It’s ironic that some weeks after the publication of the Bar Council’s Working Lives Survey I’ve only just managed to scrape together enough time to knock up a blog post to say ‘Damn Right we’re stressed and overworked!’…
I’d have written it last weekend but I was working (same for pretty much every evening last week). I’d have written it on Friday but I didn’t get home till after 8pm because I was so shattered that having left chambers I realised I’d left my car keys behind and had to catch a train and then cadge a lift. I’d have written it last night but I conked out fully clothed at 8pm and woke up 12 hours later. Until this evening though, I’ve enforced a ‘no work’ rule all weekend – because frankly I’m so cream crackered I can’t see straight and my family are showing signs of normalising my increasingly frequent weekend absences. Weekends in our house now begin with ‘I know its the weekend mummy, but are you going to be here today?’ (delivered with big, gorgeous eyes locked on mine).
So yeah I’m #sorrynotsorry that you’ve not had this before. Blogging is not top of my priority list. Suck it up lovely bloggees.
So. (I’m rambly when tired…) Here is the Working Lives Survey. 23% of respondents practiced only family law. 48% of respondents (just under 2000 respondents) practised in more than one practice area.
Here are the key points for me :
- There is a clear difference in views about working lives between practice areas, for example criminal and family practitioners were more negative about their working lives than those in commercial or chancery practice.
- Workload, stress and work-life balance were worse in 2017, than in 2013.
- Only 45% of barristers said they could balance their home and working lives satisfactorily, down from 50% who said they could in 2011.
- Barristers practising in criminal and family law said they were struggling the most with work-life balance – 48% of criminal and 58% of family barristers said they could not balance their home and work lives adequately.
- Criminal practitioners (50%) and family barristers (62%) are more likely to indicate that they are emotionally drained by their work.
- In terms of work pressure, 58% of criminal barristers and 66% of family barristers said they felt under too much pressure from work.
- Across the whole Bar, only 26% of respondents said they were not under too much pressure from work in 2017, compared with 34% in 2011.
So it’s all pretty gloomy right. And it’s particularly crappy for the criminal and family bar. And it’s getting worse. No surprises.
There is a lot of focus at present on the situation for the criminal bar given the current refusal to take on post 1 April work, the public attention generated by the Secret Barrister book etc. Rightly so, because things are pretty dire on a number of fronts. So a lot of the coverage I’ve seen on this survey so far is all about how it confirms how bad things are at the criminal bar.
But as this is a family law focused blog I wanted to draw out the fact that family barristers were even more likely than criminal barristers to say they couldn’t balance their work and home lives than the criminal bar. And family barristers were even more likely than criminal ones to report feeling emotionally drained, and under too much pressure from our work.
That is really worrying. It ISN’T simply explained by the fact we deal with horribleness and child abuse – so do most of the criminal bar, and I dare say some of the horribleness that they deal with daily is more traumatising and emotionally taxing than the ‘run of the mill’ horribleness that will make up most of the family bar’s daily fare. We both deal with a mixture of the sad and the bad, with a tendency towards a diet more heavy on the latter as we get more senior. So I wonder where this discrepancy in our responses comes from?
Maybe we’re softer. Or maybe we’re more ‘in touch’ with our feelings, our stress, the effects on our family and our relationships of doing a hugely intense job with f*cked up hours, of not being ’emotionally available’ for your children – because we see that every day. Maybe. I’m not completely convinced by any of those hypotheses.
Maybe it is just that everyone in the family justice system seems to be under increasing workload with dwindling resources. A couple of days before I saw this report I found myself commiserating with another (female) colleague in chambers one evening when we were still working and we had missed yet another dinner or bedtime, and finding we both felt that we were spinning too many plates and that our usual techniques to manage and predict workloads sensibly were just ineffective. We’re all doing too much. The statistics and the Care Crisis review bear out that the workload just keeps going up and up but we’ve all been busier than ever for months. It’s easy to say that we have a responsibility not to take on too much, to say no. That is true, but there is something creeping and insidious about how we are all working at breaking point. Before you have realised it you have more plates than you can manage and whilst your back is turned to deal with one plate someone else starts another plate going.
I’ve turned work away. i’ve booked days out to recoup or to prep between trials. I’ve told the clerks – no more. But the demands associated with each brief, each hearing are so much greater than they once were. They mushroom without warning….The workload between hearings (usually unpaid) when there is a development. The urgent hearings that are scrambled when a wheel falls off a wagon, the late telephone calls squeezed in where there should be a bedtime or a lunch break or a quiet coffee before the day begins. The late or missing papers arriving in dribs and drabs and in one big chunk just before the hearing which everyone knows will have to be read after the kids are in bed and into the wee small hours, when other people are having a life or watching Bakeoff or Coronation Street (or whatever the hell is on the telly on a week night – not a clue). Each extra task, each written document we are expected to prepare to help drowning judges manage their caseloads is a step towards the brink for us. The skeletons, chronologies, case outlines, draft orders, attendance notes, draft LOIs…the incessant email exchanges…they are eating up our lives.
We barristers respond instinctively to an enquiry about how things are with ‘busy’, because busy means in demand and that means successful. But there is such a thing as too busy and we shouldn’t wear it as a badge of honour. My diary is now on lockdown until the autumn. I will manage my current caseload. But then I am going to have to find some new ways to claim back my weekends, my holidays, my life.
Two professionals in cases I have recently worked have ruthlessly implemented a policy of not reading or dealing with emails outside office hours. For a split second with each I was affronted that they hadn’t answered my very important email in time for the wagon to run on without stopping. But only for a second. It will be no surprise to hear that these boundaried professionals weren’t lawyers.
I’ll confess I’m not ready to crusade for an email and telephone curfew, but I sort of wish someone would. What would happen if we all said : ‘It’s 6pm I’m off duty. I’ll deal with it at 9am’. You know and I know what would happen : Everything would grind to a halt. Deadlines would be missed. Cases wouldn’t be ready. All hell would break loose if we did this for even a week.
The system is utterly and totally dependent on the near burn out of those who work in it. How should I explain that to my children with their big, gorgeous eyes?
Feature pic : Thanks to Katie Crutchley on Flickr