Surviving in Ambiguity
I remember an amusing quip from an 80s' sitcom, where an old Italian lady begins a story about overcoming her impoverished childhood with the line, “It was the worst of times…it was the worst of times”. The audience’s ensuing laughter is a tacit recognition of the cleverly deliberate distortion of the opening line of Charles Dicken’s novel A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”.
As I transcribe this line, I am reminded of two things. The classic Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (for anyone under 45, please google it instantly) and, more soberingly, the inherent contradictions of being a barrister at the Victorian Bar: the highs and lows of cases won and lost; grappling with the weight of heavy case-loads or uncertainty when briefs are light-on; the thrill and exhaustion that regular litigation brings; windfalls and cashflow crises; camaraderie and competition; and the pressure and satisfaction of working with clients and solicitors. Indeed, being a barrister is a harsh exercise in ambiguity.
It can be harsh in many other ways. Many of you may have read an extraordinary 60-tweet odyssey, written throughout a working day, by British Silk Sean Jones QC. This is a genuine and candid account of the constant struggle that barristers face – if you’re a seasoned barrister, you’ll smile wryly in recognition of the harsh realities Sean describes, and if you’re new to the Bar I implore you to take note of his self-aware commentary.
Dickens’ line could very well apply to the era we live in now. It is certainly, for many, the worst of times. Some may find opportunity and hope, but others’ vulnerabilities are laid bare as they struggle with financial and emotional difficulties, chaos, uncertainty and isolation. In his tweets, Sean talks of the insidious expectation that as barristers we need to put on brave faces and barrel through difficulties. We think we have to be bullet-proof. Like Sean, I find this unconducive to good mental health. Instead, I ask you to resist the default approach of going it alone. Instead, reach out and seek assistance.
The Victorian Bar offers resources to barristers to enhance their wellbeing. I urge you to take advantage of these resources, especially now. The members’ health and wellbeing page here offers practical advice for staying safe, working remotely and obtaining financial support, and just as important, it offers resources and tools to remain connected and engaged. Finding a social group or simply taking the time to bond with peers who are in the same boat, so to speak, will normalise your experience, allow you to drop the hardy façade and work through your difficulties. Perhaps you’re coping – like me – with the COVID-imposed role of being a tutor to stay-at-home school students, and balancing that role with your professional one: you will find resources to help you juggle these competing obligations on that webpage.
People often underestimate what others can do for them, or feel reluctant to call on the support of their colleagues. But being actively involved within a collective is key to cultivating resilience. Formal and informal support networks can save you from ill health, enhance your coping skills, improve cardiovascular health and promote lifelong mental health. So, I ask that if you’re feeling stressed, and possibly alone, find your peers, join a social group or tap into the resources available; you’ll find that you will not only receive support but, eventually, you will be able to give back to those around you.
The necessity to work things through together as a community, to keep talking, and exchanging views, was the final message of the Honourable Peter Kidd, Chief Judge of the County Court of Victoria, in this week’s latest “In Conversation” webinar with Bar Councillor, Liz Ruddle. His Honour answered many tricky questions about the procedural changes that the Court has put in place to manage the COVID-19 crisis, and he spoke of the Court’s acute recognition of the anxiety that the uncertainty about the recommencement of in-person appearances and jury trials is causing to members of the Bar, the profession and, of course, individuals involved in the justice system. For those of you who missed the webinar, please do listen to the recording here.