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.

4 thoughts on “What are we doing with our lives?

  1. Balancing pace and finance has always been a problem for the self-employed Bar. But Pink Tape’s point goes deeper than that: the more senior we become, the greater our pre-trial investment is expected to be, and the more disruptive the consequence of a changed or lost listing, especially difficult for younger silks. What is the answer? I have two to offer, but recognise they are long-term possibilities rather than quick fixes. The first is to ensure that at each stage of professional life we up-skill, importantly with new skills rather than simply enhancing old ones. This creates an exit strategy possibility, temporary or permanent. The other is to plan a sabbatical from professional life. It requires proper financial planning, but offers the opportunity to scope professional life from the outside rather than from the treadmill. After 27 years at the Bar I went to Buenos Aires for 6 months to dance Argentine tango. It improved my mind, my practice, and my life – as well as my dancing.

    Whilst I sense this is not a solution for Pink Tape, who knows, it might awaken another better idea!

    • I don’t think I’ll be taking time off to tango but I might take some time off to travel or write my novel one day…(I probably won’t). but both will have to wait until a time when I have fewer dependents (seriously hoping there will be a gap between the the kids achieving independence and my old age creeping up on me and nixing that idea, or I’ll be very cheesed off)

  2. Thank you. Sometimes I think it’s just me- I’m too slow, I can’t organise, how come everyone else has time to do stuff. I feel you, I see you. We need more posts like this because this job is bloody mad

  3. I feel your pain. The apparently heartless family court leviathan trundles on, with broken bearings and a sputtering engine, searching for Sisyphus Hill on the horizon! The family courts wait for no man – or woman, but most of us wait aching ages for the family courts. If it’s any consolation, know that you are not alone – just think of the plight of the many kids, the dads (and some mums) who lose the chance of a family life due to secrecy, lack of transparency and false allegations in the courts…
    Perhaps the title should be “What is the Family Court doing to our lives?”
    I do hope you feel better soon though – I think your heart is in the right place, and that’s a great start!

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