What’s normal anyway?

Will we ever get back to normal? I don’t know, though I’m pretty sure our ‘normal’ won’t be the same as our old one – but I do know that it is even harder than ever before to get down to writing on this blog. It’s not entirely due to lockdown – for a while before covid struck I’d struggled to keep up the (frankly ridiculous) pace I’d maintained for many years of one or more posts a week. But it has become harder since March, and it remains so. Partly because of a shift in priorities – towards wellbeing – towards the garden and the sunshine and getting out in the fresh air with the dog – towards focusing on wall to wall trial work through the summer, until finally I got to a point where I realised it was a good idea to take a break in August in order to be able to keep it up through the autumn.

But there is also something else, I think. Since I’ve been back to work after my 2 ½ weeks off it’s been oh so hard. Something beyond the usual settling back into routines, something beyond the melancholy every-September realisation that you are going to need to get out of bed before it’s light again. I have been dog tired by the end of the working day (something I was managing better in the peak of summer). Too tired to walk the dog, to cook dinner, to do all those things I thought I might do after court finished – and that includes writing blog posts. I haven’t regularly gone to bed before the children since they were wee babies, when I used to nap until 9pm and get up again to finish my prep. But throughout September I’ve been intermittently giving up and putting myself to bed before them, and often sleeping badly when I do. So, blog posts are being pushed down the priority list, some way below doing a good job at work and sleep. I am managing the work just fine, it’s just that the extra bells and whistles are dropping off! I’ve got nothing extra left…

It’s not that I don’t have ideas. I’ve got a list of things I want to gripe, vent and ponder about. I’ve even written some of them in draft but got stuck, struggling to find a time when I have enough focus or energy left to wrangle them into shape.

I’m writing this post this morning before court, hoping that doing so will somehow galvanise me into action and that a more substantial blog post will emerge before long, once I’ve got the blogging juices going again. This post is easy, it writes itself with little brain power or concentration. But I am determined to get back to writing something of more value soon.

Yesterday after my remote hearing I forced myself to go for a walk because I needed to be away from that desk and that screen. It’s the first time I’ve felt a bit of resentment to my lovely new office – somehow even after the link was ended and the screen went dark that room was contaminated by the emotions of the day and I didn’t want to be in it or near it. That is the first time I’ve felt what others have described about the intrusiveness of doing this sort of work from home.

So far my theory is that if I allow myself to recuperate by giving myself enough sleep and fresh air and family time I will be back to it soon enough. But it’s taking longer than I’d hoped, and I wonder now if that is because there is something so much more intense and so much more exhausting about trial work when it’s on a screen in your face all day long, something that perhaps accrues over time and is only now becoming apparent. I think we are still working out what the long term ramifications will be for our working and wider lives, and I’m sure a diminishment in blogging output will not be the most serious of them.

This post then is a little marker of where I’m at now. It will be interesting to see how I feel about things in a few months time when I’ve worked through the assorted care trials that are looming in my diary. I might eventually have to concede that I’m just getting old, but maybe I will have a different excuse by then…

Fake Law – A for effort

I thought this book review would be a no brainer. The Secret Barrister’s first book was brilliant. His/her second will be too, I thought, assuredly. And so it is. It is brilliant. And everything s/he says in it is right. And important.

But this bloody book review is NOT a no brainer. It’s been really hard. First of all, I am not the first clever lawyer to write a review of this clever lawyer’s book. Others have got there before me.

There was David Allen Green in Prospect Magazine, which ran with the headline and strap line : ‘The Secret Barrister exposes how political and media charlatans have vandalised the rule of law – “Fake law” offers a powerful corrective to self-serving claims from cynical and incompetent politicians’, and which noted the irony of a an anonymous lawyer lecturing us about fake law :

This is the second book by the “Secret Barrister.” There is, of course, a certain irony that a book about legal fakery is written by someone whose exact legal credentials are not revealed. That said, if a great deal of law in practice exists in the mind, then so can the authority of the “Secret Barrister.” We may not know their actual qualifications. But we can go by their attention to often grimy and telling detail, their verifiable claims about the law and justice system, and their consistently light and engaging manner. The authority of this author is in the sheer quality of the writing. To keep up to this standard in tweet after tweet, blogpost after blogpost, and now book after book is remarkable—especially if, as the author tells us, they do all this in addition to a busy and stressful criminal practice.

