I feel I ought to write a blog post full of profound year end wisdom…
I’ve been contemplating what this might comprise for almost a week, but keep being distracted by cheese and Quality Street… In truth, I’ve not come up with much. This year has been an unexciting one from a Pink Tape point of view – once again I’ve prioritised Transparency Project blogging and PT has suffered (whilst I have your attention we could do with some more writers, do email us if you think you can help : firstname.lastname@example.org). Professionally this year has been ‘meh’, and on the personal front, although I’m very proud of my super family I’ve had mixed performance on the wellbeing front. Work in progress…
Anyway, as is customary, I searched the blog archive to find out what pearls of wisdom I offered this time a decade ago – at a time when I’d just left London for Bristol, was a new parent, and was being sued unexpectedly for defamation (long story, the claim rightly failed). That all seems like an age ago…. *dream sequence begins… cut back to real life*
Where was I? Yes, the blog archive wasn’t a great deal of help. It turns out that ten years ago I wrote something based on a Geeklawyer post, that has (presumably as a result of subsequent events) now disappeared from the internet. Without it my blog post makes little sense, although I appear to have been suggesting, at that stage, that I needed a more economically viable other half (yikes). I’m still with the first hubby by the way, and in fact we’ve nearly clocked up two decades full of both laughter and the economic precariousness that characterises life at the self employed bar. I’m glad I didn’t ditch him, I’d never have made it this far without him. The support our other halves, our families and our friends is truly invaluable. Since we family barristers are often irascible, ungrateful rotters, and impossible to live – with they deserve our thanks. So : thanks M, boys, mum, dad….
As for Geeklawyer – well, he was disbarred a couple of years later – I doubt many of my readers will remember him. His was, at the time, a rare but extreme example of the trouble lawyers can get into on social media. All of which brings me back to what I have been ruminating about over the last week : it’s actually not so rare as we’d like to think these days. Hot take : we really are prone to stuffing up social media. There have been a number of high profile incidents and illustrations this year – at least two in recent weeks – of barristers badly misjudging what is appropriate conduct on social media and how the public will respond to it. I’m so fed up with reading about them I’m going to steer as far clear of those specific examples as I can, because this post is NOT about them – but the overarching lesson 2019 has given me is that the problem of us being prats on social media is not just limited to the few extreme examples that lead to regulatory sanction, outraged headlines from the Daily Mail or heated discussion on Radio 2.
Colleagues at the bar : we have a problem. And I don’t just mean the ones with the fox issues. This is not about any one person, but about a pattern. I mean also those of us who have been unable to resist pitching in with their view, condemnation, support, hot take, hilarious joke…
My overview of what I see of legal twitter is this : we are too often pompous, tone deaf, macho, always bloody right, sanctimonious, pedantic, holier than thou – and we have a specialness complex. And we just seem incapable of saying nothing (lawyers really should know the value of silence). This afflicts all of us to a greater or lesser extent (myself included), and it afflicts both juniors and QCs. Maybe I’m being some of these things in pointing this out, someone will no doubt tell me so.
I am bracing for rotten tomatoes when I say that the general public might think it is a teeny bit odd that so many QCs feel the need to put ‘QC’ on their twitter profile (I’m sorry, I love many of you, but it is true). Does our special status matter so much to us? Do we think people will listen more because we put QC after our name? It may not be what we intend, but that seems to be what people read into it, when they mock real QCs by sporting fake ‘QC’ handles. And why should they listen more, just because we parade our importance in such a context?
Again, I don’t suppose I will be making many friends when I say that the way we conduct ourselves on social media is (collectively) not creating a particularly brilliant impression of the people and the professionals we are. There is much that is brilliant and funny – and kind and empathetic and illuminating – in what we all tweet. But it is not always so. And more and more I find myself silently saying ‘Oh, did you really have to say that?’ and ‘Groan – why don’t you just leave it now?’.
Yes, we are a profession with a strong ethical code, and collegiate mentality. We belief in truth and justice and we know about things that the public are not always well versed in. And people say stuff that is utter b*llocks a lot on twitter. And it is really really tempting to put it all right, and to do so with a flourish… We perform a public service when we provide legally accurate information, corrections and explanations, help people to appreciate the legal nuance and complexity where they would prefer to see simplicity and clarity. But when we do so must we be so gleeful, so irritating, so oblivious to the impact of our interventions, to the basic psychology that says the way you intervene affects the way people are likely to respond?
