Let’s rewind to the beginning of 2020, when the world seemed to stop and life began to change for almost every person - both privately and professionally. For us lawyers, what in normal circumstances would have meant consultation after consultation, leading to the implementation of new working practices, the whole idea was dispensed with and we were thrown into the deep end, with all of us having to swim.
2020 was a year where after having been in practice for 20 years, the notion of driving three hours to see a client whilst listening to music, claiming travelling expenses and travel time was now a memory imprinted in the far distant past. Why hadn’t anyone ever thought of this new way of working before? Now with flexibility, remote working, Teams hearings, CVP hearings, meeting clients in prison over CVP links, and saving the economy money (and more importantly the Legal Aid Agency), has the world really changed for those private businesses who are surviving in the world of legal aid?
The reality is that the world didn’t change for the principals of legal aid practices. It very much continued ticking and on a business level we had to learn to adapt. The challenges remained the same if not greater.
If Covid 19 wasn’t bad enough, fast forward to June 2021. Here I am, having thought: 'Finally, I will be free for once in my life'. I managed to get to the ripe old age of 48, director in my own inner-city legal aid practice, established since 2010, a female, Asian, single mother who's raised two children from the ages of 12 and 7, now aged 23 and 18. A son at UCL doing his master’s in architecture, and a daughter off to read medicine at university.
Throughout our careers, amongst the hustle of our professional and private lives, running around police stations, courts, visiting clients, dealing with the mental tasks of running a practice; keeping the cash flow going; dealing with LEXCEL, peer review and all the other joys that come with running the show, and the important task of running our homes, raising children, us women (and men) can very easily let ourselves become neglected. I think this is where it all started.
As I thought: 'Finally, this September, my personal responsibilities will ease' (with both kids away at university), I noticed a change in the shape of my breast. And - typically as we often do - I chose to ignore it. It’s funny how, as lawyers, we are astute to the needs of our client and recognising problems that they have. We analyse them and then find a solution to their advantage. Yet when it comes to our own personal needs, we choose to turn a blind eye.
This is precisely what I did for around four weeks, until one day I thought: 'I had better ring the GP'. The problem very sadly, as most readers will know, is that being able to get through to your GP can be a mission. I persevered and insisted on a call back. Fortunately for me, the GP that called me back immediately referred me to a breast consultant. My appointment was at 6:30pm, and by 7:30pm I had left the hospital having been examined by two consultants, had a mammogram, an ultrasound and three biopsies taken from my right breast.
Needless to say, they were concerned, but sought to lighten the mood by chit-chatting about what I do for a living. There I was talking about the love of my profession and typically the questions we all get: 'What cases sticks with you?' or ‘How can you represent these people?'. There I was talking about my involvement in representation after the Manchester Arena bombing back in 2017.
One week later I went back and saw the consultant and behold (rather surprisingly), he broke the news that I had Stage 2 breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form which had fortunately been caught early.
Returning home, I decided to arrange a Teams meeting with my staff at the practice to throw the bombshell of the diagnosis, which felt like probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I was full of emotion myself, but felt I had to keep it together for my staff. I have an amazing team. I use the word ‘staff’ rather loosely, the correct phrase I should use is my ‘work family’. We often use this phrase in our office.
I am proud to say that we are a largely female dominated firm, from different ethnic backgrounds, different ages, different religions, different cultures - that is not to undermine the gentlemen that all work within our work family.
Decisions had to be made and I decided that during the treatment phase of my cancer I would like to completely reduce my workload. That meant having to share my case load with my other colleagues and put into practice the contingency planning that we often have dry runs through on an annual basis, and evidence when we have our Lexcel Assessment. Of course, nobody thinks that they will ever be struck down with an illness because we all think we are Invincible Lawyers - nothing can touch us. The reality is that illness doesn’t discriminate. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.
The practicalities of not working during my treatment seemed quite appealing on every level. The reality, however, is far from what I expected.
Fast forward to 10 August. Since June I’ve had countless appointments, blood tests, MRI scans, and my 12 weekly sessions of chemotherapy have commenced. I am due to have my fourth chemo at the end of this week.
So, back to that break I thought I was going to have - well, that hasn’t happened. I have been probably working more hours from home than I ever did in the office. The peer review didn’t stop, the billing hasn’t stopped, the managerial duties haven’t stopped, and the list goes on. In between all of that, I have even seen the odd client by Teams and represented the odd person remotely in custody, to assist my ‘work family’.
Yes, I did carve up management duties between certain key members of staff, but I have continued where possible in working in the professional I love, and I thoroughly enjoy.
My work family have been my support. My other contacts, from the administrators at the Legal Aid Agency (as I sit as an LAA adjudicator); to colleagues in other firms (incidentally who are competitors also); to barristers; to the CPS; my opponents in cases, have all been great pillars of support. Everyone has been willing to help. It made me realise that we walk through our careers without a single thought for ourselves and when something happens we realise how many people there are there to support us.
From talking to your opponent (whilst you are trying to negotiate a plea) about your illness, to explaining why you need more time to do something, makes one realise the support that is out there.
My daughter has decided to defer doing medicine this year, to stay at home and look after me. She is working for the NHS Vaccination Centre during summer (which is paid), however on results day I was persuading her to go to university, knowing that I am four weeks into my cancer treatment and that I am able to fight this with the support of my work family and my other colleagues who are there to help me get through. I don’t want to hold up my daughter from pursuing her ambition to study medicine, because, as we know, it was the researchers/NHS/doctors that have managed to get us through Covid, and it is the NHS and the excellent doctors that will get me through cancer.
My approach after the shock of the diagnosis was to put on my lawyer hat and 'get on with it', which is what I am doing. I am surrounded by amazing people and most of all my ‘work family’, to whom I remain indebted.
At the time of writing this blog, I discovered LawCare - a free service for the legal community to help with mental health and wellbeing. The service is available to lawyers, staff, and immediate family members.
Yasmin Aslam is director at AGI Criminal Solicitors