It’s taken me almost two decades to get my own office. The fact that I now have one I think has shaped my experience of lockdown quite massively – and very much for the better.
I’ve been casting my mind back to my working spaces and practices over the years at the bar, since I was first called in 2002 and it really has been something of an evolution.
2002-2009 – London – shared room in chambers
When I was a very baby barrister in chambers in London everything was still in hard copy, and transported in wheeled suitcases (though suitcases were considered somewhat outre at the time and more air hostess than lawyer)…I travelled into London each day to go to court, returned to chambers to drop off papers, fax my backsheet to my instructing solicitor, collect my papers for the next day and prep them in my shared room before returning home with readied papers in my trolley, ready to take straight to whatever court I was appearing in the next day. I did all my work in chambers, and my papers were usually slender. I do recall the carting of large heavy suitcases up and down the staircases at Oxford Circus when heavily pregnant in 2008, so I must have begun by that stage to receive bigger briefs.
2009 – c2014? – Bristol – babies and hotdesks
I re-emerged from maternity leave in Bristol, joining a chambers which had no traditional shared rooms, and was largely open plan – with a mix of hot desks and pods, with the odd room with an actual door. Having spent 3 months not earning and having moved house right as the credit crunch hit I was skint, so I opted for the hot desk as it was cheaper. All my papers fitted nicely in my allocated cupboard and it was a good discipline to keep a clean desk. I spent little time in chambers and largely did a quick paper swap in chambers en route back from court and took my work straight home. I would have tea with the baby (later the kids) and start work again once they were in bed, usually with lever arch files spread across the sofa whilst watching Law & Order or CSI with one eye and reading my brief with the other (yes, I know they are rubbish, but they have the sort of narrative you can pick up at any point and the sort of predictable rhythm and arc which I found quite comforting). The house was cramped and cluttered, the dining room table never had room for files, and the sofa was the best available space. We’d bought the house we could afford, saying ‘it’s got room to extend so we can have an extra bedroom and an office one day’, but it was always one day and we were always broke. Often I’d fall asleep whilst putting the kids to bed, or even before, and my OH had strict instructions to wake me at 9pm to do my prep. I’d work till maybe midnight but never later. If I reached the weeping despair stage of prep I’d put myself to bed and set an alarm for 4am to finish it off (I have never been able to pull an all nighter).
2014? to 2018 – Bristol – little people and pods
At some point, I’m not quite sure when, I decided I needed to spread out a little – I wanted my own space. I decided to upgrade to a pod, which meant my own space to leave as tidy or as messy as I liked (within reason), and a massive amount of cupboard space. By this time I was getting bigger bundles, more complicated cases, doing more travel and working away, and spending more time working in chambers – the kids were getting older, their bedtime was later, I found I couldn’t get home for tea reliably and by the time they were in bed and my sofa-office was free for use I wasn’t in any fit state to complete my prep, leading to many tearful nights – so I reverted to trying to get everything done before leaving work, and would often work later and arrive just before the kids were put to bed, occasionally after. I liked to be able to chat to people in chambers, to bounce ideas off them and solve problems with them – I liked the company. It did me good when highly stressed to vent and share. But I distracted both them and me and was not hugely productive (possibly also a product of stress). For every two hours spent in chambers I’d goof off for one of them. Which meant later home time.
As time went on I began to work more in chambers on a weekend, often a Sunday. I found I needed to work more on weekends and where I’d settled for a while into a routine of prepping as much as I could bear on a Friday night so I knew how long I’d need and could relax until Sunday evening when I finished off the prep, there was battle for the sofa later and later on Fridays, and evenings were no longer a quiet time where I could find a space to concentrate. So I had to move back to daytime working. Those Sundays in chambers were more productive, and they meant that when I was home on the weekend I was really ‘there’, but they were also very blue days for me. And whilst they were a rarity for a while they became too common for a period, and the children would say ‘Will you be home this weekend, mummy?’.
Meanwhile, having spent almost a decade saying ‘we must get that extension’ we finally climbed out of the credit crunch hole we’d fallen in and built the thing. We spent 6 months living with my parents while it was done, and moved back in in November 2018. Around the same time I began the move to paperless working. Bye bye big bundles.
2018 to lockdown – big boys and a kitchen table
We’d built an office. But it was a concrete shell, with no heating, no carpet, bare plaster – and it was full of building materials and junk.
But, even without the office things were better : we had knocked through from the tiny cramped dining room to the new kitchen extension and because both children had their own room now the clutter was spread equably around the house. The dining table could be extended and cleared, and if I had a multi-file case I could spread it out and work, whilst looking out to the garden. I still worked on the sofa from time to time, because even though more often than not the sofa was occupied by the kids, who were commandeering the telly before bedtime I was able to sit with my laptop beside them quietly doing work that they were unable to see thanks to a privacy screen. I had a choice of locations though – chambers, office, sofa. It was a huge improvement.
But I still had no office. We were decorating other parts of the house in the first part of 2019 (we needed to sort out our bedroom and the bathrooms), and when the summer came we set to work on the garden. The office was forgotten, still full of leftover bathroom tiles, bags of cement, old boxes and bits of unused skirting board.
Lockdown – an aquarium
And then came lockdown.
Why the hell hadn’t we sorted out that office? Gah! I spent the first few weeks of lockdown on a trestle table in the living room with an assortment of extension cables and props to try and power and position my devices. I had a frozen shoulder which I was unable to get treated due to lockdown and which seemed to be made worse by sitting at a desk so I did the first three weeks standing, shifting from foot to foot continuously, dosed up on nurofen and spending each adjournment laid on a hot water bottle.
