MS is not a four letter word by Lucy Reed (neé Reed)

I despair sometimes at ever being properly addressed by my given and chosen name. It's only short but it causes oh so much trouble.

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Every time I attend an unfamiliar court I go through the motions when I sign in: I enunciate 'Ms...Lucy...Reed...no it's double E D...I'm counsel for the Respondent / Applicant...' (it's only four letters but 99% of people want to spell it Reid - my husband's utterly unspellable name fortifies me against abandonment of both my principles and my surname for the sake of an easy life) and then I sigh as they write down 'Miss Reed'. Even when the court staff don't ignore what I say the judge inevitably does. As do most colleagues at the bar. I don't even bother in my local court any more. Diversity training in the court service evidently covers the range of religious books upon which one might swear an oath, but not the respect for gender neutral nomenclature that one might wish to see from the machinery of justice.

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And I am steeling myself for the inevitable day when I realise I look too old to be a Miss anymore, and will be forcibly promoted to a Mrs. Depressing, but at least then it will accurately reflect my marital status, even though it's nobody's business but mine (and my other half's).

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There seem to be very few women in my profession who do not describe themselves either as Miss or Mrs. Ms is not the done thing at the bar. It's an awkward term, and for some I sense it marks the wearer out as a member of the awkward squad. Perhaps that's a first impression which may be disadvantageous to the advocate trying to smooth her way into favour with the Judge? I don't really think so - generally those who hold such views are quite capable of making assumptions about uppity women with or without the tag 'Ms' - but if it is the case, so be it. More fool anyone who prejudges an individual on such irrelevant trivia. In a profession where seniority is marked only by the starkness of 'junior' versus 'silk' and the gradual accrual of years of experience, for which a ready reckoner is the age of an advocate: titles matter. 'Miss Reed' is very junior and the term can be skillfully intoned (by Judge or opponent) to delicately undermine an advocate by connoting inexperience, just as 'Mrs Reed' can use her marital status to command authority (and particularly in family law to insinuate maternal experience or solid good sense). These nuances go unnoted by many, but they do exist and are and in play by way of both conscious manipulation and as a subconscious manifestation of gender or age based preconceptions. But if I'm to be prejudged I prefer it to be on my principles, not on my marital status: so Ms it is..

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I know it's difficult to remember - 'Ms'. And I also know it's an irritating sounding word, but I don't have a better one that doesn't divulge irrelevant information. We all get names and titles wrong (including  to our mutual mortification when I have, on more than one occasion when a newbie, called a female Judge 'Sir'. This however was not so embarrassing as when a learning disabled client in an employment tribunal case I once did picked up on me addressing the Chair as 'Madam' and persistently referred to her throughout the hearing as 'The Madam' which has altogether less respectable connotations). So I don't generally make a fuss (Unless someone is using 'Miss' in a particularly condescending 'she doesn't know what she's talking about' tone). I generally don't want to point out that someone has been unintentionally inconsiderate or make a mountain out of a simple mistake. But it is annoying. Today I heard my opponent, a solicitor, gently correcting the usher 'it's Ms actually'. I sometimes do the same, but often make light of it to spare the blushes of the court staff who frankly have more important things to worry about. This article in the Guardian which I came across this evening says a lot I agree with (and has an astonishing 200+ comments, expressing a wide array of views on the issue - it is an emotive topic).

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So no, I don't stand on principle about my title. I don't get all narky or insulted when people get it wrong (although I might occasionally write long rambly blog posts in order to relieve my moderate levels of frustration). And I have long since given up taking my wedding ring off during the working week and referring on principle to my 'partner' not my husband. There was a time when I was fearful that preconceptions about my personal life might adversely affect my career (that a wedding ring might be a sign of imminent pregnancy and a lack of commitment to my vocation), and although I no longer think it is either right or necessary to behave as if I am ashamed of my personal circumstances or my gender, I am also wise enough to know that my fear had some foundation - I have during my career heard astonishing remarks about why recruitment of women to the bar is best avoided, and this from senior members of the bar who should know better. But there are other ways of dealing with that. The answer is to surround oneself with good and clever people, to come out of the shadows, and to do what I do and to do it bloody well. And to quietly persist with getting my name known.

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So...that's Ms (NO 'i') Lucy (NO 'i') Reed (NO 'i'). Write it down. There will be a test later.

NSPCC Backs Family Bar

Family Law Newswatch reports:

The NSPCC is supporting the Bar Council and the Family Law Bar Association's campaign to stop the Ministry of Justice's proposals to cut family legal aid.

NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: "The proposed, repeated cuts in legal support in family law cases comes at the worse possible time, as the pressure to improve child protection work is rightly higher than ever.

"These are precisely the specialists society needs if the courts are to be able to make the right decisions about when a child needs protection.

"The NSPCC's work to protect vulnerable children and families relies on the ability to access a pool of specialist advocates at the family Bar.

"The NSPCC urges the Ministry of Justice to reconsider its plans to cut funding in these cases."

In December the government unexpectedly revealed proposals to cut family legal aid in some cases by as much as 55%, having previously indicated that the cuts would be 13% to 14%.

As a result, in the event of the proposed legal aid cuts going ahead, over 80% of family barristers said they intend to change practices.

Key Transferable Skills

I've been thinking a lot lately (something I hate to do when it's not billable, but - sigh - needs must) about what I would do with my life if I was forced to abandon the bar as a result of the legal aid cuts. Don't get me wrong, I'm not there yet - it cost me £30k, three years and a nearly nervous breakdown to get here after all - and I love it to bits - but I think many of us are wondering if we will still be doing this in 5 years time - so what else can we poor misfits turn our hands to?

