Are we working hard enough? - saying 'no' to the fetishisation of overwork
Charmian Jackson and Malvika Jaganmohan, family barristers at St Ives Chambers in Birmingham, share their experiences of feeling like they're barristers who just don't work hard enough.
Do I work enough? This is a question I pose to myself on a regular basis.
It’s a strange question. Why should I worry? I’m a (fairly) successful barrister with a busy practice and a diary booked up for at least the next couple of months.
But the truth is I don’t work as much as other people. I have an 11 month old daughter and returned to work when she was around 5 months old, but the working pattern I have now is the same as I did for around two years prior to her arrival. She isn’t the reason I “work less” than others.
I have a pattern where I will do hearings 3 days per week, plus the occasional sneaky extra conference, or sitting day some weeks. This leaves the other 1-2 days to do prep, admin, orders and all the other tasks that go along with this job. On average I work from around 8.30am – 5pm, 5 days a week. I usually manage to avoid working much in the evenings or weekends. But in this job, somehow, working 40 hours a week isn’t “full time”.
People have asked about me returning to work after having a baby. I say that I’ve been back full-time since July and they instantly assume I mean I’m doing hearings 5 days a week. I have to explain to them that “my version” of full-time, isn’t a “barrister’s version” of full-time.
And the barrister Twittersphere doesn’t always help. Constant posts about people’s manic lives with multiple hearings each day, followed by evenings working and the ever present #sundayhomeworkclub used to make me feel inadequate. I would often feel lazy, like it was wrong to enjoy a bit of Great British Bake Off at the time it is actually shown on TV (yes, I know, watching live TV is very old-school…)
But as I often tell my clients, you can’t control what other people do, you can only control how you react to it. So I’ve decided to no longer feel inadequate and to be happy and proud of the balance I feel I have achieved in my working life. This means I sometimes say no to work, and I don’t earn as much as some other people, but what I get in return is much more important.
So many in the profession are suffering from burnout, and the drive for recognising the importance of wellbeing grows ever stronger, yet the fetishization of overworking continues. I struggle to see how, as a profession, we expect to help with one whilst continuing with the other.
I put my current level of work in to place after I broke down on my clerk’s shoulder crying due to the pressure of work a few years ago. I took a month off as soon as I could, spent time talking to a therapist and have never looked back. Every time I worry I’m not working “enough”, I remind myself of how working a “barrister’s version” of full time made me feel – and I didn’t like it.
I recognise the type of work I do means that I can earn enough from my level of work to pay the bills and those working in, mainly publicly funded, areas may not have that luxury, but I really think it would be good if we could recognise that the “barrister’s version” of full-time working isn’t normal, and isn’t something to be celebrated. I encourage everyone to work out what their own version of “full time” looks like and to make it work for them.
Lawyers have a habit of whining constantly about how overworked they are. Are you even a lawyer if you haven’t had a good ol’ moan about how you’ve had to do a squillion hearings in a week or how you’ve slept an average of 3 hours a night?
I confess that occasionally I drive myself into the ground (a situation very much of my own making and probably due to an inability to forward-plan and say ‘no’). But by and large, since the moment I became a barrister, I have been pretty good at setting boundaries.
I tell my clerks when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed and ask them to stop booking things into my diary. I look at my diary weeks in advance and book in as many prep days as I think appropriate. I regularly take mini breaks and time off (perks of self-employment!). I rarely double up (take on two or more hearings in a day) because attending court is far more labour intensive than just conducting the hearing: I need to read the papers, speak to the client, draft the order, write up an attendance note, and so on.
In a really radical move, I took off two weeks for Christmas in my first year as a tenant. When I mentioned this to some other newly-qualified friends, they looked at me like I’d confessed to joining a cult because apparently there is some unwritten Bar-wide expectation that the junior juniors work through the holidays that the seniors “earned”.
I admit that all of this boundary-setting has made me feel lazy, which is ridiculous. I know I’m not lazy. But for some reason, because I don’t squash every square inch of time with court hearings; because I take frequent breaks; and because I prioritise having a life over saying yes to every single brief makes me feel like I’m not trying as hard as my peers or that I’m less ambitious. Working less than 70 hours a week seems a failure on my part given what everyone else seems to be doing (or at least what they say they’re doing on social media).
There are certainly structural pressures at the Bar that result in burnout and overwork, such as low pay - particularly in the legal aid sector - and a creaking, backlogged justice system often resulting in unpredictable diaries and last-minute instructions. But my view is that a big contributing factor to burnout in the legal profession is the attitude of lawyers themselves. As lawyers, we place pressure on ourselves to be invincible and invulnerable. Family lawyers, who often enter the profession because of their empathy and their wish to make a change to people's lives, go above and beyond for their clients, often at their own expense. We fetishise overwork, carefully composing witty tweets about our latest all-nighter, glamourising what is a pretty depressing lifestyle. Junior barristers think they’re going to be placed on some invisible blacklist by their clerks if they dare to say 'no', or that they’ll never be briefed again because they disappointed a solicitor who called up in a panic at 12pm, asking about counsel availability for a 2pm hearing.
All those fears have floated through my head when I refuse a last-minute brief or when I don’t volunteer for an emergency hearing. Ultimately, those fears have come to nothing. I have a busy practice with interesting work. No one is going to hold it against me if I decide to have a life alongside my work. As long as I work hard and work well – but don’t work myself to the brink – I’m confident I’ll be just fine. I don't need to work superhuman hours to be a good barrister.
Now to convince my friends and colleagues.
All views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and not necessarily those of Stiff Upper Lip.