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.