A little free advice

I’m on my way to the annual Bar Conference in London as I type this [well I was when I typed it – I’m on the way back now]. As my husband pointed out as I left him and the children behind (again) – “You’re going to talk about pro bono  pro bono”? Fortunately the train fare on a weekend is a little more reasonable than on a weekday.


But yes, I’m going to talk about pro bono… and I can see from the #BCYBC15 hashtag that the whole conference is already abuzz with talk of pro bono and litigants in person and legal aid cuts (that and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC putting Lord Sumption back in his box of Supreme Silliness – damn right we’re not waiting 50 years!).


What will I say?

I’ll talk about the desperate need for pro bono assistance for litigants in person in family cases – both highly skilled advocacy in complex cases or in matters involving the gravest of allegations, and in cases where vulnerable litigants are overwhelmed even though their case may seem “easy” or mundane to us. I will talk about the pro bono advice scheme we have set up in Bristol, that is due to launch next month and about how it took about a year to achieve, how the legal community is ambivalent about it – and about the total absence of support from government to make things better. All that there is is a weight of expectation that the legal profession will sort it, and that where once we sorted it for a fee we will now do it without. I may talk about how many days and hours of time I have volunteered to draft documents, chase insurance, prepare posters and leaflets and forms and flowcharts and meet with people….just to get to the point where we took our first appointment booking this week (thank you PSU).


I’ve been involved with the voluntary sector and volunteering in one guise or another for many years. And, as with mediation, the “voluntary” bit is part of the core definition. That goes for legal pro bono as much as any other sort of volunteering. The bar have always given freely of their time and expertise but at the end of the day we still have mortgages to pay, and families to be a part of – children that desperately want to see us. Of late there is an increasing push for us to do more and more pro bono – more as a substitute for a paid for legal system than an adjunct to it. I don’t subscribe to the (legitimate) view that by helping the desperately needy through pro bono work we are somehow aiding and abetting the government’s attack on access to justice. I don’t think what we can offer will be more than a drop in a very big ocean, and what matters more to me is the needs of litigants who are asking for any help they can get – not the politics.


But will I also say that last week I pledged (again) that I would start saying NO to requests to do “things for free”. That people keep asking me if I’m alright because I obviously don’t look it. That this week I went to the doctor at short notice, I thought due to low level aches and pains, and unexpectedly wept? Will I say that the doctor looked at me and said “I think it might do you good if I signed you off for a bit? But you probably can’t take time off can you?” (ha frigging ha). That I lied a little bit when he asked me how many hours I work a week, because I was too ashamed to admit it. Will I say that I realized this week that I was at risk of burnout? Will I say that I am mortified at the realization that the half day I spent this week sorting out the pro bono scheme has tipped me into another Sunday when I will have to sneak out of the house to go to chambers instead of watching my son play rugby? That I’ve been thinking about writing this post all week because I bet I’m not the only one who feels at their wits end sometimes – and maybe I should take a deep breath and say it like it is and not pretend I’m super human.


Of course I shouldn’t say any of those things. Because they sound selfish and martyrish – but most of all because we don’t admit humanity at the bar. We cling on to this insane competitive bravado that we can work more hours than exist in a normal week. And it drives the expectation that we will – an expectation now that is entrenched amongst legal professionals, the judiciary, our lay and professional clients, the government… And those who are brave enough to say “enough” are the authors of their own misfortune because of their “lifestyle choices”. Well fuck that (with the profoundest of respect). I want to excel. I want to help people who need help. And I want a family and good health. And we must make a system where that can happen. I can’t do any of that if I am not well enough to work or insolvent.


My parents, my husband, my colleagues all regularly tell me I take too much on. Even my clerks of late have told me, so I guess it must really be so. So something has to give. And when I look rationally at it the thing that has to give is the stuff that doesn’t pay the mortgage. Because every day I spent doing pro bono work is a day I’m not earning, and a day somewhere else that I have to work instead, probably a Sunday when I should be with my kids. Every day spent doing pro bono contributes a little bit more to the chronic stress and overtiredness, pushes me that little bit closer to the bout of flu or tonsillitis that will lay me up for a week and jeopardise that mortgage.


For me, right now, the drive to help people has come face to face with the drive to have a life and a family, to stay healthy, to not have a breakdown before I get to the Supreme Court to tell Sumption all about his “lifestyle choices”.


So I want to say this : there are limits. And I’ve reached mine. No more pro bono or unpaid “stuff” for a while. The system cannot depend upon our endless energy and goodwill – if it does it will collapse. Call me a selfish fat cat or a venal shark if you will. But I am the legal system in microcosm.


PS because I know you are all lovely and will ask – yes I’m fine now thanks. You all have my permission to tell me off if I don’t stick to my promise to say NO.


