expert on adoption. I'm not adopted and I'm not an adoptive parent. But although the details of what I have witnessed of my loved one's experience is private, I have seen this play out in real life. There are two adopted members of my family who have found or been found by their parent / child through the internet - producing some answers, some joy, some sadness and some unanswerable questions.

And it is this experience is just one of the reasons why the idea of a closed adoption, and a termination of all direct contact seems increasingly naive to me - a fingers in ears approach to the reality of our profound need to know about ourselves that never goes away and our ability to reconnect through our genetic heritage even where legal ties have been irrevocably severed.



Feature pic of DNA located via Helen Carmody on flickr but marked public domain.

The recipe for wellbeing

There has been a lot of baking going on in our house this summer, thanks to the kids version of bake off. Even 9, who survives on approximately seven simple foodstuffs (cheese, ketchup, noodles, pasta, marmite, pizza (cheese flavour) and cake (preferably lemon drizzle), loves to bake.

Apart from the odd fiddly dish which requires military precision or some unusual technique, I view a recipe as a source of inspiration rather than a straightjacket, but of course such flexibility and the knowledge to know when to deviate from the path set in the recipe without disaster comes only with experience.

And so it is with our working lives, and our recipe for work life balance. Sometimes you don't have the ingredients to achieve the perfect light as air balance, and so your holiday falls a bit flat, or instead of some exotic foreign dish you have to make something modest and local with what you've got in the cupboard. Sometimes the simplest food can be the best (love an emergency omelette!). Sometimes a decent meal can fall by the wayside for days, and I survive on a carb and caffeine diet of toast and tea (brekky), kit kat and tea (lunch), pasta and tea (tea) (with wine for pudding). I know. My mother has already told me (I look tired, my skin's bad again etc., etc. Thanks Mum.).

This year I've managed to take time off but not to get away on a holiday proper. I've failed to fully switch off and have even had to dash into chambers for an emergency conference - but I have wound down and spent time baking, pootling with the kids and ticking some nagging bits off my to do list that have been a source of worry. I feel like I've regained a bit of steam and by the time I am plunged gasping back into the chill of September and a long trial I'll be I hope a bit better equipped to weather the months ahead.

I've been thinking about news of HHJ Tolson's recent missive instructing lawyers in his manor not to answer emails between 6pm and 8am and to take an hour's lunch break. He is not the first to suggest some adjustment to our collectively bonkers approach to emails, but I don't think the answer lies in a ban on emails between certain hours. It may lie in the development of a culture that there should be no *expectation* of a reply between those hours - but we can't prohibit it. The way I make happy pie doesn't involve me not working in the evenings, because I'd rather do that than work at weekends. It doesn't involve me staying in chambers till 6pm frantically trying to finish everything before the guillotine falls, because I'd rather leave at 4pm and beat the rush hour, spend a little time with the kids before bedtime, and pick up work after 9pm (though my increasing decrepitude appears to be making that somewhat challenging as I keep falling asleep!).

My out of office is a recipe that has been through several trial versions as I've wrestled with these issues. It reads as follows :

PLEASE NOTE – I sometimes send emails at daft times, because it suits my set up. That doesn’t mean I expect you to respond at daft times too, unless that also suits your arrangements. And it doesn’t mean I will always reply to your email sent at daft times either!

Please feel free to adopt, adapt and season to taste. But be prepared for the hilarious* responses it will prompt.

*reader, they are not hilarious...

As for the lunch hour, I'm not at all sure how this squares with the well established, almost universal listing practice of directing everyone to rock up at 1pm for a 2pm hearing. Or, during a trial, how it squares with the regular need to take instructions, send urgent emails about witnesses, locate and greet said witnesses, and make enquiries about missing documents - all during the lunch hour. I will ALWAYS take a proper lunch break when I can, but overall I find it far less stressful to spend most or all of my lunchbreak ensuring I'm actually able to competently proceed with the trial at 2pm than to feed myself and get some fresh air before returning to the fray, worrying for the whole hour about the wheels that are coming off our trial timetable that I could be fixing with a few phonecalls rather than achieving my 10,000 steps. I know which I find less stressful (I might also add, since HHJ Tolson suggests that it is generally not necessary for counsel to be attended by a solicitor - that when you are on your own running a trial with no solicitor there is a hell of a lot of lunch time running around that has to be done, which in an attended trial the solicitor would undertake / assist with. I generally don't think it is necessary for a solicitor to attend with me but in some cases it is indispensable).

