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‘I wish I had known how to be a good boss’

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Barrister and City University law lecturer Andrew Worthley — who’ll be speaking at ‘How to survive in a changing legal market — Legal Cheek at Gray’s Inn’ — would have banned his younger self from pulling caffeine-fuelled all-nighters

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The important stuff first. I wish I had taken a smidgen more care getting my wig measured up. As a pre-pupil living on circuit, I rationed my trips to London in a manner commensurate with my grotesquely over-burdened finances. As such I only ventured up to Lincoln’s Inn for qualifying sessions and otherwise neglected to explore the capital’s more grandly salubrious corners; Westminster Palace, the RCJ, Fabric and so on.

So when it came to draining the last few pennies from my final interest-free credit card to purchase my wig and robes, I didn’t attend Ede & Ravenscroft in person but instead somewhat casually measured my own head and entered the capacious dimensions online. When the glorious mass of horsehair arrived a few weeks later, it was a splendid fit, nestling snugly atop what was once a springy mass of thick ginger locks.

However, as the years advance and my hairline recedes (both at an alarmingly rapid pace), I am now bereft of a good inch of wig buffer, meaning that the wig’s size is more accommodating than ever. I daresay that a professional fitting at a reputable wig institution might have equipped me both with a better fitting hairpiece for the long-game, and with some invaluable counsel regarding male pattern baldness.

In more fickle matters, I wish I had known how to be a good boss. Being at the self-employed bar means that one is in effect, one’s own boss. And we bosses can be very cruel to ourselves, our sole employees. We fail to comply with the Working Time Regulations, we deny routine comfort breaks, we insist on pulling incessant all-night shifts and we encourage an unhealthy reliance on chemical uppers and downers, most commonly imbibed as caffeine and alcohol.

We are at once merciless despotic fiends and subservient snivelling lackeys. This is no way to manage and it is no way to be managed. Youth, enthusiasm and adrenaline are powerful drivers that can propel many a junior barrister through early years of practice, but there comes a time when good management needs to kick in. Establishing healthy work patterns is crucial.

It is important to take quality (although not necessarily lengthy) time off. To learn the most efficient way to quickly recharge one’s batteries. To know whether getting two hours sleep will be more productive than two more hours of 4am research. To know that eight espressos is probably seven too many, and to know that it is essential to show kindness to that often exhausted employee.

I also wish I had known that it was okay not to know it all. Known how important it is to be honest with fellow members of chambers about the depths of one’s own uncertainty and bewilderment. It is an odd experience to enter a career where there is always more to learn, and where one’s knowledge will only ever scratch the surface of the planetary mass of ignorance that lies beneath.

There is genuinely no shame in asking questions of pupil supervisors and other members of chambers. One soon discovers not every other member of the bar is an oracle of infinite legal data. A barrister’s chambers are a strange and wonderful place, full of crusty nuggets of sound wisdom, savvy advice and solid reassurance. They are a safe space to moot outlandish ideas and to discover occasional pearls of brilliance. Chances are that even if a colleague doesn’t have the precise answer for you, they will have a good idea of where to find it, and that some of your rusty brain cells may have been triggered in the conversation. Be honest about your limitations and be thankful also that you live in an era of plentiful online legal resources.

Finally, I wish I had known of the perils of becoming jaded. Of the importance of guarding against cynicism and the encroaching claws of nihilistic despair. Life in the courtroom is both exhilarating and dispiriting. Here we witness the worst traits of the human spirit unveiled in all its tarnished squalor. There is bitterness and dishonesty, spite and envy, greed and neglect and violence and pain.

It is little wonder that some at the bar can become black both in spirit and humour, and can develop an ‘us and them’ mentality that risks the dehumanisation of other troubled human beans. But I daresay the best advocates and the best lawyers are those who guard their spark of idealism with a fierce integrity and passion. Who always dare to remember that elegant flashes of justice still shimmer, who remember what a tremendous privilege it is to be part of a legal system that stands on a bedrock of due process and common law, who realise that 800 years of Magna Carta is pretty damn special, and who remember that fighting for a person’s job or home or family or liberty is a brave and bold calling indeed.

Even if one’s wig is slightly askew from all the caffeine fuelled jitters…


Andrew Worthley is a senior lecturer at the City Law School and a barrister practising out of Magdalen Chambers in Exeter. He will be speaking at Legal Cheek‘s latest free careers advice event, ‘How to survive — and even thrive — in a changing legal market’, on the evening of Tuesday 21 October.

Image via Imgur

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