The Secrets We Hold – Towards a New Professionalism

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This is a guest post by Judith Trustman. Judith is a door tenant of St. Ives Chambers, but retired from the Bar in 2019.  She specialised in public law care proceedings.  Before moving to the Midlands to join St Ives she had been a member of Garden Court Chambers for 14 years.  Since retiring she writes across a wide range of subjects, promotes arts events in Shropshire and works pro bono at The Poetry Pharmacy and a local refugee support group. Judith tweets as @mcgrathauthor.

 

My wig and gown have been retired to gather dust for a little over a year now, providing a time of reflection on a career spent at the family bar.  Leaving a place where the fundamentals of family life are constantly in focus carries with it a sense of relief, to be free of the relentless work schedule, yet also, unexpectedly, a touch of sadness from the loss of intensity.  Yet being in a high octane environment day after day is not normal.  With the benefit of distance comes an opportunity to gain some perspective on the job.

 

None of us need reminding that this has been a year to strike at the heart of even the most robust workers.  It has demanded new and yet unimagined skills as workplaces and courtrooms migrated early in the year to kitchens and corners of the home offering some kind of privacy – circumstances allowing.   This year, when viewed in hindsight by those still at the coalface, will throw up visions of even greater pressure than those unrelenting pressures already faced by everyone working in the family justice system.  Undoubtedly this is likely to have been coupled with heavier financial outlay on computer equipment, home workplace needs, (possibly for some extending to kitting out garden offices,) cyber security and the like, thus sending up each person’s expenses bill (even as our travel costs go down).  The combined pressures of lockdown, work and parenting for many will have tested even the most vocationally committed.

 

A wellbeing programme for barristers has been slow to arrive, but has been much in evidence, particularly at the family bar in the last two years or so.  Articles have appeared here and there and the view from the President’s Chambers has been leading the way.  It is extraordinary to think that it was only in May 2019 he said this:

 

The need to address our individual and collective ‘well-being’, which hit me full-square as soon as I became re-acquainted with those working in the system this time last  year,  has  continued to  be  a  priority.  It is a  topic  about  which  I  speak during each court visit, often five or more times in the day as I meet various groups of professionals and HMCTS staff. I have been heartened, in a number of ways, by the reaction that there has been to the focus on ‘well-being’. Firstly, from what has been said to me in response, it is crystal clear that there is indeed a need to own up to the impact of the current workload in emotional, social and physical terms on each of us in whatever role we play in the Family Justice system.

 

And that was before a global pandemic arrived to add to everyone’s stress load.  What then, are the wellbeing considerations for the workplace as we know it now?

 

Last week I read with great sadness of the death of Ian Griffin, former HoC of 4BC.  Being out of the day job, I had not seen him in a while and did not know of his illness.  I remember him with great fondness, having worked many a case over the years in which we both appeared for parents. The link provided to his article WB and the big C came as a poignant shock.  I neither knew of his illness, nor of the man behind this important and intensely humane article.  I read it as if I had heard it from Ian directly.  In his voice.  It spoke deeply to the heart of the job undertaken by every family barrister.

 

The perspective from which Ian wrote was, in his own words, acute.  Yet what has not left me since I read it is the abiding feeling that the perspective he describes, in particular drawn from his earlier experience as a nurse and his humanity as a man, must have been there before the diagnosis.  And I never knew.  This prompted a reflection on wellbeing in which I ask what place does ordinary friendship have in the day to day lives of barristers?

 

We have inherited from our parents and our grandparents – to use Philip Larkin’s acerbic phraseology, those people who in ‘old style hats and coats’ were ‘half the time …soppy stern and half at one another’s throats’ – a Victorian idea of professionalism; it is the world of the stiffened collar, obscure language and, more significantly, the embargo on social chit chat : social chit chat, beyond the gracious nod and essential courtesies, being seen all too often as ‘unprofessional’ or vulgar.   But in a profession often accused of being hidebound by tradition and ancient custom (wigs!), still regarded by many as advertising its own lack of connection with modern society, isn’t it time to make room for change including in the way  that professionalism is understood?

 

We were taught absolute deference to the Court, and rightly so – we are after all at the Bar, participants in the process whereby the law is enacted, enforced.  A court room is a place of formality, of solemn decision making, where the machinery that supports our society can hand down powerful judgments upon citizen or institution.  Formalised behaviour has to be the order of the day.   Our dress code is prescribed, our language less so.  As Hashi Mohammed so eloquently points out in his book People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain, there is a discernible style of language and accent used by those in the profession which is virtually an unspoken qualification.  Outside of court we were taught, or somehow absorbed at the knee of our pupil supervisor, the custom never to shake the hand of another barrister.  This ancient custom of unknown provenance, explored by Alex Aldridge writing in Legal Cheek in 2016, is one of many quaint practices still alive at the bar.  Many jokes are told and retold in robing rooms up and down the country of circumstances in which counsel has been told by a sitting judge that they ‘cannot hear you’, as a result of some transgression of clothing of posture (hands in pockets being the ultimate sin).   From time to time surveys are undertaken and the bar votes to retain the wig and gown, yet the public more often than not vote to abandon it, measuring the gap between social convention in 2020 and the Bar.

 

But resolute formality as a mode of respect to the court, should never be an excuse or substitute for decent and humane conduct between barristers.  Those are of course admirable qualities, easy to sign up to, but what about if there was positive encouragement to be sociable, friends even, at court? My sense of regret in reading Ian Griffin’s article was that in all the years I had worked with him and during so many shared adjournments or court waiting time, I had never come to know the man whose article so moved me.  He was not shy, nor I, yet the nature of our ‘professionalism’ and the structure of our working day seemed to disallow getting to know what made each other tick.  Some may argue that this is a result of individual personality type (mine or his) or that the appropriate opportunity for such engagement exists elsewhere, at Cumberland Lodge weekends and the like*.  But whilst these may contribute in part, an outmoded idea of ‘professionalism’ may also play a part.

