What are we doing with our lives?

I’ve been cautious about posting anything recently. My head is awl of a muddle and I may say something I will later regret. But I’ve got itchy fingers and am sitting quietly at home with nobody to distract me, so…

I should be at work this week. In fact I should be in the middle of week one of three. I am (now) glad that I’m not, but this time last week I was frankly very, very cross. Not cross at anyone in particular, except possibly myself. But really hacked off at the job and the nonsense it involves.

I wasn’t feeling very rational about it last week, so resisted the urge to do a bit of keyboard warrioring until I’d slept on it. A few times. But there is a rump of residual frustration still with me that I am pretty sure is nothing to do with my current grief induced irrationality.

This. Bloody. Job. Sucks. As Dickens almost certainly wrote in Bleak house: it is the best of jobs. And it is the worst of jobs.

When mum died I was in the middle of prepping for the 3 week trial. There was a constant flow of new disclosure and documents and questions to be drafted for vulnerable witnesses. I had to make a decision within days as to whether I should carry on or pull out. I agonised and oscillated, tried to be realistic about how I felt, how I might feel, whether I could really give what I needed to the case whilst grieving, what was best for my client, the interests of justice. Tried to work out where the funeral might fall in the witness schedule. I consulted the code of conduct, my learned junior, my family.

Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that I could do it and therefore (according to the code and my conscience) I must do it. So on we pressed. Working like beasts to catch up with the days lost in the shock of it all. I did no more and no less than I felt obligated to do. I rationalised that it would do me good to keep working for now, and to know that I could take a breather after the trial concluded. It was going to be more full on that was ideal, but it was better than being at home wallowing and worrying about money. And once the decision was made there was nothing for it but to crack on. And to keep plugging away in order to be ready. No turning back so close to trial – if I bailed it would jeopardise my client or the whole trial.

And then after ten days of non-stop prep (well, not completely non-stop – there were long periods of weeping and staring blankly in between bouts of productivity), less than a week before the trial start date and about an hour after we submitted our pre-trial drafting, an email arrived out of the blue telling us the trial had been pulled. Nobody’s fault, but it sent me into a spin. I wasn’t the only one to be shocked, cross and upset. Everyone else had been working on the case, banking on it going ahead (both professional and of course the family). But I was furious.

What the hell had I been DOING for the last two weeks? When I should have been grieving, looking after my family, looking after myself? Selecting the date of my mother’s funeral at least in part to accommodate the trial. It was such a punch in the gut that you give everything for this job, that you have respect for the importance of the role – and yet is sucks you in and spits you out. The job doesn’t give a shit. I felt angry and I felt guilty and I felt stupid.

So, ten days after my mother died, the structure I had around me to prop me up disintegrated before my eyes. The ‘plan’ (terrible plan, if I’m honest) I had to survive until week 3 and take a month off, at least secure in the knowledge I would not have to worry about money for a bit – gone. The distraction of work that had been keeping me going – gone. I was left with anger, grief and worry about money (we always worry about money at the bar). Because of course we don’t get paid for any of the prep work, we only get paid for the trial, if and when it happens. When you are worn out and your resilience is low this stuff hits hard.

Very obviously, a large proportion of these feelings are born of my own very particular current circumstances. But it is really just an extreme example of how much we give to this job and how utterly bananas it really is. We can’t pick and choose when to honour our commitments. We take them seriously. We plan meticulously to ensure we can do our job fully and well for each client whilst also having some sort of life. But stuff happens and we find we have either too much work or not enough. Or, that we have done a lot of work we won’t ever get paid for. I am of course not complaining about my income or about working hard. I get paid well overall. I am simply observing that along with the income and the ‘freedom’ of self employment comes a good deal of risk and financial uncertainty. Sometimes an unexpected diary collapse is something you can seize as an opportunity for a bit of fun or recuperation – but sometimes it’s just frankly a bit pants.

Of course, I know you are probably reading this and wondering if I am really completely nuts, because surely this is a blessing in disguise? And after a week off I can see that perspective. I really needed some time off. Funeral planning is surprisingly time consuming. And grief is a sneaky little bastard. It creeps up on you at the strangest moments.

But that really isn’t the point of this post. It’s the more universal issues illustrated by this painful example. This is peak frustration following 20 years of shifting sands, of trying to plan and manage workload, wellbeing, family commitments and finances when the goalposts are constantly moving. It’s a chronic, grinding lack of control over my own life. And it never goes away. The job is like a complicated spouse: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Every so often you need a break. Of course it isn’t just me – across the jurisdiction other barristers are juggling the pressures of trial (or trial collapse) with ill health, financial distress, personal or family crises, bereavement. Mostly on their own without complaint. Others will see echoes, I’m sure, of what I’m trying to wrestle with in this post. I don’t have any answers, but I see you.

Anyway, I’m off work now. I suppose it won’t seem like it after reading this post, but I am focusing on more important stuff than the ruddy job. And I don’t feel a tiny bit guilty. I can only look after my clients if I also look after myself.

