My work life imbalance and the big gorgeous eyes

Thanks to Katie Crutchley on Flickr

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

18 thoughts on “My work life imbalance and the big gorgeous eyes

  1. How do you explain it to the children with their big gorgeous eyes? The same way as we – the clients – or LIPs explain it to our children with the SAD big gorgeous eyes – you say ‘This is how it is. It is this way because of how the court works”. And then you fruitlessly try and comfort them, time afetr time after time.
    As sad and hard as it is for us the adults – at least we can to a large extend understand the hows and whys of this broken system – but the children – they are just left confused and hurting and frightened, day in and day out, throughout the entirity of their children – only the truth is, there is no childhood for them, for the Family Court Sword of Damacles has cut childhood out of their lives. Whatever our burden, whatever our sorrow, it is but a puff of smoke compared to the furnace of fear that torments these children, ceaselessly.

  2. addendum….. for whom do the bells toll Lucy? Who rings the bells on behalf of the children, if it is not to be those solicitors and barristers in the system WHO do care and make the effort every day and without whom it would be even more dire for the voiceless little ones. You are appreciated even when it feels like you are not. THANK YOU.

  3. Jerry Lonsdale

    I wonder if there’s a correlation with the 26 wk time frame bearing a substantial impact upon the case loads and work now placed upon Family Lawyers.

    Studies have been carried out for the impacts on 26 wk proceedings for children, what about a study on those who work the front line.

    I’m sure it would also have an immense impact upon Social Workers and Experts with the “Rush” emphasis now being the norm in Family Courts

  4. I don’t know what to say – but I don’t feel I can read this without commenting. That is a terrible place to be. I feel so sad. I sincerely hope you can get together with others who are torn apart by their conscience and find some way forward

  5. Most of the parents who contact me complain that their barristers do not let them speak in court and advise them to accept the care orders or adoption placements recommended by social services ! Not much overtime required for advice of this type !
    Maybe you Lucy are an exception. I truly hope so !

    • People hear and remember what they want to hear and remember Ian. And that is what is least painful. I don’t doubt many of my clients would say in hindsight this is what I have advised them. It isn’t. What is often said is that the prospects of successfully opposing orders are slim and that there are alternatives to a painful and losing battle. Some parents do decide to fight anyway, others to ‘not oppose’. That is their choice and right. I don’t pressurise clients either way but it is part of my job to make sure they go into a trial with eyes open about what might happen. Similarly, some clients want to have their say – others feel unable to do so. They may well later reconstruct that (genuinely) as having been told they had to accept the orders or that they were silenced.

      Those of use who are experienced dealing with people in great pain know that it is possible to treat an account with respect whilst knowing that it might not be objectively accurate. You do not seem prepared to hold that possibility in mind.

      • And I should say Ian that good advice does not come out of thin air. It comes out of hours poring over the papers late at night to try and find a way of winning the case for your client. If I advise a client we cannot or will likely not win it will be AFTER that time has been spent. And if I advise them it’s worth a crack it will be because I’ve read my papers properly and spotted the weaknesses. That is the difference between advice and dogma.

        So your point about overtime is also a poor one.

    • That’s up to the parents to tackle Ian. We did 10 hearings as LIPs, a further 5 hearings with a solicitor and the final 16th hearing with a barrister. We worked as team throughout but we still stayed in control as well. If we didn’t agree, we said so and had to thrash it out between us. A couple of times we flatly put our foot down and said outright how we wanted them to proceed. And at the same time, we supported them fully by finding the most recently published research relevent to our case and did other legwork to take some of the load off them. There’s been a lot of ‘bad press’ on social media about how solicitors and barristers have ‘failed’ their FC clients. It is very easy and tempting when things do not go your way, especially when you have lost a child or more than one, to blame all and sundry, even your own legal team who have in reality done their utmost on your behalf. But to the extent that they can, parents have to get stuck in right from the beginning and do their absolute utmost as well, whether they have a legal team or not. Learn, learn learn and research, research, RESEARCH. Then at the very least you can ahve informed decisions with your legal representative, who BTYW does not the time to have read all the most relevent new research studies in the field of child protection and beyond. Parents can actually assist their solicitor/barrister and improve their chances of achieving the best possible outcome for the child/ren involved. Although of course, as things stand, it has been our bitter experience that the outcomes depend entirely on which judge you are lucky/unlucky enough to get allocated to on the day, and having vbeen before 13 different judges in those 16 hearings we know just WHAT a discrepency there can be, between judges. THIS is why we need transparency. Only through transparency will we get accountability, and, the best possible outcome for the children.

  6. Nobody says or wishes on their deathbed, I wish I’d spent even more time at work or worker even later into the evenings*. (Says the man, who broke off from reading this post and put his coffee down to respond to two emails.)

    Your children will be grown up in a flash and whilst you will always get more work, time lost with them is lost forever.

    * Looked up the attribution to this couldn’t find a definite source (Rabbi Harold Kushner or Paul Tsongas are listed).

  7. This is a really moving post, Lucy! I think the family law system really needs to be looked at if it depends on overworking its employees in this way. Nobody can work all the time. I hope everything calms down for you soon.

    • thanks Sophie. It does depend on overworking employees – and in particular the self-employed (we don’t even have contracted hours to work to).

  8. Sarah Vaughan Jones

    I do sympathise with how you feel currently: but it is clear you really care about and are invested in your children. Believe me / and you will know – that many women who do not work are not. Your children know you care about them and that will permeate everything. I worked terribly hard (at the Bar, now QC) when my girls were growing up but now they are adults they say they never felt short-changed and always felt I cared much more than many of the “real mummies”. So please hold that thought when it feels really tough and good luck .

    • Sarah,
      Thank you so much for your comment – and apologies for the delay in responding. I have had a rotten couple of weeks but have rallied slightly now. My husband has been telling me the exact same thing as you all week too.

  9. John the Scribe

    Sympathies, my wife is forever rolling her eyes as I interrupt her mid-sentence and jump up from the table as a Eureka moment hits me and I spend hours programming a computer simulation.

    • Ha! I have these in the night or in the shower! Or in the car… I leave notepad and pen everywhere just incase…

      • John the Scribe

        Trust me your smartphone is much better (although the nature of your profession may mitigate against it), I’ve been using one ever since she started locking me out of my study at weekends.

  10. Love this , said the man now on beta blockers after chest pains last week! Sorry i cant make your conference, it sounds great.

    • Oh Poop Mark. Hope you are feeling better – that sounds horrid. We need to listen to the warning signs don’t we?? Sending best wishes. x

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