Well-being for lawyers: feast or famine
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Justice Matters
In this version of her article in LAG’s new book, Justice Matters: essays from the pandemic, Mary-Rachel McCabe outlines how the lockdown has brought to the fore the benefits of looking after our mental and physical health.
I have been momentarily liberated from the frenetic pace of life at the junior bar and my physical and mental health is all the better for it.
On 4 March 2020, I had what is called a ‘practice development review meeting’ with my clerks. It is, as you might imagine, an annual meeting with my clerks to review my practice: do you like the work you are doing? Have you got enough work? Are you earning enough money? Do you want to branch into any other areas of practice? That sort of thing. The notes from the meeting (prepared by my senior clerk) included the following:
M-R’s practice is very busy at the moment and a little on the side of too busy. M-R would like to be in court no more than three times per week and the clerks will block her diary out accordingly. Work/life balance is important to M-R.
At the time of the meeting, I was exceptionally busy and had been since returning to work after the Christmas break. I was desperate for some reprieve from the relentlessness, so when my clerks duly blocked out my diary for two days a week for the following six months, I breathed a sigh of relief: the work/life balance I had carefully cultivated previously would quickly return.
Fast-forward two weeks and every hearing that I had in my diary for the following fortnight had disappeared. The parties had reached agreement or sought adjournments because they didn’t want to travel to court unnecessarily. COVID-19 was tightening its grip on our country, and my diary was completely empty.
The ‘feast or famine’ nature of the publicly funded bar will be familiar to many. I have lost count of how many times I have been advised by my older and wiser colleagues to enjoy the quiet periods as they will never last long, and once the 5 am starts begin again ‘you will regret not savouring the breathing space’.
Despite this, as lockdown was announced, courts closed and the empty weeks in my diary stretched ahead, I – like countless others in similar or worse positions – began to worry about my income. Rather than enjoying the downtime, I panic-filled those weeks in late March/early April with unpaid work. I read the Coronavirus Bill 2020 (all 322 pages of it) from start to finish. I wrote a blog about it. I spoke at a ‘webinar’ about the impact of the Coronavirus Act on adult social care. I gave pro bono advice to solicitors who were worried about the sweeping changes to the law being introduced. I wrote another blog. I spoke at another webinar.
By mid-April, as my instructing solicitors and the courts began to get to grips with remote working, new cases started to trickle in and my diary began to fill up. My panic was averted, at least for the time being.
Lockdown learnings
I believe that nothing in life is absolute. Nothing is completely either one thing or another – completely bad or completely good. The negative impact of lockdown on lawyers is well-documented: the challenges of juggling caring responsibilities with our high-pressured work, jobs lost, incomes demolished, isolation, the lost opportunity to talk a tricky case through with a colleague at the water filter in the office.
But amidst the awfulness of what we are going through collectively and individually, there are unexpected compensations that – I hope – we will treasure for life.
Last year, I wrote an article for Counsel magazine about well-being at the bar and the challenges of saying no to work overload as a junior legal aid barrister. Reflecting on August at the bar – when juniors are asked by their clerks to stick around to cover the work of more senior barristers who are on holiday – I wrote:
I cannot describe a ‘typical’ day because there is no such thing. Throughout August, however, my days began at 5 am, involved a long train journey to somewhere in England, a packet of mini-cheddars from the court vending machine for lunch, and crawling into bed at 11 pm, with the following day’s alarm set for 4.45 am because I was travelling somewhere even further away.
This August looked completely, gloriously different. My new routine throughout lockdown has involved waking up at 7.30 am; doing some morning yoga in the kitchen; enjoying breakfast and lunch at home; going for regular runs in the afternoon; planning, cooking and eating delicious meals in the evenings; watching films and box sets that I had been planning to watch for years but ‘never had the time’; seeing my neighbours doing their daily exercise in the park instead of the gym; walking along the canal and watching the geese and goslings swimming in a row.
I hope, therefore, that one thing we can all reflect on following this extraordinary period is just how much time we spend on work and how we push aside the things we should be doing for ourselves. Do we really need to work 12–14 hours every day? Must we work every weekend? Do we need to attend events in the evening every week? What will happen if we don’t?
I have always argued that the best way of coping with the challenges of working as a legal aid lawyer is to be able to say ‘no’ to overwork, so that we have time out for self-preservation. Regardless of the hours we work, we will always have to carry the weight of our clients’ trauma, endure the stress of propping up a legal aid and justice system that is on its knees, and suffer silently through bullying from our opponents and judges.
But having sufficient sleep, time in the evenings and weekends to ourselves and to spend with the people who are important to us, time in nature and time for reflection will help to cultivate the physical and mental energy needed to keep fighting for justice for our clients.
Lockdown has given this to many of us. So, when the time comes to get out of our homes, back to the office and back into court, let’s not forget the positive impact this period has had on our well-being by jumping straight back onto the path to burnout.
Justice Matters: essays from the pandemic is a collection of essays which together tell a powerful story of the impact of COVID-19, the responses to it, and the hope for change. It seeks to document, in some small way, the effects of the pandemic viewed through the lens of the justice system. It is available from LAG, priced at £10.

About the author(s)

Description: Mary-Rachel McCabe - author
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.