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They tell you at bar school not to worry if you don't make it to practise at the bar, that being a qualified barrister will equip you with numerous 'key transferable skills' useful in some 'other' life. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious self-serving nature of such a remark coming from an industry which charges outrageously over-inflated fees to far more students than can ever hope to succeed, what are my key skills and to where do they transfer on civvy street?

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For one thing I'm a terrible people manager. I tried it once and oscillated from nice-but-ignored-by-cheerful-subordinates to shouty-and-ignored-by-sullen-subordinates. Far better to manage oneself, to be a self sufficient unit of one. Delegate nothing: control everything. So team work and staff management is out then.

I don't like to be managed much either. I manage my own time, slope off early when I feel like it, skip lunch, work late choose the shape of my own day to fit my needs. I feel the weight of responsibility to get the work done on time and to a high standard but I achieve it by defining my own working pattern. Not  good at clocking on and off then. But a finisher, not a putter-off.

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Bureaucracy and administration are anathema to us. So no local authorities or bodies heavily regulated by statutory form filling or budgetary constraint thank you very much.

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Ah yes - I am fierce and determined and vocal on behalf of my clients. A most irritating work colleague no doubt who everyone wishes would shut up. If forced into an office environment I would almost certainly within weeks be campaigning for better coffee machines or about the inconvenient location of the water dispenser, a trade union rep or general agitator.

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But what about that ability and willingness to take on the task no matter how repellant the client or the cause is? That moral abdication that lawyers are so famed for? That MUST equip me for something surely? Perhaps I would be good in a call centre barking self righteously and without sympathy at the customer about some point of contention, a fearless advocate of my employer's rigid and incomprehensible company policy - a sort of articulate and utterly impenetrable 'computer says no' lady. But I fear that call centre staff do not universally make good advocates and perhaps the reverse is also true (I do not think I can add anything further to my submissions on behalf of [insert name of corporate entity here] your customership). Or else as a bailiff, in brave and dogged pursuit of funds rightfully owing (too puny and sluggish I fear and frankly too chicken).

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What's more I don't think of myself as amoral, I think many of us (geeklawyer excepted obviously) are passionate  and profoundly moral. About justice and the justice system we are a part of. Yes it's that old hat you put on your OLPAS form about wanting to help alleviate injustice, to give something back, give a voice to the silenced etc etc. But it's true and it is that (fortified by the cab rank rule) which enables us to ignore the apparent repugnance of a particular client or get past the moral 'wrongness' of a particularly nasty argument we are asked to make - the belief in the system and the small part played in a mechanism for overall good (even if sometimes we feel that the system is not in perfect working order). And it's hard to get passionate about your profit driven, target crazed boss (although getting passionate with them is one way to the top so I'm told).

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In fact we are unique in being used to having a frequent outlet to vent our opinions (a mark of a good advocate is that he identifies with the client whilst being able to also identify the weaknesses in his position) or at least an opinion, yet we can also hide behind the cloak of our instructions or pass the buck of responsibility to the judge or the client. It is liberating  to say unpleasant things without consequence. We get to spout off a lot but it is always someone else who takes responsibility for our words - my client or yours (unless you say something way off mark and get sacked, struck off, imprisoned etc!). Is this therapeutic; does this make us well adjusted or would we cease to function in a socially acceptable way if relieved of this release valve for all our hot air? Perhaps we are all just would be manic or angry people, kept normal by a daily release of spleen through advocacy?

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I've heard barristers often described as dysfunctional or autistic - a tag which is scientifically inaccurate (and probably insulting to autistic people) but which is an indicator I think of the fact that we are a group of brainiacs with social deficiencies and low emotional intelligence or empathy. I think the extremes are less apparent for family lawyers, if you don't have some degree of emotional intelligence you can't be an effective advocate for often emotional issues, but the general point is a good one. We work anti-social hours, neglect our families, have to close off or heavily manage our own emotions in order to remain objective enough to do a good job for the client, and we irritate the hell out of our partners and families by quoting the law, making points of principal or pointing out inconsistencies in our spouses arguments during tiffs. We correct the spelling and grammar mistakes on the anniversary card from our spouses for chrissakes. We are ornery and stubborn and pernickety and generally impossible to live with. We also number rather too many alcoholics, drug addicts and philanderers to be entirely wholesome, but I'm not admitting to any such vices myself. However, that notwithstanding if I'm honest - I wouldn't employ me. And I wouldn't marry me either.

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People skills. That's it. We have people skills. We soothe and manipulate (sorry gently guide) our clients towards a sensible path, we advise them in a way that is not too hard emotionally to manage. We sympathise with their upset and where necessary sit firmly upon them to minimise the inevitable heartache which will be caused by continuing adherence to a ridiculous position that is doomed to failure. We gently probe with a mix of direct questions and insignificant chit chat to tease out the information we need to make our case. Perhaps an interrogator for MI5? Or a relate counsellor (did I suggest that in the same breath?). Perhaps not, I think too often we would see the writing on the wall and gush: You (to the wife): he's a bastard, he won't change. Move on. You (to the husband): you idiot. you really messed it up. What did you expect? Released from the bind of one sole client and opposing positions I might just tell it to them rather too straight.

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And as I look back over this list of our most compelling characteristics as a profession I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that there are only two alternative choices of career should push finally come to shove: taxi driver or judge. Perhaps for everybody's sake I should stay where I am.