Sarah Branson: Lockdown has Transformed My Practice

Sarah Branson, barrister at Coram Chambers, writes about how lockdown has transformed her practice, blurring the lines between work and life. She tells Women in Family Law about the perils of using the ‘chat’ function during Zoom hearings; neighbours disrupting her examination-in-chief and her son’s contempt for her ‘Keep Out’ signs. (2nd June 2020)

We all make choices about what we do with our lives based on our strengths and weaknesses. For me, a career at the Bar specialising in family law, going to court every day, interacting with people was the best fit for me as an extrovert with a conscience. I loved the variety of going to different courts, meeting people from all walks of life and hoped that by putting in the time and energy I have I could help my clients navigate through one of the most difficult times of their lives. I loved being a barrister; I was, I hope, at least competent at what I did (enough to have won that Jordan’s Award in 2018 anyway), and I had a busy and fulfilling practice.

Life under lockdown has hit me like a giant iceberg, tearing through the hull of that stability. Denied any proper interaction with the people I am trying to help, denied the opportunity to see the faces of clients I am representing, picking up on their social cues, has transformed the job I loved.  Some people are suited to sitting at a desk, on the phone, in an office but I doubt that describes the people that chose the Bar over being a solicitor.  In many respects I was lucky to be busy when life under lockdown hit, so I didn’t have many of the immediate financial worries some other single mothers in my position faced.   I had back to back contested interim removal hearings and case management conferences in the first two weeks, all conducted by phone.  I was juggling this with home schooling my 11 year old son (we were learning about the Titanic in history, so thank him for the laboured iceberg metaphor above).

Conducting telephone hearings has been a massive learning curve for everyone. How do you manage to go between talking with the advocates and your clients before the hearing as you would do at court? How do you manage to take instructions during the hearing and make sure your client’s voice is heard (through you) and that you cover all the points your client wants to say? With a massive leap of trust and faith, I simply opted to give each client my mobile number so that I could speak to them before the hearing and stay in touch by text during the hearing so that they could feel part of the process.

“Turning my back” in court has turned into a quick WhatsApp exchange.  In one instance, the court was unable to reach a litigant in person as the number was taken down wrong, so (on the judge’s invitation) I found them on Facebook, sent a message, she was identified and dialled in; this saved the hearing.  I would never have dreamed of blurring the boundaries in this way before.

Thankfully, none of my clients have abused having my personal phone number or used it outside the purpose for which it was provided, but it was a massive leap of faith and I  can totally understand why others might be reluctant to give out their private number as it makes us all more vulnerable to the blurred work/life boundaries lockdown has imposed on us.

The most successful hearings have been those conducted via Zoom, when everyone can see each other and there is provision for advocates and their clients to go off into “breakout” rooms to speak privately.  For one hearing, the advocates on their own initiative met one hour in advance on Zoom and got the lay clients on Zoom too, breaking off into individual breakout or conference rooms.  We were extremely grateful that the Judge accepted our email invitation to join us on Zoom, rather than dial us all in (a laborious process that takes the first 20 minutes of every hearing).  Through this process, we were able to see that in the particular circumstances of that case an imperfect final hearing via Zoom was much preferable to the harm caused by delay of many, many months for the children involved. All agreed – most importantly the parents – that a remote hearing conducted that way was the least worst option in this compromised world. Sometimes decisions about children just can’t wait, which is why so many of us have stayed so busy.

My longest court hearing was a resumed part-heard trial which lasted longer than a week on Zoom. The ritual of getting up every morning and putting on a suit and putting on make-up helped so much in creating that divide between work and home.  So much so that I always put on a jacket when I am in court now even if it’s on the phone (and even though each jacket is now feeling a little tighter than before the gyms shut). I really thought I would be that barrister with the suit jacket over PJs, or like this guy in the “Zoom suit” but it’s quite the reverse. I am sitting here typing this in my jacket, which is squeezing me ever so slightly round my expanding waist. I do wonder though, as time passes and us women don’t have access to hairdressers and dye to mask the line of grey at our hairlines, whether we might start wearing our wigs for very closed court hearings.

Zoom hearings aren’t without difficulty.  They are exhausting, much more so than in person hearings, because we are constantly trying to gauge the social cues that I talk of above from a “postage stamp” screen. We’re also casting a critical eye over our own image, which we never have to do in real life.  Having to wonder how I got so old, why my neck is doing that when I speak is thankfully something that doesn’t normally require thought during a cross-examination, but there’s no way to turn that off on Zoom.

It is also much harder to maintain focus.  As soon as I started examination-in-chief of one witness, my saxophonist neighbour started doing scales, which was totally distracting, and I kicked off with a leading question. School boy error borne out of thinking “oh my god, can everyone hear that, what’s he playing, look at my neck!”

Zoom hearings are also dangerous too, and I would strongly recommend NOBODY USING THE CHAT FUNCTION (I DO mean to shout!) so that you don’t find yourself inadvertently sending a message to everybody (rather than your leading counsel, or friendly opponent) which probably was only just about acceptable to their eyes only.  That was mortifying enough to consider, for just for a fleeting moment, the beer in the china cup idea recommended by Zoom suit guy above (but I wouldn’t do that, and drinking in the time of Covid is a whole other piece).

So, we have had to do the best we can with the tools we have, including coming up with creative ways to keep our children out of the private spaces we have had to create for court hearings at home.  We all have to confirm before each court hearing that we are in a private room, where we cannot be overheard etc.  I am so grateful to have bought a big house in the wrong part of town years ago and have a large, designated comfortable office, but even then, the challenges of keeping children out require creative and humorous solutions.  I am grateful to a member of my chambers for providing my first “keep out” sign below.

Proforma In Place

I now have a blank proforma I fill in each day, the quality of which have deteriorated as illustrated below:

For the sake of balance, because I have struggled to see very much in the way of positives from remote working, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the, support, humour and enormous creativity shared by members of my chambers. A particularly fruitful email exchange earlier this week on the subject of returning to court with safety features in place led to a colleague coming up with this.

In our very own Coram blue! It isn’t meant to undermine the seriousness of the situation we are in but sometimes you have to laugh or cry. We choose laughter often at Coram.

Our AGM was held this week on Zoom and in the 21 years I have been in chambers I have never seen such a well-attended, well run and efficient AGM where voting was performed on screen with a click of a button! Genius.

This is so important because being a barrister is already a very solitary profession; we are all individuals, self-employed and we don’t have the team structure of a solicitors’ firm.  Without the ability to interact and bounce ideas off one another at court it is even more important to find ways to be in contact.

But contact isn’t the same as connection so for my part, I won’t be advocating the continuation of remote working even for the simplest of hearings once lockdown is over. When I think of standing in the crowded corridor of the CFC trying to find an empty conference room a warm glow washes over me, and that’s nothing to do with sunshine in the garden just now.

So, as I find myself yelling “stop shouting!” through the door of my office at my Fortnite-playing/addicted son (he never even had an Xbox here before  all this started) whilst wearing my sound-reducing headphones, I would rather sign off “stay sane” than the usual “stay safe.”