Must we shred everyone in the process of making a point? When I see that we even turn on our own when they trip themselves up it feels as if this is indeed compulsive behaviour. Going in for the kill. With our baseball bats (as it were – I’m not offering a view about the rights and wrongs of either the fox or the tweets about the fox but I was struck by the need of almost all of my colleagues to tweet about it from one position or another – whether for, against or a humorous non-position).
In 2019 there have been an increasing number of occasions when I’ve read a tweet from someone on legal twitter for whom I have respect which has struck me as unnecessarily unkind, gleeful, patronising, self-righteous or just plain rude. There is no law (or regulation) against this, and I don’t want to be the manners police – but we do have choices more nuanced than whether or not the BSB will be bovvered. 2019 has also seen (from my perspective) an increasing number of members of the public express their dismay at the way in which my colleagues are conducting themselves – sometimes with justification, sometimes not (much is politicised these days and barristers have inevitably been caught up in the heated ‘debates’ that have characterised much of our fractious politics). There are some topics where saying anything at all will inevitably result in criticism, and where speaking truth to power or adopting an unpopular viewpoint is right and appropriate, and I am not suggesting we should not participate in challenging or contentious areas of discussion – we absolutely should.
But what I do think is that the manner in which we choose to deploy our knowledge and skills – and to exercise our professional authority – does matter. We should persuade not bludgeon. Demonstrate not dazzle. Disagree with kindness and respect. Not belittle. Not dismiss. Not block at the first hint of challenge. I see that twitter is populated with bots and trolls and bad actors – do not mistake me for saying we must smile sweetly at those who do not engage in good faith. Merely that we should not be needlessly unkind or rude to those who disagree with us – sometimes (say it quietly) they are even right where we are wrong. I sometimes think that some of my colleagues have forgotten that we can learn from others, and are stuck on broadcast mode, or have become so brittle from twitter battles that they are prone to overreaction or too easily discard basic courtesy.
What 2019 has shown me is that we may have great judgment in the confines of our litigation bubble, but we do not always have such great judgment in the real world. However, all is not lost. I like to think we can be useful and informative and interesting and witty – without behaving like prats with clodhoppers. I like to think we can deploy our knowledge and skill with kindness and with humility. I like to think we can express our true selves, but that we can do so more thoughtfully. I like to think we don’t need to self-censor, but that we just need to engage our capacious brains before we open our melifluous gobs.
We may think that the bar is special. And that we are special because we are a part of the club, with its special ethical code that nobody understands. But we aren’t bloody Jedi knights (sorry, its been a diet of mainly Star Wars this Christmas). We are just ordinary people who tromp around social media thinking we are special and know special stuff. From the outside that just reads as entitlement (particularly given the stereotypes of the class and privileged background of lawyers), and it is a massive turn off to most normal people. That is the context in which people respond to us in ways which we do not appreciate. That is the background to the appropriation of the letters QC on the profiles of many who are not lawyers at all. This disrespect may not be all of our own making, but our problem is that we assume we should command respect when the truth is we have to earn it.
And we need to earn it not by marking ourselves as special but by just being normal.
I’ve written before about what our professional conduct rules and guidance say about social media conduct. 2019 has taught me that the focus really should not be on ‘will I get disbarred’?, not least because the answer to that is very plainly ‘almost certainly not’. But I am fed up of watching colleagues trash our reputation by behaving like massive clever dicks all over social media. I’ve certainly engaged in this myself in the past, though (I think) not recently (Someone will probably immediately remind of how I have behaved every bit as badly as I am not suggesting others have done). It is tempting to be right on the internet, indeed there is so much wrongness its hard not to be sometimes righteously right.
In a post where I’m criticising my colleagues for being pompous gits it seems odd for me to be dishing out lectures – I’m most definitely not suggesting I’m not implicated in any of this. I’m reflecting on my own engagements as much as anyone else’s. But, if I have anything constructive to contribute it’s this :
In our house we have four rules. My new years resolution is to try and be humble (2020 will see me explore how to reconcile this with the drive to be ‘confident’ and to push forward as a woman in the law), and to live my professional and social media life by the house rules that we send our kids to school with every day :
- Have fun
- Work hard
- Try your best
- Be kind
No need for special rules. These will do just fine.
See you all in 2020….if any of you are still speaking to me…
Now, back to the Star Wars film fest that is our family New Year’s Eve…