The Times ran a review by barrister and legal author Thomas Grant QC, which told us oh-so-eloquently why this book was bloody brilliant :

The SB is an accomplished writer who through vivid metaphor can enliven the most recondite legal concepts. Some passages of Fake Law have the tone of a law lecture, but the truth is not always fascinating and it is rarely easy. Still, this is an urgent and highly readable book. You will come away from it feeling that your mind has been purged. The intellectual project that started with the Enlightenment — purveying truth and slaying mendacity — unfortunately requires constant renewal. Fake Law is a valuable contribution to that unceasing battle.

Yes, I had to look up recondite, too (little known, abstruse – abstruse means difficult to understand, obscure btw – this is why I am not a QC). So like a lawyer to select recondite language with which to review a book about ‘recondite legal concepts’…

But let us not duplicate work here. I tease about the language, but I do adopt what my learned friends have said and refer you to their reviews – there is no need for me to rehearse what they have already so eloquently laid down. I don’t disagree with any of it.

Now. Let’s cut to the chase. I have some other things to get off my chest.

First, a declaration : I am a lawyer. This book is, at its heart, a defence not just of law but of lawyers, and of legal twitter. And SB is our gowned and masked crusader in the big wide world where we mutants are reviled. Those of us who haunt the halls of legal twitter already know everything that is in this book. We agree with everything SB says. We’ve joined in the debates as they emerged, berated the tabloids, the stupid politicians, corrected the plebs, stamped our feet, got shouty with our keyboards and paraded our own superiority. Of COURSE this bloody book is brilliant and clever, just like the first. It’s us. It’s the bar. It’s our specialness writ large beneath a snazzy cover.

But here’s the thing. Lawyers doing reviews of this book have the motivation, concentration and incentive to finish this book. Not only is it quite rude to be sent a free copy of a book and not bother reading it, but in fact, when all the stories in it are familiar to you because you lived them at the time, it’s a really quick, easy read (though I still couldn’t quite get this review done in time for publication day – I am a second tier reviewer and only got my copy a week before release day). For us, pages filled with ego boosting pro-lawyer prose roll by with ease, making the experience almost cheering, so much so that one could almost forget momentarily SB’s more depressing message about the persistent and pernicious attacks on the justice and the rule of law made by the Government and the media and the ease with which those messages are absorbed and accepted – we know we’re worthy even if the public and the Government don’t appreciate us. Of course I wanted to review this book! But there really is little point in me writing a review that amounts to no more than marking my chum’s homework.

We lawyer readers of SB are the converted – I wonder if the public will have the inclination in large numbers to purchase and then wade through a book which, whilst righteously accurate, does require quite high literacy skills and concentration to digest (notwithstanding SB’s skill in summarising and lightening with humour), and which is threaded through with the (politely and carefully made) accusation that the intended mainstream reader is ignorant, uneducated, has been played by the media, the Government, and their own failure to stop and think before judging? I dunno. In fact I think David Allen Green touches upon this in his review when he says :

Fake Law is mostly concerned with the far broader perils that flow from a deficient public understanding of the law, and may sometimes seem to be conflating two problems—the cynicism of those who want to abuse the law, as well as those who simply don’t understand it. Perhaps each might better merit a separate book.

The more I think about it the more I think that this book faces some structural and stylistic problems. It’s headline is that ‘THE DAILY MAIL AND MALIGN GOVERNMENT LIED TO YOU SHOCKER!’ – a punchy, digestible headline for sure, for which there is a ready audience. But the actual 400 pages of analysis, may well exhaust the patience of those who would be attracted by such attention grabbers.

I say this as the chair of a charity whose aims overlap significantly with the SB (The Transparency Project) and indeed much of legal twitter. We just want to correct the inaccuracies peddled by governments and the media about our laws and how they work. We just want to help the public understand more about the legal system and why it’s important. Laudable. Important. Essential.

But, just as I sometimes have dark nights when I wonder what is the POINT of a legal educational charity in a world so mired in fake news and conspiracy theory, I also wonder whether a book by a clever lawyer, lauded by other clever lawyers in clever reviews fix the problems that it so rightly identifies? I don’t think so. Perhaps the book will stand as a record in years to come of how we reached a point of where the rule of law collapsed. If the books haven’t all been burnt. But will it stop the rot? I don’t think so. I think that SB’s book is like an old LP record that we get out and caress and sentimentally play over and over to make ourselves feel better about a relationship that has ended and that we long for but know is over. In fairness it is clear from the epilogue that SB is not deluded enough to expect it to FIX the problem as much as catalyse our realisation of how pervasive and pressing this societal problem is, and how much we need to be constructing a way out.