 

A post script in anticipation of the comments I know I will get:

Firstly – You may think I am a completely self absorbed egotist, but no, I’m not oblivious to the impact on the parties (including children) of short notice adjournments (and of this one specifically), but that is simply not the subject of this post, and in any event it would be inappropriate to discuss the case or the parties here.

Secondly – Yes, I realise I don’t have to do this job. I’m sure your violin is very tiny, but all I’m really trying to do is articulate some of the weirdness of this job, and one aspect of how it impacts us as human beings, and how it ripples outwards into our lives and the lives of our families.

I have run out of vases

Trigger warning: death.

 

My mum died last week. Her name was Suzanne (never Susan).

I realised as I studied her face after it happened that I have never seen a dead body before. Her top lip was taut over her teeth. She looked weirdly waxen. Her forehead was cool on my lips as I kissed her goodbye.

Right now I am learning a lot about the stuff that needs to be sorted when someone dies. There is a lot of it.

And I am learning a lot too about the enormity of losing a parent. I can’t quite make sense of the fact that it is both something that almost everyone goes through at my stage of life if not before (i.e. quite normal really), but is also uniquely, overwhelmingly painful (does not feel at all normal) all at the same time. I think they call this cognitive dissonance. Whatever it is, it’s raging right now. I’m three days in.

The doorbell keeps ringing and flowers keep appearing. The house is full of flowers. But is notably minus one mum. We are waiting for the van to collect ‘the equipment’: the commode and other accoutrements of frailty.

I’m holding on to the fact that I was lucky to have a mum. Even more lucky to have a mum who loved me and who was willing and able to be there for me – for us – for almost 50 years. Not everyone is so blessed. Many of my clients are not. I keep telling myself that the loss we are feeling is the corollary of the privilege of having her in our lives.

When I’m ready I will tell you about my mum. For now, I just wanted to say that I have run out of vases.

And to the man who just commented on my post from a couple of weeks ago which said that I was taking a step back to prioritise family, just so he could mansplain that it was this sort of attitude that explained why men get all the best work – Bri, you should take a long hard look at yourself and ask if your mother would have been proud.

I wasn’t sure if it was wise to post anything when things are still so – I think the traditional word here is ‘raw’, but I’m going to go with the non-trad ‘fucking awful’ – but Bri’s stupid comment has made me think it’s important that I do. I’m not ashamed for doing what I need to do to look after myself and my family. Nobody should be.

The Lord Chancellor might still think its big and clever to promote the bravado of the never-sleeping bar, but I don’t. I’m also not a member of the stupid Garrick club either, Bri.

Some free advice from me: hug your mums. And your dads. And your family generally. Hugs all round.

I’ll be back on here when I’m ready.

What my out of office really means…

The other day I put a polite but hopefully firm OOO on my emails, explaining that I am not taking on new work and will deal only with emails relating to existing commitments.

This morning I seriously contemplated rewording it to simply read: “For the love of god, STOP. EMAILING. ME!” I flirted with the idea of adding some swears as a parting flourish (I love a good swear, it’s therapeutic).

Of course, I haven’t done that. It’s nobody else’s fault that I need to draw a line. And they aren’t psychic. Also, I am a professional.

But I have reached a stage where for the sake of my sanity and those around me, and to make sure I do right by my clients, my family and myself, I need to impose some serious boundaries. Otherwise I am at risk of providing a poor standard of work, parenting, partnering and daughtering. So I’m pausing on new commitments. All of them.

Our household, our whole family is undergoing a period of acute difficulty, following on from a period of chronic stress and change, and now is the time to refocus for a bit. If I burn out or run myself down physically to the point I can’t work then I let everyone down. On the work front I’ve had a great first year in silk, adjusting to all that it means in practice and working out who I am professionally. And if that was all that was going on it would be fine. But of course it isn’t. Life carries on. And it’s been increasingly hard to juggle any full time job with what’s going on at home, let alone this one.

I was going to say there is no shame in saying this, but the fact I am anxious about saying it suggests that really there is, so let me adjust that to say there shouldn’t be any shame in this. Looking after myself, my wellbeing and my family is good business sense. And goodness knows we get frequent enough reminders of what happens when lawyers don’t listen to the signs. So, I’m a big girl. I’ll say it. Doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, or any less reliable. It makes me sensible (But the fact I am having to rationalise this at length is a reminder of how ridiculously dysfunctional our profession is).

So, I’m vetoing all new instructions and, for the time being at least, I’m just going to ignore unsolicited requests for help, pro bono work, free advice, ‘just five minutes of your time’, extra committees, to deliver a talk, or do anything that isn’t essential. Please don’t think me rude, but right now there isn’t enough of me to go around. Be assured, I will most likely continue intermittently tweeting inane or profound nonsense in between things.

Be back soon.

Look after yourselves. And for the love of god don’t send me emails asking if I’m ok. I’m fine. I will be fine.