And the truth is, I think we all know that if it was in the trial advocate's power to sort out a glitch with a witness or to prep their client for evidence to be ready to start promptly in order to keep to timetable and avoid adjournments, overruns or other nightmares - and if we just waltzed off for lunch down the road - I'm pretty sure we would not be getting a pat on the back from our cuddly pro-wellbeing judge. We'd be getting some tough questions about why on earth this wasn't sorted out (legitimately imho). So, you know, lunch break smunch break really. They are rarely a thing for judge or lawyers when you are in trial mode.

But none of that means we should not try to do a proper lunch break once in a while. We should wherever possible get out of the building, wherever possible eat more than just a warm kitkat from the choccy machine - and as a bare minimum I WILL DEMAND TIME TO PURCHASE AND DRINK ONE CUP OF TEA in any 'lunch break'. It is essential to eat SOMETHING and re-caffeinate (unless its one of THOSE trials where you feel too sick to eat - fortunately rarer the older and more curmudgeonly you get, and the more one's lifetime supply of Fs depletes) - it is a source of some frustration that the set up of court security still means that we can lose a precious fifteen minutes of lunch 'break' queuing to get back into the building when on the coffee run, resulting in everyone in the case having to break off taking instructions or whatever else it is they are doing, in order to sip and collect their drink from security. I hope that the speedy boarding scheme is rolled out everywhere some time soon.

The answer to all this stressy-ness lies in my approach to cooking** : If you have chocolate chips make something with chocolate chips even if its not in the recipe - just chuck em in. What's the worst that can happen? (ok we've had a few inedible experiments this summer but, hey ho). What I'm trying to say is that you gotta make something out of whatever you have to hand. Take the opportunity for a lovely lunch with pals when you can. Take that early finish and go relax. When your trial cracks try not to let your diary fill right back up again. Build in firebreaks and be ruthless with the clerks when they try and encroach. Book that holiday in advance. Make it far away so you CAN'T be tempted. And bake with the kids and pootle in the garden when you can (or do extreme sports, eat mountains of chocolate chips or run marathons to your taste).

Be savvy : All these shiny messages from senior judges are like the mouthwatering food in the glossy picture on the front of the weekend supplement. The sort of recipe that you flick to and discover you don't have half the essential ingredients and can't actually pull off. Don't be sucked in. Don't attempt the impossible. Use these mirages of delicious wellbeing cake as inspiration by all means, but don't see these as recipes that you have to ridigly stick to. Check what you got in your cupboard and mix it up.


Finally. I'm so sorry for the hugely overextended metaphors in this blog post. I may be over-sugared.


**the author gives no warranty as to the accuracy of this statement...


Feature pic : 11's first pie (apple and cinnamon since you ask. Very tasty. We don't recommend the pre-rolled pastry as it cracks - next time 11 is going to make the pastry from scratch!!)

Sunday homework club

It's not normal, is it? But every lawyer knows exactly what #sundayhomeworkclub is. And by god are we skilled at self-distraction tactics to avoid the inevitable.

This blog post. Case in point...

In fact, I've had a fair few weekends lately that have involved no Sunday Homework Club, indeed no homework at all. It gave me the DTs at first, but I'm rather liking it now. And it is beginning to dawn upon me that it doesn't (always) have to be this way.

There will always be Sunday Homework Club for as long as there are trials and lawyers. But they really should not be the norm, even for us abby normal lawyers.

For those of you who are still trying to avoid getting down to it, I've just written a REALLY IMPORTANT BLOG POST* on The Transparency Project blog, that you MUST READ NOW*. Here :

Supreme Court’s decision in asbestos case: guidance bearing on transparency in family courts

NB this is a civil case, so even civil lawyers in need of distraction can deploy this....

You're welcome. 🙂

Right, I've run out of excuses. Off to #sundayhomeworkclub solitary for me...

*probably true