This week the Bar Council published a piece of advertorial for a PR Firm telling us barristers how we could use social media to develop our brand. I’d like to think that most of legal twitter is not there for the “brand opportunity” (yeurk), but primarily to connect, learn, share knowledge and survive. But there is no doubt that when lawyers get together we have a tendency to crow and scoff and bludgeon poor unsuspecting normals with our legal baseball bats. And boy do we know how to project our own voices and articulate our rightness. Legal twitter can be oblivious to how tiresome the public sometimes find us. As a community we are sometimes a little tone deaf, and susceptible to the charms of the echo chamber of twitter. For my part, whilst I have done my fair share of exasperated foot stamping about the BS pumped out by certain media outlets or the idiocy of individuals with keyboards, I have come to think that softly softly is more likely to catch the monkey. Mere broadcast of a counter-narrative is far less effective than dialogue. Which is not to say that dialogue always works – it is often as depressingly ineffective as a good old tantrum.

Either way, I don’t think ultimately that the skillful branding and marketing of SB and his/her book will be enough to overcome these issues about the gap between SB’s intended audience (The ignorant, hoodwinked and misled masses) and their interest in reading a long book by a clever lawyer, even if it is marketed with punchy hashtags, and its author is given a super hero air with mask and ‘cape’ style gown. I know that the first book was a bestseller, and this book is no less good. But I think it’s target audience is somehow different – SB is not talking to the avid readers of books who will buy such a title in vast numbers, but to those who don’t read books at all, just headlines and maybe an online article. This book makes demands of a lay reader that mean that it’s mainstream reach is unlikely to be as great as SB, the publishers – or we lawyers – would wish. I want it not to be so, but I fear that it is. It’s too hard. There are easier ways of understanding the world – that involve less effort, less thought and less cognitive dissonance. Those who need to read this won’t be interested or won’t have the motivation to see it through. The public isn’t ready to hear it.

When I first saw Home Office tweets about ‘activist lawyers’ coinciding with the run up to the book’s launch I imagined writing a book review japing about how the Ministry of Justice had obviously been recruited to play a part in a canny PR campaign to make this book seem even more timely. But as I write now, with Priti Patel repeating those slurs against us – all of us – that joke rings a bit hollow. The Government tweet this because it’s what people want to hear. Priti has got 12.5k likes for this tweet :

Whilst SB’s ‘publication day’ tweet got only 1.5k.

In fairness, SB’s RT of that tweet commenting on Priti’s latest activist lawyer tweet also has 2.2k likes at the time of writing. But what proportion of these likes are from legal twitter?

So I ask, will those who really need and ought to read and be educated by this book bother? That I do know the answer to : of course they bloody won’t. The people who will read it are the minority of members of the public with an interest in the detail of our democratic and legal system and a tolerance for law and detail, and sufficient education and skills to access it – and lawyers like me who value the reassurance of a validating essay on why we are right and wise.

It might be said that the pessimism I display in this book review is, ironically, another illustration of how arrogant and patronising we lawyers are to non-lawyers. It’s not about suggesting the plebs are stupid, but we have to acknowledge the reality, that much of society habitually sources it’s information about the world via the tabloids, social media or online. I prefer to think that I have a healthy sense of how insufferably boring a droning lawyer can be to a normal person. Even when they are right. Which of course we always are.

In spite of what I say here, I wish SB’s book every success. It truly is all those things that the previous reviews say it is and it is every bit as on point as the first. He is depressingly right about it all. And the proposals for a way out in the epilogue (which I won’t spoil for you) are as good a set of solutions or mitigations as can be, and rightly recognise we need to build democratic and legal literacy into our society from the ground up. For my part, I hope that every MP and newspaper editor will read it and think about the consequences of their actions, and that this book will be put in every school library. I hope that it will bring about some enhancement of the dire state of our public discourse, for it is certainly not just a cabal of activist lawyers who would benefit from it. And in the meantime I, and all my colleagues and friends who make up legal twitter will carry on tirelessly correcting #fakelaw wherever we see it and trying not to be too insufferable about it. Because whilst I have gloomy days like today when I think it’s just a waste of energy I also know that it’s really important to keep on standing up for truth and the rule of law.



Feature pic : courtesy of TaylorHerring on Flickr.