PPS Yes, Dad (I know you’ll read this) you and Mum were right. I have been working too hard. You did tell me so.

14 thoughts on “A little free advice

  1. Lucy, someone once told me “No one lay on their deathbed wishing that they had worked harder”. From a brother of a LiP fighting just to see his children…yes fighting (an implacably hostile estranged spouse I might add) not the court, FAMILY COMES FIRST.

    • Yes, I know. It is difficult when I think how blessed I am, not to try and help others less fortunate. That is how I explain it to my kids at any rate…

  2. What refreshing honesty! It’s a difficult balance but you are right; you cannot serve others from an empty cup.

    You have helped me so much with my journey as the wife of a litigant in person, both in practical terms (the statements I have written have been complimented no end after following advice in your book) and in being able to come here and know that lawyers are real people, in understanding more about the family courts and in knowing that the lawyers can be just as frustrated with certain processes as the rest of us.

    Thank you so much for giving so much of your time through this blog, through your book, your videos and everything else that you do. It has made such a difference.

    I hope you get to rest, and to enjoy time with your children. Your post didn’t sound remotely selfish and actually you DO need to say it. If people don’t say it, we are stuck in this cycle of doing, doing, doing until we break down. And usually at the most inconvenient time.

    • I’m glad it was helpful to you LIPWife. I had a lovely early night last night and plan for another tonight (although I do have to get up at about 4am to catch a flight tomorrow)!

  3. Amber Hartman, Parents Against INjustice

    Lucy, you made the right decision. I was a meeting this week with High Court Judges, barristers, Academic Researchers etc & it dawned on me how practically all of us are affected. Our own health & family must come first.

    Hope you have a relaxing weekend.

  4. Many years before founding the voluntary organisation Kids for Cash UK, I was part of corporate life. In many industries, the same insane bravado over working practices exists as in the legal profession.

    It’s important to put some context behind this. This culture has its origins in the Anglo-American work ethic. That, somehow, the harder and longer you work, the more virtuous you become. It doesn’t take more than a brief glimpse at the stats to realise that this is nonsense. US and UK employees consistently work the longest hours… and are the least productive.

    It doesn’t have to be so. Twenty five years ago, I worked as an account director for a US global corporate that, paradoxically, had a very different take. They INSISTED that you book ‘thinking time’ into your weekly diary. The success of this policy was again borne out by the raw stats. The most successful account directors worked the shortest hours. In the late Eighties, the top of that corporate performance ladder was an individual who grossed well into six figure earnings for no more than a 35 hour working week. Sure there were times when we’d work for days and nights without respite but it was then expected that that would be followed by ‘time at the beach’. The mantra was: don’t work hard all of the time, work smart.

    In 2015, I still see law undergraduates being schooled by lecturers and law firms to expect to work persistently long hours, despite the evidence of serious health consequences. At the very least, advocates of this lifestyle ‘choice’ ought to be cognisant of their negligence in tort. These are fundamental issues that need to be addressed in both the medical and legal professions in the UK. Ultimately, these are questions of politics. Governments decide to fund vanity projects (eg HS2, Trident) and bank bailouts at a cost that includes the reduction of provision for legal aid and a functional health service.

    If you talk to any Macmillan nurse, one thing becomes clear: no one ever confessed on their death bed to wishing they’d spent more time at the office.

  5. I worked round the clock for six months – from late 2014 until spring 2015. I’ve never worked so hard. Net result? Four weeks in hospital and open heart surgery. The effect on what I do for a living? Guess…..

  6. Dear Lucy,

    Hallo there! I am not an advocate and, apart from on a non-professional basis, do not advise people. However, your observation or eventual realisation that without health, no one is able to serve their principles, family, work or anything.

    If working for nothing (whether clothed in pro bono or voluntary terms) is so beneficial for the everyone, why did not the independent body, set up by the MPs to decide MPs’ salary increase, take the government at their “aspirational” (big society) word for others and apply it to them!

    Priorities have to be your health and your family/friends. Your job is obviously something you love too and you enjoy being in the thick of it – that too must be acknowledged. Indeed, our only real possession is ourselves; our health, loves, interests, hopes. It is not selfish to establish and act on securing your own health and well being so that you can proceed with the “path clearing” and trail blazing work of your dreams.

    Good Luck with your early nights and times spent enjoying your family and doing your best for your clients and colleagues!

    • Thank you B Bennett. Are you the B Bennett I used to know at Birkbeck or a different one?

      • It is indeed, Lucy!

        Good of you to remember!

        I took the liberty of responding to your post because it is something I feel strongly about and struggle!

        All the best to you and yours!

        • I remember you well B. Assume you are still in London – it would be lovely to meet up for a coffee one day when I am around. Hope you are well. x

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