‘Fish files’ – the attack of the 4am impending doom case

Barrister Rehna Azim shares what she learnt when she tweeted asking for tips for dealing with ‘impending doom’ cases; how some cases weigh heavily on your mind even before you’ve started them.
Person working at desk with paperwork

Recently, a case was put in my diary. It was a ‘good’ case to get – meaty and challenging, the sort of case that I should want. But my heart sank each time I thought of it looming, ominously, on the horizon. After months of back-to-back remote trials, just the idea of another heavy case awaiting me was tiring.

I skim read a few documents to get a feel for it. It was going to require lots of preparation, extensive cross referencing, research of the law and going through reams of studies and reports the client had downloaded from the internet to ‘help’ me.

One 4am early morning, I woke up rehearsing submissions for this case which was still weeks away. It had wormed its way into my subconscious and was disrupting my sleep and ability to switch off. It had become like having to do your tax returns; something unpleasant to be endured rather than a job to be tackled to the best of your ability.

I sat down and thought about why it had assumed greater significance in my work routine than it deserved:

  • I want to do justice to all my cases and I just didn’t know when I was going to be able to find the right amount of time to do it here. Busy lawyers are time poor and with the best will in the world, this has an impact on how much of it you can spend on an individual case
  • I didn’t know the advocates in the case
  • I wasn’t too familiar with the judge
  • I didn’t like the court it was going to be at

These may seem like irrelevant issues but actually they do matter. I was going to be out of my comfort zone and that makes most of us nervous.

Is my self-doubt actually a good thing?

Knowing that I have successfully conducted far more demanding cases then this in the past didn’t seem to help. But then, even people like Barbra Streisand admit that they still get stage fright before a performance.

Was my self-doubt actually a good thing? Did it mean that I take my responsibilities seriously enough to want to do a good job?

Everything turned out fine in the end. It got me wondering how other lawyers deal with such situations.

I tweeted a request for tips and advice. The response was incredible. Here is a sample of the replies:

Everyone recognised the type of case I meant

Barrister Sarah Jones

"Such cases, like Larkin’s toad, squat on your desk and brood. They’re never as bad as your fear once you get into them. I make lists, separating things out into digestible chunks I can tick off as I go."

Solicitor Ursula Rice of Family Firstly

"These cases are really easy to let become 'fish files' – the longer you leave it, the more it stinks. Tackle hard and early."

The right mindset is important

Gerard McDermott QC

"Sometimes it’s really just the prospect rather than the reality of these cases. Allowing plenty of prep time for difficult cases is important. And also remembering that the evidence is what it is...we just have to do our best with it."

Barrister Louise McCullough

"These cases are shadows in a darkened room. It’s always better in daylight. Sleep helps."

Barrister Helen Nettleship

"I think the most stressful cases are not because the law and the facts don’t coincide with the case you are instructed to run; but the personalities on the case. Focus on the ball; not the players."

Therapist Lesley Edelstein

"Don’t give the challenge a centre stage position in your mind, it will become consuming. Good luck."

Solicitor Andrew Morgan

"The trick is to replace disabling amorphous panicky fear with a short list of clearly defined yes/no options."

Retired barrister Lee Moore @TheHealaw

"Identify any fears and the beliefs creating them then release them. Sometimes cases mirror on healed personal traumas, if so, heal them."

Practical tips

Solicitor Lauren Bullock of Chadwick Lawrence LLP

"My colleague and I used to review each other’s fish files and carry out the next steps for each other. They were never as bad/complicated/time-consuming as we thought and we both felt so much better once they were done. A fresh pair of eyes always helped."

Barrister Jamie Hill

"Tackle it early. The worst thing about the Sword of Damocles is not its sharpness but the length of time it is suspended above you.

  • Talk to someone else. They will have experience something similar and have lots of tips
  • Let the brief breathe. On my more complex cases, points come to me whilst gardening, in the shower, et cetera. Give yourself that subconscious thinking time"

Solicitor Sonya

"I get everything out of my head onto paper, break down tasks into chunks of time and allocate diary space to them to ensure they get done. It becomes less daunting with each task ticked off and allows the work to flow."

Manisha H

"Make a to-do list weeks in advance. Get it out of your head and down on paper/virtual paper. You’ll feel more in control and organised. Then tackle the list and try and stay ahead of the game. Don’t procrastinate or avoid the tasks you dread."

Barrister Nici Gelder

"Your anticipation and anxiety is often way out of kilter to the energy the case needs. So hit it early and diarise steps to get the tasks done."

Barrister Rina Hill

"Open the brief. Read the papers. Prepare an outline of your closing submissions as soon as possible. This way whenever you think of the case you’ll know your direction of travel."

Solicitor Richard Biggs

"I set aside a morning in my diary, always the first job of the day and everything else takes second place to that slot. It’s immovable, so I force myself to tackle it head on. If I decide I’ll leave it until 'later' I find later becomes tomorrow..."

John Tughan QC

"Exercise and general health around the job, so important. The de-stress/rage control makes you better at the job too."

Bar Stirer

"Prep time: lots

Thinking time: enough to try to contain/make sense.

Exercise to vent, release tension/stress/sadness/hopelessness. Music and fresh air also assist.

There is no crime scene cleaner for the mind, only acceptance of the situation to bring some little peace."

Barrister Ceri White

"Conscious lots of people are saying 'prep lots' but you have to be careful not to spend too long on these awful cases because of the worry. I call a lawyer friend and they remind me I can’t do anything about either the client, judge or opponents being difficult."

Barrister Steven Galliver-Andrew

"I try to prep heavy cases early (minimises the 'what ifs' that keep you awake). I stay tight on what I can influence, but accept there's a lot I can't change. Getting better at not letting this worry me. But not there yet!"

Nici Gelder

"Hit it early. Start looking at it and do bits weeks before you would usually and diarise steps to get the task done. Your anticipation and anxiety is often way out of kilter to the energy the case should need. You’ll feel control and ownership, and your anxiety will reduce."

Real tip

Barrister Rachel Chan

"Bury your head in your duvet, then cry some. Only kidding... Spider diagrams. Making a note whenever something pops into your head. Before you know it, most of the prep has been done and you can focus on ordering everything in a logical order."

Drinking tip

Barrister Rachel Law

"I keep a mini bottle of prosecco in the fridge for every piece of work I'm really, really dreading, with the case name written on the label in Sharpie. When it's finished I take 30 mins to reflect and celebrate getting through something I never thought I would."

I wish you the best of luck with your cases.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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