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

What have you done to my red book, dudes?

Since I started life at the bar a copy of the Red Book (Family Court Practice) has been my comfort blanket. Initially an old beaten copy of last year's edition given to me by someone in chambers who knew how tough it was to find the money to buy one when starting out (it was still expensive  then, around £400 I think). Later my very own...One year I had two when, having bought one, Jordans sent me a review copy meaning I could have one for home and one for chambers. And more recently, after years of the paper getting thinner and thinner and the book still getting heavier and heavier (particularly in the Munby years!) - I took the plunge and moved to the pdf version.

I found over time that on a holistic welfare analysis of the pros and cons of the red book, that the frequency with which I needed to refer to the red book had diminished to the point where it was just a massive pain in the backside (figuratively) and shoulder (literally) to lug around a book that I almost never looked at. It was still worth paying an exorbitant amount for a book I rarely used, because it was valuable when I did need it, but it wasn't worth carrying around in hard copy all year just because the paper version was marginally easier to navigate. So, paperless it was.

I was still largely working on paper at that time, and hated the pdf version at first, but persevered and managed to get the hang of its basic navigation. It wasn't the best even right up to last year, but then I have become used to working with a text book that, even in hard copy, always had an index that NEVER included the keyword I wanted to search for. As my pdf skills improved, most notably as I began to go paperless entirely last year, I reached a point where I could usually find the page I wanted faster than anybody else, using page numbers, key word searches and occasionally the irritating index - and I could extract the relevant few pages with a couple of taps on my ipad and ping them to judge or opponents. Making me the biggest keener in the room. Plus my shoulders didn't hurt any more from carrying the damned thing around on my back or in a suitcase.

So, I ordered it again this year....

It arrived about a month ago - later than usual because, I think, it was issued simultaneously with the hard copy, and the hard copy was held up by some mysterious print error which now seems to have been the faliure by someone to have included the index! Thus, those who are still on paper now have a huge red book to carry, AND the annoyance of having to also lug around a separate index, and to try not to lose or forget it.

But this year sadly the advantages of going paperless have evaporated. Without warning the publishers have moved the digital version across to epub format which means you can't just open the red book in a tab on your pdf reader. You have to open it in an entirely separate app (on my machine apple books) and if in court switch between one app and another to go between your red book and your bundle.

So, within an hour or so of download I'd given up on it, having established that :

  • the file was prone to hanging up my app on either the laptop or ipad, and only intermittently showed in the apple books library on both
  • the navigation was completely impossible to operate because the ToC was clickable but not easily scrollable, could not be furled and unfurled, the links didn't work reliably and the search function / page navigation / back functions don't operate at all the same as in my pdf reader (if they work at all). After multiple attempts I could not work out how to navigate back to page one, back to the index, or back to where I'd been a moment ago before accidentally clicking on something in the ToC whilst trying to scroll down to locate what I actually needed. It's not clear to me how much of this is specific to the way the navigation on the specific file is set up and how much of it is to do with the software it is required to run on, but either way its massively annoying.
  • there was no way of extracting a section of text to print or email to an opponent or judge
  • everyone else who had tried it was similarly disgruntled as far as I could tell from social media

I mulled it over for a week or so, tried it again a couple of times, but ultimately decided this was not something I wanted to pay 500 quid for. I'd also remembered in the meantime that our chambers subscription to lexis provides an online version of the red book, which, although a little cumbersome, is actually possible to navigate, download sections, and email to self etc. Now that wifi is (touch wood) pretty reliable in almost all the courts I visit, this seemed to me to strike a far better balance as between cost, benefit and irritation levels.

So I cancelled. Or at any rate I tried to. But I was persuaded, as it seems were a number of others, to wait for a pdf version of the book that they were apparently working on in response to negative feedback (seriously, the feedback must have been atrocious for them to do this!). It would be ready in a couple of weeks and the cancellation period would be extended. I was sceptical now I'd settled on falling back on the lexis subscription, but thought I'd wait and see.

Over the weekend I was sent another download. It is another epub document. It has all the same issues, and I can't see any difference. It ISN'T a pdf. I tried to use it to answer an actual live question a colleague had coincidentally asked me to test it out again. It took me almost ten minutes to work out how to get to information about change of name and the notes to s13 Children Act 1989, by which point the answer had already been found. In it's current form it is no use to me at all.

There is now a suggestion that in fact this was an error and the pdf version will not be coming until September. In the meantime the product I have is unusable and the lifespan of this £500 product will be reduced to 9 months (assuming that the publishers are back on schedule to publish in May 2020 as usual. There is (so far) no suggestion that the price will be discounted for those who don't cancel.

I will wait and see what comes but the longer I go on the harder it is to see how I could justify this sort of expenditure. I've written this post not just to have a pop at Lexis, but for two reasons :

  • firstly, I would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences or if I am being a bit of a failure in getting to grips with apple books. Maybe there are some easy work arounds that I've not found, although I'm not hugely inclined to spend much time up-skilling myself. Maybe there is some other piece of software available on both laptop and ipad that will transform the experience. If you do have useful practical tips to share please add a comment.
  • secondly, I suspect that there are lots of people who have been sent downloads which they've not really looked at as its the summer - they may be on holiday - and they may not have grappled with the 14 day cancellation period, may not appreciate the wider issues, and may not be aware that there is the prospect of a pdf version emerging in the autumn. As far as I am aware lexis have not sent any proactive general email to purchasers of the epub version letting them know what is going on - they have responded to those who have kicked up.

I think on both points the sharing of knowledge will hopefully reduce the amount of stress and duplication of time that we all spend sorting this out. We're all still on a learning curve on paperless working - even those who were early adopters. I've found twitter and social media really useful for cutting through barriers to doing this or that, as often someone can say 'oh that's easy, to solve x problem you just do y' - a solution that you would never find through trial and error or via google or a helpline. So, your thoughts, experiences and tips please.

I do close though by noting that I find it frustrating that the new epub version of the book was launched with a great flourish as new and improved without (as far as I can tell) any decent market research. It would have taken no effort at all to really find out about the users of this book to know that we are moving in droves into digital format, but we are working with multiple files in pdf formats and that the book was therefore already in the right format for the users of it (albeit that the navigation was less than brilliant). Big pdfs are cumbersome even when the navigation is set up properly, but there was plenty of scope to invest energy into improving the navigation and utility of the pdf book without switching formats. I'm afraid I think that Lexis have squandered a lot of the goodwill that Jordans built up over many years as the main family law publisher, by treating loyal customers in this way - I don't know but suspect that the rationale was probably something to do with moving to a format that better protects copyright, but whatever it was this will have hit revenues at Lexis (although of course even the revenues from the red book are a mere drop in the ocean for the big beast that is Lexis). It is such a shame because the actual content of the red book is second to none - and when you do need it it is invaluable. But, whilst I will make my final decision when I see they promised pdf version, it is very probably the case that this episode has nudged me into a realisation that I probably don't need to pay this much money for this product any more.