The clerks’ room is often called the ‘engine room’ and ‘heart’ of chambers; its bustling atmosphere, a hive of activity and seemingly never a quiet moment. Phones ringing and the discussions that ensue, clerks calling across the room to one another and barristers talking to their team – downloading the most recent outcome of a conference or hearing.
We often explain that one of the reasons barristers are so at risk of poor mental health is because they spend long periods of time working in isolation, whereas clerks, historically, have always experienced quite the opposite – team members there at all times for discussion about a difficult conversation, constant discussions about availability of members, new cases that are being offered, hearings that have been fixed or the outcome of judgments handed down and dare we say even, shock horror, the occasional ‘what did you think of Homeland last night?’. This builds a camaraderie between clerks and we rely on one another’s support and the sharing of information to make informed decisions and judgements all day, every day, be it in relation to fees, new or existing cases and potential business development opportunities.
Fast forward to March 2020 and much like every other profession, the way in which a clerk had to perform his or her role completely changed.
Some clerks have spent short periods working from home, or had an arrangement to do so once or twice a week, but pre-2020, a great many clerks had no experience of home working and certainly we are not aware of any clerks that worked solely from home.
We were lucky; we had computers already set up at home with chambers software installed, but a great number of clerks did not own their own computer, or they shared with other members of their family – clearly not conducive to working full-time remotely. Many are working in bedrooms or at kitchen tables while parents, siblings, spouses or children are around – an experience which is common for workers in all industries, but a vast number of our conversations are confidential and require a certain level of diplomacy, which is not always easy when in the company of a family member.
Where we could ordinarily turn to one of our colleagues and easily ask a question about what a member of chambers is doing that day, we now find ourselves making multiple phone calls to one another each day to ask simple queries, which slows down how responsive we can be. Email traffic has become a huge source of stress for a number of clerks, with so many people opting to use that source of communication over a phone, which by contrast can be far quicker and allows for rapport building.
Boundaries have been blurred which is a huge cause of concern for us. Clerks report starting work far earlier than usual and finishing far later, so whilst at the beginning of lockdown many thought they would have an opportunity to spend more time with their family, most in fact are finding they are spending less. Resentment is felt by some partners and children because whilst you are physically present in the home, you are not present in the family because you are focused on work.
Personal mobile phone numbers are published so clients can reach clerks easily, which on the one hand is a helpful development in order to speed up communication, but it can have a detrimental effect if the assumption is that we are always available, regardless of the time of day.
Those of us in a management role have also had to adapt to the ways in which we develop and stay in touch with our clerks and staff. It is less easy to do this than when we are in the presence of a more junior member of staff, but with time we are all learning fresh methods to stay in touch. As Christmas and New Year draw closer, we are mindful of appraisals which may need to be conducted by video for the first time.
Here are some of our suggestions on how to improve the operation and morale of a clerks’ room during this uncertain period;
- Regular clerks’ room calls by video – seeing one another is uplifting, helps to keep the connection and keeps everyone informed of what is happening in chambers. Try allowing different clerks to lead the meeting in order to encourage responsibility, purpose and discussion.
- Have Microsoft Teams running in the background – in a criminal set, this has helped a lot. It has reduced the number of internal calls and emails between clerks, with the asking and sharing of information. Organising the diary for the following day is easier and enables us to communicate with solicitors and barristers more efficiently. It has also brought back the camaraderie amongst the team and helped everyone feel that we are all working together.
- Arrange regular catch-ups with members of chambers either by phone or video – many will be struggling without the ability to come in to the clerks’ room to talk or share knowledge and experience with other members. You’ll also learn more about what they are working on, how they are and be able to pick up on any signs of changes in their mental health (see ‘Helping a Colleague’ section of the WATB website, which can be found here)
- Try to stick to your core hours – too many of us are working longer hours and suffering fatigue as a consequence. Yes, sometimes the job requires us to work late or start early but if you are regularly working beyond your ‘normal’ hours then speak to a trusted member of the clerks’ room and/or your Senior Clerk. We don’t do our best work when we are tired and lack of sleep or down time can have a negative impact on our mental health.
- When you have logged off, try not to engage too much with your phone. You need a break and to spend time with friends, family or just to be in your own presence.
- Don’t be afraid to ask others (barristers, clerks and other members of staff) if they are OK and point them in the direction of help if they are not. This might be suggesting they speak to a member of their Wellbeing Committee, another member of staff or using the Employee Assistance Scheme which the IBC provides for all its members and which can be accessed by logging in to the members section of the IBC website.
- Many of us have given over some part of our ‘safe space’ (i.e. our homes) to remote work, so if you can’t close the door on your work environment (i.e. you don’t have an office), then try to put computers away at the end of each day or at the weekend.
- Take a lunch break. Microsoft recently released data showing that pre-Covid, the usage of Word and Excel dramatically reduced between the hours of midday and 2pm, whereas since March this year, usage has remained more or less constant throughout the day. This ultimately means people aren’t taking time out over lunch. Eating lunch in front of a screen is no fun and little fresh air will help clear your head and you’ll return refreshed.
- Organise team socials by Zoom – it’s great to get your clerks’ room together to have fun outside of work. There are hundreds of suggestions online – try to encourage a more junior member of the team to organise it so you have buy-in and let’s face it, that generation can often be far more adept at technology than we are!
- Adopt a routine ‘fake commute’ – go for a walk or ride before and after work in order to allow time to gear up for work each morning (much like the train, bus or bike journey does for many of us) and to allow space to decompress after work each evening.
- Don’t forget to take a holiday or break, we know it’s difficult to go away at the moment but there is no better way to recharge than to do something other than work!
Lucy Burrows, Mark Rushton and Martin Secrett are wellbeing representatives from the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC)