Oops, there goes another decade…

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 : info@transparencyproject.org.uk). 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 :

  1. Have fun
  2. Work hard
  3. Try your best
  4. 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…


13 thoughts on “Oops, there goes another decade…

  1. Happy new year !

  2. What a thoughtful and lucid sentiment. I love your house rules and will adopt them in my own house for 2020, I think.

    Thanks for doing what you do, and for having the courage to write about it. As a junior so junior I haven’t yet put my nappies on, I often feel torn between adding my voice to the arguments swilling past and cheering safely from the touch lines. Lawyers like yourself give observers like me something to cheer, for which I’m hugely grateful.

  3. Just to add, as a response to your thoughtful post, your house rules have reminded me of the origin of my working philosophy as a children’s social worker of 37 years standing and now retired. My lightbulb moment came when I read a book by John Berger, the art critic and essayist, about an English country GP working in the Forest of Dean in the 1960’s and seventies.

    We read about this man, John Sassall in his encounters with patients and his local community. “The demanding and fallible humanity of John Sassall, the doctor, is described as clearly as the everyday courage and despair of his patients”. ( Something that child and family lawyers may have in common with their clients.)

    “You can hear the voices of patients through the text, as the book moves from half a dozen brief stories of their lives to John Sassall’s evolution as a doctor. He starts his career thriving on medical emergencies, impatient with non-specific symptoms and the absence of clear-cut physical diagnoses and underlying pathology. He moves gradually towards an empathic listening and companionship with his patients and their families, striving to recognise who they are and the meaning of their illness to them” quoted from Gene Feder in The British Journal of General Practice, 2005 Mar 1; 55(512): 246–247.

    John Sassall, as described by John Berger, was a man who, in every encounter with individuals chose to relate to them and not defend against them. We all have that choice to make, not just in professional relationships but also in daily life.

    Happy New Year Lucy to you and yours…and keep shining that light.

  4. […] Reed, author of the long-running Pink Tape blog and tenant at St John’s Chambers in Bristol, details a long list of unattractive qualities that […]

  5. Excellent post.

    QCs putting QC after their name has always struck me as bizarre… no other professions do that on Twitter to my knowledge.

  6. Simon Myerson QC ?

    It’s an interesting and thoughtful post. But some of the points strike me as slightly skewed.
    As someone who posts as “QC”, my personal motivation is transparency. Social media is bedevilled by anonymous accounts, which can say what they like and usually do. I wanted to make it clear that, whether people liked what I said (or the way that I said it), they could be certain that I was prepared to stand four square behind it.
    That is particularly so given my focus on the antisemitism that is currently becoming politically and socially acceptable. Like most Jews I lost family amongst the 6m (as it killed 33% of an entire people that’s hardly a surprise). Like most Jews I am hyper-attuned to the fact that those that survived did so by understanding how quickly acceptability of expression turned into action. Senior people thought to be embedded in the establishment have, in my view, a particular obligation to stand up and make that point.
    In that regard, the substance is infinitely more important than the form. First, you aren’t persuading the anonymous troll. You’re talking to the readers. And it is at least as important to show those affected by racism that you’re prepared to call it out as to persuade “neutrals”. Secondly, arguments are cumulative. In my experience people become sympathetic to tone when they agree that it is proportionate to the issue. That may take time. If someone’s instinct is to wave it away as “just social media”, repeated exposure may cause a change of view. Thirdly, we all know that what works with one judge is anathema to another. Of course, there are limits (swearing is one for me) but that’s why we tend to focus on the substance of an argument. People on social media are no different.
    That being so, I was perfectly happy to be seen as exactly who I am. Not hiding anything. Not trying to pretend. Equality of arms includes all of that, surely.
    Perhaps I was naive in this because the result has been a number of complaints to the BSB. Indeed there are at least 2 twitter accounts (both run by anonymous trolls) who contact people to urge them to complain about me. The BSB’s response – notwithstanding that no disciplinary action has resulted – has shown it to be so under-educated about antisemitism that the CST (the communal charity that organises security for us) has offered to provide it with training – an offer not yet apparently deserving of a response.
    I‘m not at all persuaded that the social media guidelines get the balance right, and I don’t think they’re applied in a way that echoes the Handbook. The test ought, surely, to be that used by the Courts for bias. Reasonable people can distinguish between a professional and a personal view, and tolerate occasional daftness, overstatement and even insult. They don’t look at 9 tweets out of 10,000 and think “that person’s an arse” any more than they do in real life. That approach is limited to those who are determined to be offended, and who want to use any means possible to either win an argument or inflict punishment on someone they oppose.
    I served on the conduct committee for 6 years. The people I’m talking about are the equivalent of the litigant who lost and then blames the barrister. Outcome based regulation should include the aim of making clear to such people that professional regulation doesn’t exist to assist private vendettas.
    Personally I deprecate using the profession as a nanny to tell adults what to do or how to say it when they’re not at work. I appreciate that the lines can be hard to draw – hence the test I propose above. But in this age of no deference – where the public doesn’t have its confidence undermined by our advertising, a plethora of awards, or the frequent pronouncements of our leaders on anything from sentencing policy to human rights in Kashmir, the public can probably withstand a tweet from a barrister about stupidity, even if that tweet is itself stupid.
    But, if you are going to worry about that sort of thing, then there are barristers who support organisations calling for the annihilation of Jews. I’m sure there are barristers with fundamentalist view about gay people. I’ve heard plenty of sexist language and (happily less) racist language – most of which is unreflective rather than malicious. I do not report them, because, as I say, I don’t think that’s the point of regulation. But if the BSB is concerned about public perception of the profession because barristers can tweet daft nonsense, then to take no action is a troubling double standard.
    And what about silence? What about the very many barristers in our two main political parties who encounter racism from their own side and duck their heads below the parapet? What is the public perception of a profession that polices tweets but bravely ignores that cowardice?
    I do absolutely agree with you that social media invites argument and that we’re (I’m) not always very good at stopping at the right time. I also agree entirely that that can lead to a tone which doesn’t persuade, when the aim is to do so (as I’ve said, sometimes it isn’t). These are personal faults and like all personal faults they need attention. And sometimes we get it wrong for quite a long time. Sometimes the carefully constructed carapace we present in con and in court cracks, and those reading see us for the occasional idiots we often are (?). Sometimes we aren’t automatically sensible, clever, kind or pleasant.
    None of that necessarily impacts on our ability to do our job. If it does we will fail. The image and reputation of our profession is based on our professional abilities – and we should all be grateful for that.
    One more thing. When I get it wrong on social media, in terms of tone particularly, I reflect and learn from it, as I do from what happens in court. That is part of professional development. To that extent, my clients benefit. We’ve all experimented with different approaches. Social media can provide a wonderful opportunity to do so without risk to clients.