 

Many may read this article with surprise and horror, think this a naïve, misplaced view: that we are there to work under solemn duties, social stuff should never be brought into it etc. etc. Yet as Ian so rightly points out in his article, ‘we  are  inevitably hurt by what we do and what we are’.  Our feelings and our humanity are engaged. We are not made of stone, nor should we pretend to be…  Permitting a little part of us to be extended in friendship to our colleagues at work – yes, even at court – is an essential part of being human.

 

Formality and ritualised behaviour are part of the necessary scaffolding that ensure the court is seen as important, is properly respected, its procedures and orders obeyed.  Yet from a distant perspective, the institutional formality person to person is part of the ‘professionalism’ created by those social architects of the 19th century.  What then should it look like in 2021? Nurses who work closely together, particularly in theatre, over many years often refer to their work team as family.  This is not unknown in other professions.  Could there be a greater connection between colleagues at the Bar, a more natural approach to working together? Sometimes this happens on a long case where attendance at court is in person, but what happens when hearings are virtual, or when the idea of professionalism gets in the way of simple human exchange?

 

A friend to whom I once provided a recommendation of a family solicitor needed for her brother’s very difficult personal circumstances told me afterwards ‘the solicitor was very good, but I was appalled that in explaining her availability for conference, she mentioned she was being treated for breast cancer and was having some days off’.  It was, she told me, ‘so unprofessional’.    It must be right that the clients who are facing formidable and mostly distressing proceedings at a crucial point in their own private lives need to be spared details of the professionals’ own circumstances.  Not only that, but of course, the relationship is also one which requires professionalism as we understand it.   That said, it was hard to hear, not least because I knew what an outstanding solicitor she was and just how good a service my friend’s brother would have had.  So professionalism with clients is a given, it is necessarily formal, yet in the family courts we all know that sometimes employing simple humanity and caring talk gets the job done.  An experienced family barrister who took a young teenage mother for a coffee to help her reach a very difficult decision about her children was doing the client and the court a service, although the magistrates were unable to appreciate that the additional hour had saved the expense and torment of a week long hearing.  So there may be times when you could say we have employed informality to get the job done, or simply been ourselves acting  as caring humans, resisting the impersonal face of ‘professionalism’.  It is always a delicate balance.

 

What I am pointing to here in this post is not about losing a grip on our focus or our solemn duty towards our clients, but it is about how, in 2020, we can help maintain our wellbeing by a more natural and collegiate association between barristers at work.  It is ironic that from our forefathers we inherit the language of ‘my learned friend’.  Do we mean what we say when we use it?  Do we in fact regard our colleagues as learned and friends?

 

Wellbeing for those in practice demands more than a nod and is many layered.  In Ian’s moving article written in 2018 he describes wellbeing for the Bar as being in its infancy and this may yet be true.  He lists what can be done, making a powerful plea to resist trying to be tough, ‘fetishising how busy you are’.  He looks at the meaning of wellbeing for those in this job from someone with a perspective he describes as acute, but I would describe as absolutely clear sighted.  The job is after all many things: a privilege, but also a place where we experience pain and suffering.  The sadness is real.  Our refuge is our family, but it should also be our colleagues.  The sharing of time with colleagues is vital and chambers have long been places to go and unwind and share with others who ‘get it’.  Yet  there is also a need to recognise that if you’re a busy parent whose time in chambers is limited (need to go home, cook the dinner, feed the dog, help with homework etc. etc) or someone with other responsibilities, additional time after a hearing or on a day out of court may simply not be possible.

 

Now that work is in the home for many the opportunity to enjoy downtime with colleagues has diminished even further.  This reduces something which is important for the wellbeing of those who work in the profession.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic when workers were sent home, one global multinational company with a household name sent out email guidance for online Zoom working.  The guidance included the recommendation that the first five minutes of all meetings online should be purely social.  So one such employee who has worked entirely from home since March and whose first child was born during lockdown, occasionally now takes his infant son to those first five minutes, at the request of his colleagues.  Having lost the office space where ‘water cooler moments’ can be shared, this guidance has undoubtedly contributed to the wellbeing of the company’s workers.  It has no doubt been informed by research in the field of human resources.

 

At first blush such a proposal is unthinkable at the Bar where online means ‘at court’ or in an advocates’ conference.  Necessary social distance rules the day and when courts are closed or virtual, chambers too may be less safe than home.  Yet creative ways of setting up online meetings before the ‘business of the day’ are not impossible, it just requires some recognition of the importance of socialisation in a profession too often characterised by formality and adversarial distance.

 

Research led human resource initiatives recognise the important part socialisation plays in a happy and productive workforce.  Many workers spend more time at work than with family.  The picture becomes more complex if the worker is spending more time at work, yet is situated at home.  Family are excluded (albeit the newborn son was an unusual exception) and the work may be barren of socialisation, particularly in a highly formalised profession. Where the currency of the words ‘home’ and ‘work’ has changed radically, it is time to re-vision the nature of professionalism, to drag it out of the 19th century.  Taking time to be sociable with your colleagues should be regarded as a necessary part of a wellbeing-centred approach to the profession and making it happen, even online, should be given some serious thought.

 

* Cumberland Lodge is the venue for the Family Law Bar Association’s annual residential event.

 

Feature pic : candle by Jamin Gray on Flickr