A world without lever-arch files?

The idea of surviving without back-breaking bundles of paper fills many barristers with an existential dread. Not me…

I’ve still got a picture of the day my first red-tape-tied bundle arrived. I was grinning like an idiot. I’m sure most of us remember that.

Somehow we get misty-eyed about the rolling suitcases they necessitated as well. About the panic and despair as a wheel breaks at the wrong moment. The frustration as we try to squeeze the second volume of the White Book in alongside the wig tin and blue pad.

And who among us hasn’t wanted to take a sneaky look at how other people tab up their stuff? Whether they have a careful system – or whether the post-it notes are just multi-coloured because their floor in Chambers ran out of the pink ones?

We’re going to have to learn to do without. We were going to have to anyway, given the horrific amount of trees we all murder. But now, working remotely, getting a bundle couriered is going to be a luxury.

Not to mention a potential bug transmission vector…

So the next few posts will probably deal with how to survive and thrive with what some people call “e-bundles”. I loathe the term (the “e-” feels as bad as adding “cyber-” to the front of something. Ouch). I’ll stick to calling it all “the papers”. After all, oldies like me still occasionally call the act of audio recording “taping” something, and even the youthful who’ve never seen a cassette or a VHS know what we’re talking about. I hope they do, anyway.

So over the next couple of days we’ll start looking at

Good ideas everywhere…

Everyone’s going through the same thing, and no-one’s got a monopoly of wisdom. So this is going to be a lengthening list of other sites with good advice. There’ll be infinite amounts that I’ve missed. Let me know, and I’ll add it.

23 March:

First things in a paperless world

There’s lots to think about, if you want to survive in this new remote, bundle-less Bar. These are just a few physical preliminaries.

Some readers of these musings may already have a way of working paperlessly, and remotely, that suits them. Although everyone can learn from everyone else’s experience (with the usual YMMV caveat, of course), this short post is really addressed at those who are staring at their laptop in horror and wondering: how on earth can I function like this?

There are lots of things to think about and do. But step one is to work out what you REALLY need, and what you don’t.

I’d suggest the following are the physical essentials. We’ll cover the software and services next time. For anything not covered here (scanners, inkjet printers, mice, and so on) – my first port of call for reviews and recommendations is usually The Wirecutter. But there are plenty of others.

  • A workspace that won’t drive you mad, and allows you to think and communicate. If you’re in a small shared space, that’s going to be difficult. But there’s lots of advice out there. Rather than a list of other sites, I’d simply recommend a short and free ebook, Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily. It’s published by people who’ve written literally dozens of tech guides for normal humans. They’re great. (In fact, I recommend the series as a whole.) And remember: you’re likely to need a space from which you can video-conference without looking too disorganised or unprofessional. So take the time to set things up with care.
  • A computer you’re used to. No point – in these times of urgency and short funds – in buying something that expensive anew unless you absolutely have to. You don’t want to be re-learning right now. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Mac, a PC, a Chromebook, an iPad, a Surface or what. If you’re comfortable with it, stick with it.
  • If you can, a cheap headset. You’re going to spend a lot more time than usual on the phone, and possibly for lengthy periods. You DON’T want to last through a two-hour hearing with the phone wedged under your chin. I prefer Bluetooth (then I can pair it with phone or computer without worrying about which variety of USB/Lightning/whatever plug it happens to have), but it’s your call. I have a fairly rubbish one, but a better one (I hope) is arriving tomorrow. I’ll add a link if it works. Wired or wireless mobile headsets can do it, but you may sound pretty echoey. In a long remote hearing, probably a no-no.
  • A decent chair. Seriously. They’re not expensive. Get it done, if you don’t want your back to hate you. This one’s mine.
  • Not compulsory, but useful if you do print stuff sometimes (or have papers sent to you) – a shredder. Normally I hate the things, but they’re a necessary evil given the duty of confidentiality we work under. Again, this is mine – reasonably cheap, takes more than a sheet or two, can cope with staples. Doesn’t go wrong too much.
  • Also not obligatory, but I’d argue a really phenomenal idea if you’re using a laptop: a separate screen and keyboard. 4k screens are great, but dear – a 1900×1200 one is relatively lo-res, but reliable, responsive and easily good enough for having your papers side by side with whatever document you’re working on. And only about £100. As for keyboards – I use a Microsoft Sculpt to avoid RSI, with a Logitech K380 on the road (switches between laptop and iPad at the push of a button – nice).
  • Which leads to what you do with the laptop itself. I have mine on a platform. A friend of mine uses one of these on circuit when he can’t rely on having a lectern box. But this one does two things in the WFH environment. First it makes for extra precious desk space – I have a stand for papers underneath mine. Second, it raises your laptop’s camera so that it’s the perfect height for video-conferencing. No more giving people an up close and personal view up your nostrils…

You’ll notice I haven’t included a webcam. Frankly, the one on most modern laptops etc is good enough. And particularly if you’ve got a platform like mine, then you don’t really need one.

I also haven’t said anything about printers. This is cheeky. I may be mostly paperless, but I’ve a decent (and cheap) laser printer – an HP M254dw. (I’m not including a link because Amazon now sells it for twice as much as the £150 I paid, but there are plenty of decent ones around for that kind of money.) Because sometimes someone else is going to need something on paper. It’s how it is.

So that’s the basics. Next stop: the intangibles…

Staying sane

Lots of people know more than I do about this. This is just what’s keeping me going.

