Since we set up Unit Chambers 2 ½ years ago I have an increasing awareness about the importance of language and conversation – both at home, in Chambers, and for us as advocates in the courtroom.
In my view, emotional intelligence is overlooked and the way we communicate is undervalued. Both things need to change to develop a more personalised service to our clients, our colleagues, and the wider team at the chambers and law firms we work in.
Looking ahead and trying to forecast where the family legal profession will be in 5-10 years is not easy as all the indicators are pointing to strong disruption! Equality and diversity as well as increased women’s participation are cornerstones of any progressive workplace. Language needs to sync with that.
However, in addition to continuing to advocate for greater equality and diversity through language and culture, I am confident that the next generation of clients believe that global megatrends – particularly in technology will change the way we work.
Increased connectivity, AI, robotics, and automation are already affecting fast-paced change across numerous sectors. Immediate accessibility is driving this change and improving communication, our analytical skills, and the language we use will be key success factors going forward. All of us need to embrace this change and speak the language that the next generation will understand.
So, this article is a game of two halves. The first half will focus on where I think we, as advocates, can work together to change the terminology we use in practice and the second half will focus on language in the workplace.
Culture and language in the courtroom
Family law is, at the best of times, an emotive subject. There is a renewed focus and drive on trying to shift families that undergo a relationship breakdown/dispute to focus on resolution outside of a courtroom. Language and communication have a big part to play in this desire if the objective is going to work.
A few examples of where we can all start …
- Smith and Smith rather than Smith v Smith
- Issue instead of Dispute
- Dear Lisa, instead of Dear Sir (eek!) / Madam.
- Our children instead of my children
- Problem-Solving instead of fight.
- Lisa or Ms. Edmunds instead of my opponent, the mother, my client.
Sir Andrew MacFarlane, The President of the Family Court, has made it clear that there needs to be a culture change in the language used in family law. Research tells us that effective change takes time to become embedded. So that is why we must help and support the next generation of barristers by encouraging them to focus on the accessible and engaging words that help create the right environment for collaborative working with a view to resolution. In my view, it is also important to see some mandatory training deployed for judges and family law advocates. I would even go further and suggest that because the language in family law has not caught up with the social ‘norm’ then a Practice Direction might be a more effective way to cascade the message and implement the expectation.
Culture and language in the Workplace
Creating a new Chambers from paper to business in such a short period of time has taught me a lot of things, especially around culture and the language we use. The culture is the personality of your Chambers. It captures the shared beliefs and behaviours that determine how your colleagues and team members interact and make decisions.
One of the first shifts I have made, from a female perspective, is to stop talking about ‘work-life balance’. The word ‘work’ against ‘life’ sounds a little dirty. Why would anyone say I am choosing work over life? I prefer and encourage people to talk about being ‘career life fit’. That sounds and feels fairer and more equal. It’s ok to blend your career and life into measurements that suit you at any given point in your life. The word ‘fit’ encourages that ongoing journey – why would we want to remain stale in our career or life? A happy and successful career causes a ripple effect in your home life and vice versa. Your friends and family see you happy, challenged, successful, and even fulfilled. If you have children, they see, in real-time, the very best role modelling in action. So, for women, having a career rather than a job creates a shift and a sharper focus onto that level playing field.
At Unit Chambers, we go further and work hard to nurture a culture where no one is better than anyone else. We wanted to disrupt the traditional hierarchical culture that prevails in many chambers and create more of a ‘tribe or clan’ culture with a greater emphasis placed on teamwork and togetherness. This is such an important shift in culture when one of our key focus points is supporting the next generation with our active pupillage recruitment plan. The incoming generation do not learn or thrive in a stuffy, ‘top-down’ environment.
Changing the language (or trying to!) has been an important part of creating that new culture. It’s not been easy, and a lot of people on the outside still don’t ‘get it’ and fall into the naysayer camp but we believe it’s the way forward.
A few examples….
- Practice Managers and Client Care Advisors instead of Clerks.
- Colleagues instead of Staff,
- Consultant Barristers instead of Barristers,
- Lisa instead of Miss Edmunds,
- Catch-ups / Education hour / Tune-in instead of meetings,
Opening conversations with …
- ‘These are the things that are going well, these are the things we can do better’ instead of. ‘These are the things that are good, and these are the things that are bad.’
- ‘These are the things I like about you, and these are the things I think you can do better’ instead of the usual language you still encounter during the ‘shit sandwich’ talking to that many people have encountered over the years (and it’s still going on!)
If you haven’t yet watched Carol Dweck’s amazing Ted Talk on the ‘power of yet’, you should do as you will quickly see how powerful language can be for our future barristers. She opens the talk with a powerful little story about a high school in Chicago. Instead of giving failing grades to those who did not pass, the school wrote simply ‘not yet’ on the student’s report card. The power of ‘not yet’ gives students a path into their future and makes them feel that they are on a learning curve rather than a dead end.
I am not expecting to revolutionise the family law sector by simply mixing up the language but it’s a step in the right direction of making sure that we are creating a culture that is always evolving and keeping up with what our clients and colleagues both need and want. So, challenge yourself / your firm; Which three words or sentences would you change that create a greater sense of equality, accessibility, and unity? Let me know – [email protected]
Thanks for reading.