Tracks of my tears – part 2

Sorry if this is teaching some of you to suck eggs, but yesterday’s post seems to have prompted a lot of ‘How do you…?’ and a lot of ‘I didn’t know it did that’ around track changes, so I thought I’d seize the moment and show you. Switch off now if you know it all already. There are more interesting things to read on a Sunday morning.

Here goes. My screenshots are on word on a mac. If you are using a PC or an old version of word things might look different but it should be basically the same. Don’t ask me about PCs!

Open up a word doc. Look for the REVIEW tab on the top menu. That’s where all the track change settings live. In the screenshots below I’ve pasted my original post in word and made some minor edits to them like adding in a line that says ‘adding a para’ or the words ‘new numbered para’.

If you click on review and then click on tracking you will get some options for tracking, which can themselves be clicked on (FIG 1).


If you are on a mac it might be easier to use the split screen function (mac calls it ’tile window’) to scroll down this post and check it out in word as you go.

Split screen

To use split screen by the way, press and hold the green button in the top left of your browser window (or your word window, depending on what you want to show in your split screen) and select ‘tile screen to left‘ – it will move your window to the left and on the right will show you other things you have open which you can place on the right hand side of your split screen. I use this so I can see my xx notes on one side and my running notes of a hearing on the other. No idea if / how you can do this on a PC, but you can probably just resize your individual windows and line them up next to one another. See FIG 2.


How to choose how much markup (tracking) you see


You can choose simple markup (as at FIG 3), all markup (full red squiggles experience), no markup (as edited) or original (without changes). If change tracking gives you a migraine, choose simple markup. You can see where changes have been made without all those red marks everywhere confusing your brain. You can right click the little red lines in the border to see what the changes are. I suggest you choose ‘all markup’ before sending a revised draft to an opponent, so they can see what you’ve done easily and don’t inadvertently miss any. They can always change to simple mark-up if they don’t like it (and now you can tell them how, like an IT Guru).




Here is what it looks like if you select no markup. You can see the edits but they aren’t highlighted so you’ll need to take care not to miss any (FIG 4).


Inline or balloon?

You can also choose where you see the markup on your page – in line with the text or to one side (in a balloon). Change this setting by clicking the dropdown : mark up options > balloons and selecting show all revisions in-line or show revisions in balloons. Here is what inline looks like (FIG 5) – my renumbering caused by me adding a line is showing up within the paragraphs.




Here is what the same edits look like if you select the balloon option (FIG 6).



It is also possible to change the colours that your tracking shows up in by selecting markup options > preferences. I didn’t know this till today. I’m considering changing to purple. See FIG 7.


What else?

Oh yes, accepting changes

Accepting or rejecting changes

You can review a document and, if you are happy with all of it just select ‘accept all changes and stop tracking’. Hey presto – you’re done! OR, if you want to go through one by one there are various ways of jumping from one edit to another, accepting or rejecting individually.


Firstly, accept and move to next – shown here (FIG 8). Once you’ve accepted one, clicking the green accept tick will automatically accept the change you are on and take you straight to the next so you can easily keep clicking and moving forward until you get to the change you need to reject or make further edits to. This is what I use.




Alternatively you can use the previous and next change buttons and right click each edited bit of text to accept or change (FIG 9).










FIG 10

A different way of doing it is to use the little forward and back icons shown in Fig 10, which show you each edit in highlighted blue – like when you select text with your mouse – as you click through.

Finally, you can use the review function. This is useful if you are editing a longer document with multiple editors and lots of comments in it, but probably not necessary for drafting orders. See Fig 11.

FIG 11





Right, I think that’s enough of the dull but useful for a Sunday morning. I’m off out for a run – hoping that I don’t fall over. Have been back from boating holiday for 48 hours and still have the swaying sensation of being on a boat, which is…interesting… Happy tracking!


P.S. In the course of writing this post I used the ‘markup’ function for the first time. I think it’s a mac thing – but it’s v useful. If you go to file explorer and select gallery view you can also use ‘markup’ to draw neat little circles and arrows on a screenshot to show people where to look. And of course to screenshot its : ctrl+cmd+4 (on apple). Fig 12.

FIG 12



P.P.S. Sorry about the woeful formatting on this blog post – it’s not irony, it’s just that wordpress is notoriously bad at layout when you are inserting multiple images. I know from bitter experience that however I lay it out they won’t show where I expect them to and there will be lots of unexplained blank gaps. Hence the use of ‘FIG 1’ etc rather than ‘below’ or ‘above’, as the relevant image will inevitably be above if I say below. Sorry if it sets off your OCD. That’s life…