I’m lucky.

I’ve always worked remotely. So while this situation imposes stresses, they’re not entirely the shock of the new. And some might say that at the Bar we’re a rather solitary trade anyway.

But life’s changed nonetheless. Our whole family, including our 13-year-old daughter, are all stuck in here together. We’re going to annoy each other.

And while I might not have stuck my head round someone’s door in Chambers every day, knowing that now I can’t is something that hurts.

All told: we’re all going to need ways of keeping our heads on straight. Particularly given that there’s no clear end-date in sight.

I’ll leave the ways of keeping in professional contact for another day, and for the purposes of this post stick to a few things that I think work for me. Again, everyone’s mileage varies. I’m not a psychiatrist, a therapist, a counsellor or anyone else with the slightest right to talk about anyone’s mental health than my own. But it might give you an idea or two.

  • Firstly, don’t just sit. If – like me – you have a laptop on a platform, for heaven’s sake push your chair back and stand up to work at it once in a while. Your back will love you. If you’re flash enough to have a standing desk, then you’re well ahead of me. Good on you.
  • Further on that – goodness knows we’re a profession that can tend to swivel-chair spread. And if you usually commuted by public transport, you’ve probably lost several thousand steps a day by staying at home. So get up, and get out. Until – and god forbid it comes to that – there’s a genuine lockdown, going for a walk, a run, a ride, a whatever, will work wonders both for health and sanity. In fact, there’ll probably be fewer vehicles moving about – so the air will be cleaner and the roads safer. Make the most of it.
  • Better yet, find some form of exercise you can do. I play capoeira, a Brazilian martial art which is just about the most full-body form of exercise imaginable. (I play it badly. But I still love it.) My school, Brazilarte, has had to close its doors like other gyms and suchlike – but it’s running online training. For £20 a month, this is nothing short of a bargain. Find yourself something similar.
  • From the physical to the life of the mind and the soul… As a profession, we can tend towards the obsessive. So this is the perfect time to find something you can practise and perfect – or at least try to. Fallen behind on Duolingo, Drops or Memrise? Take a break from work (ad hoc or on a schedule – whichever works for you) and learn a language. For me it’s Portuguese. Or Korean. (Although I try to avoid the K-drama fest on Netflix. That’s a rabbit hole you’ll never get out of.) Or Gaelic. (Actually, Netflix can help with this – once you’ve downed tools of an evening, there’s a Google Chrome extension which allows you to pause, repeat and play back subtitles. Excellent. Again, watch out for the rabbit hole though…)
  • If you’re a musician, this is the perfect time to practise. I play the piano. Sort of. Ish. But I’m now practising more. If jazz is your thing (as it is mine), then there’s a wonderful guy in the US called Willie Myette. His site, Jazzedge, isn’t cheap – $349 a year or $39 a month – but it’s full of truly eye-opening video lessons and tuition. I gave it to myself as a birthday present late last year, and it’s been worth every cent several times over already. If you’re a beginner, Willie has just made the starter course on his beginning piano lesson site – Home School Piano – free till 1 September. Just sign up and go. Lovely man. I’m sure there are equivalents, and free resources, elsewhere for both the piano and other instruments. Go for it. But remember the neighbours if you decide to take the violin or trumpet up from scratch…

Finally, one more thing. We spend our lives immersed in the written word, and we might want to escape it when we step away from our desks. But novels are freedom for the heart and mind. Doesn’t matter if they’re deep or trashy, literary or genre. (Or all the above at the same time.) If you’re not already into ebooks, start now. You don’t need a Kindle, a Kobo or whatever. There’ll be an app for your phone or tablet. Go for it. Don’t starve your soul, people. Let it fly.

Why?

What on earth possessed me to use my Sunday to slap this together? And what’s going to possess me to keep going?

I’ve been a writer of one sort or another all my adult life.

I started out writing jazz and soul pieces at college, as the obvious answer to the question: “So do you want to get paid to listen to the music you love anyway?” Not the most challenging decision I’ve ever made.

Then I went on to being a reporter – first for the tech press, then running a small news agency for Commonwealth papers and magazines, and finally six years at BBC News as their only specialist in financial crime.

Even after I left the Beeb in 2007, I kept writing. It’s just that my audience changed.

And now, as a jobbing barrister, in this weird quasi-locked-down world, I feel the need to write again.

I don’t have a mission, as such. Except that our world as barristers is changing – it has to. Lots of us have struggled with remote working, with a paperless existence, with virtual hearings. All of which are now critical if we’re to survive and thrive, and if we’re to help our clients as they deserve to be helped. And anyone who thinks that once the immediate crisis is past (god send it’s soon…) that we’ll go back to the old ways is dreaming.

And dreaming, when you’re self-employed, is a short road to penury.

So initially, at least, I’m going to share how – in the short time since I became a proper grown-up barrister – I went pretty much completely paperless without even really noticing. I use Apple kit, so I’m afraid that where things are platform-specific, it’ll be Apple rather than Windows, Android or Chromebook. Sorry about that. But lots of things aren’t platform-specific. And I’ll try to be helpful anyway.

(I may stray off course from time to time. Don’t be surprised if music crops up. Or genre literature or TV. Or capoeira. All part of the tapestry.)

We can make this work. We can get through. And we can – even amid these uncertainties, fears and genuine sorrows – make some changes which might leave things better for whatever future is waiting for us.