When the shoulder eased a little I got to decorating, and although I didn’t want to spend anything on office furniture when my income was up in the air, I knew that this was my chance to make my own space and I had to make it right. So I ordered a desk, a chair and a lamp and set to work. I spent hours sourcing the right coloured paint (at the start of lockdown you couldn’t get paint anywhere!) and pimped up my old ikea bookshelf by painting it deep blue. It took me a couple of weeks to paint it (but at the start of lockdown I had little else to do as hearings were being adjourned left, right and centre), and my husband has nicknamed it ‘the aquarium’ but it is my space and it is made to my specification. I ordered deep petrol green carpet tiles to cover the concrete floor, knowing that we’d never get anyone to come and fit carpet, and also knowing that at some point we’ll have to take it up to finish laying the underfloor heating we hadn’t got around to before lockdown. And so, since about the middle of April 2020, some 18 years after I started pupillage, I finally have my own office. My own space that I don’t share with anyone else (except when I’m not using it and other family members may then borrow it for a reasonable fee).
It has a comfy chair and a foot stool, a shelf with all my books, a desk that is beautiful and undulating and smooth and which calms me down when I stroke it. I have a wall papered with pages from old Weekly Law Reports that chambers were throwing out, and the rest of the room is a deep soothing blue. In one corner is all my knitting, sewing, crochet. In another is a tiny golden shelf that OH has been avoiding putting up since we moved in (Now I have my own room he can scarcely veto it). On it I have placed a plant (an African Violet) which I will undoubtedly kill in a very short space of time.
This room is where I now spend a lot of my time (although this evening I’m typing at the kitchen table looking out at the dusky garden as OH has been having a governor’s meeting and everyone else is watching Horrible Histories in the other room), and in it I am calm and focused and productive. The household has fallen into a rhythm – when the door is closed mummy is working and must not be interrupted. When mummy pops out to the kitchen for a break mid-hearing she is fair game for hugs once the kettle is switched on and she’s had a wee. If there is a crisis I get a whatsapp not a knock on the door. When I emerge there is a chorus of ‘are you done for the day’? to which I say ‘no darling, one more stint before we adjourn’ or ‘just one more witness, I think we’ll be done by four’. Sometimes I have lunch in the garden, some days I go for a run or a dog walk before or after court, things I rarely had time to do when commuting to and from chambers each day – hours of precious daylight wasted on trains or in cars.
Sometimes I get up early to work or return to the office late at night to work. It is quiet and calm and I seem to manage it so much better than I ever did in chambers, getting thing done in the time they should take rather than everything taking twice as long because I’m distracted : miserable thinking about when I could leave, and everything I had to do before I could, and what I was missing, and how long the journey back would be… Sometimes I sit in the comfy chair in the corner of my office, with my feet up, doing some crochet or sitting quietly and reflecting, or writing my to do list. I don’t have to hide in my bedroom or the bathroom or go for a walk to get away from the kids. I can just take myself away to my office. It’s not a man cave or a shed, but in truth if performs a similar function (though I try not to spend TOO much time in there, I only shut the door when I really need not to be disturbed, and I try and let others in the family use it for a solitary space for homework or meetings when they need it).
The working week at the moment is a relentless sequence of different video meetings – hearings or conferences or advocates meetings with other lawyers, mostly working from home. One cannot help but look at the backdrop – is it blurred out, is it sanitised, is it a bedroom, a walk in wardrobe, a spare room with a cot, someone’s commandeered living room or kitchen? And I think about how lucky I am to have this room – and also how lucky I am to have a family outside the room who more often than not will have plated me up some lunch or tea for when I emerge or who rush up with outstretched arms at every coffee break. There may be days or cases when that switch from the subject matter of my cases to my own family’s face jars, but so far it has just been a balm.
The longer that lockdown has gone on the more adjusted to it I have become. I have given notice on my pod in chambers, and as soon as I can I will collect my clutter from chambers and cram it in my aquarium. But what I have realised too is that I have advantages over others. Not everyone has their own home office – it took me nearly 20 years to achieve it. Not everyone is yet comfortable working paperlessly. Not everyone has support from their family at home – both support in meeting their own needs and in caring for their children. If my children had been younger and less responsive to instructions or if I had been a single parent – even a super blue office would not have saved me, I would have drowned in my aquarium. There will be many single parents out there who are still trying to juggle spaghetti hoops, tantrums and cbeebies and constant interruptions – and many junior colleagues out there balancing their single screen on a dressing table in the bedroom – and I am in awe at how they do it and how they have kept it up throughout lockdown. Having an office of my own has enabled me to swim rather than sink. Having a second adult to share the load and some regular human company has kept me afloat.
Not only is my office a privilege that many of my colleagues do not enjoy, it is also a private space that many of the parties to litigation do not have available to them either. The parents in my cases are not switching from one world to another when the court adjourns for a comfort break as I switch from talking about some other family to my own. They are moving through the same rooms where the events in the case happened – the kitchen where the children were injured, the bedroom where that punch was thrown, the bathroom where that overdose was taken – in the next room are the very children and family members who are being discussed by the court. These parents often spend the hearing very alone or unable to find the privacy and the peace and quiet they need to focus. In the last little while we have learnt ways to make working from home and remote court hearings so much more effective than they were, and more manageable for all involved, but nobody should be listening to evidence about their parenting or watching a judge deliver life changing decisions about their children on a tiny hand held screen, or from a shed or a car. And nobody should expect to be able to work from home to the best of their potential, and to keep it up day in and day out unless they have adequate space in which to do it.
In normal times the courtroom offers that privacy, that separation, that clean quiet space to focus on the task at hand. Not having such a space can be a disadvantage to the lawyers working to give their best simultaneously to their clients and to their own families. A room of one’s own matters very much.