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for your comment – quite a lot there! I won’t try and respond to all of it but I agree with much of what you say including what you say about the guidance and its use and utility. I don’t think I was intending to say nobody must use the title QC on social media, my concern really was the combined effect of those identifying themselves in this way with a sub-optimal tone. Whether we are identified as ‘barrister’ or ‘QC’ the issue is similar – but it may be more impactful where someone is talking down to a member of the public AND is parading (as it will no doubt be seen) their importance. That is all I think I was intending to say. I have observed last year that the way some were throwing their weight around meant that the mere label QC became a total distraction, a cipher for pompous, and indeed became a meme itself as various non QCs adopted the badge. Some QCs might take the view that if they took the badge off they might be better heard by others – but I think there is room for different takes on this. Just thought it warranted some consideration is all.

      Like you I try and reflect, say when I’ve got it wrong, and do better next time. And I don’t think there should be any expectation of perfect behaviour (whatever that is).

      I’m sorry to hear about your experiences on and borne of social media. And of course I agree that getting the tone wrong pales into insignificance in comparison with anti-semitic or racist content – I don’t diminish the importance or impact of that, it’s just it isn’t what I was writing about in that post.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment – sorry not immediately approved. Was in court…

      • I have QC in my handle. The reason is pretty mundane. “@seanjones” was already taken, so I was @seanjones11kbw. Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t entirely fair on Chambers for me to gushing away with 11kbw prominently displayed above each post. @Seanjonesqc worked as an alternative and was available. I’ve never thought it helps much in online discussion because I’ve tried never to try to carry an argument by projection of authority (although no doubt I have not always resisted temptation). I think, on the contrary, it is more often a stick with which you get beaten either by application of Myerson’s Law or by threats to report you to the regulators.

        I do recognise your point. Before I did my therapeutic bulk deletion at Christmas, I had been reflecting on whether I was a contributor to the current firestorm of furious self-righteousness on Twitter and decided I probably was. It’s a shameful realisation and I’m still thinking through how to avoid it.

        • Hi Sean,
          That’s all we can do isn’t it? Reflect, learn. Do our best?
          It is very obvious from your tweets that you do listen, reflect and learn. I try to do likewise.
          The more people that respond to this the more I am wracked with the worry that the act of writing the blog post was a piece of supreme irony, and that I have been doing the very thing I’ve been complaining of without realising it (I mean, for sure I have at some point because we all do – but should I have written the bloody post in the first place?)….but if I think about it too much more my head will explode…

  7. Of the QC issue two points arise:

    (1) Unquestionably the QC mark has become diluted (when I started in Bristol there were none). It has become debased. There are some excellent lawyers who ‘take silk’ (see Pannick and Eady in action on the Miller cases); and I’ve been lead by a few very able specialists in their subject. There are also some barrister whom a proper system to recognise merit – if that is really needed – would not recognise. I can – but won’t – name a number of very mediocre lawyers who can now add ‘QC’ to their name. (QC means Queen’s counsel: why would she need so many for advice? A fair question, I suggest.)

    (2) Almost no solicitors become QCs. I don’t know whether they don’t apply; or whether they recognise the near inept basis of the system. And yet the academic qualifications of many solicitors is comparable to the bar (higher maybe: our exams are much harder). For example, in a field I know well – privilege and disclosure – two of the leading published authorities are solicitors (and neither, as far as I know, has QC added to his (both are men) names.

    That said, all courage to you for yr blog post ….

    PS I am a solicitor advocate, which is a higher qualification than solicitor (though not comparable to the more able QCs); but I do not – nor am I entitled – to add letters to my name.

  8. I remember Geeklawyer’s website well – often very amusing.

    Sadly it seems that he was not only debarred, but has also recently been sentenced to 5 years: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-star/20170411/281913067972953

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