Thursday, 8 January 2015

Being Polite

Some barristers can be very brusque - if not rude. I know that this will come as a shock to some of you (surely it is a shock to someone...), but most people who work with or in chambers will have stories about barristers (or clerks) shouting, swearing, throwing things, and other temper tantrums.

This is usually justified by one or more of the following:

  • The stress of the job
  • The stress of the self employed
  • The long hours
  • People being stupid
  • "I haven't got time to worry about a few ruffled feathers"...
Sadly, it's almost never acceptable behaviour and I have spent many hours having difficult conversations trying to explain this - and hearing a "yes, but..." response.

The bar likes to pride itself in working very hard and playing equally hard. I still hear barristers talking (boasting..?) about all-nighters, about working all weekend and about sacrificing family life "for the job".

Hmmm. In my experience these sort of long hours are necessary much less than they are employed. A bit more organisation and planning and more regular hours seem to be possible. Of course, some barristers are 'last-minute' people and thrive on the impending deadline. Fine - but don't use that as an excuse for bad behaviour. 

When not working with lawyers, I sometimes amuse myself on film sets. In late December, I was at Blenheim Palace for some long days and nights during filming for a 'very large feature film' (privacy & confidentiality are not just watchwords for barristers). At times there were over 500 crew and 400 extras, never mind the principles and their people. Nearly 1,000 people, then, working in cramped and cold conditions, struggling against deadlines in an industry where the costs are huge and income doesn't come for years (the film is not due to be released until Christmas 2015). To give an idea of the costs, I estimated that each day was costing at least £250,000. Add to the financial stress, the fuss of dealing with 400 extras. These are actors who  are hired by the day and who arrive with no idea of what they will be doing. They have to be ushered around by an army of Production Assistants (PAs) and Assistant Directors (ADs) - often at the last minute as planned shots prove to be impossible or are changed.

Imagine the stress. The Director has a vision for the day and the Producers who are paying for everything want to achieve this as efficiently as possible (remember than an hour's running over can cost tens of thousands of pounds in overtime). So the Director passes stress to the First and Second ADs, who pass it on (multiplied) to more junior ADs and then to the PAs - who have to deal with grumbling Extras ("He told me to stand here - why are you telling me to move over there?"). All of this over and over for twelve hours, overnight, outside, in the cold.

What a recipe for shouting, temper tantrums and stress. And yet, there was almost none. The crew were unfailingly polite, time and time again. Every instruction was accompanied with 'please' and 'thanks'. They were concerned about the welfare of the people they were working with. Extras were offered warm blankets in-between takes and there were shifts of people sent inside for warming drinks. 

It was very impressive. Something, perhaps, for barristers (and other professionals) to consider. I understand that you are tired and stressed. I understand that you are worried that your diary is empty next month. I understand that you are worried that you've earned less so far this year than last. None of this, however, is a reason for shouting and generally behaving like a grumpy two year old.

It is perfectly possible to behave in chambers politely and calmly. Practice being charming. You will probably find that it works considerably better than the alternative. If nothing else, its good practice for your behaviour in front of your clients...

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