Constellations and the Fate of the Legal System
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC
By Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC
Zita FRSA is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, ICF accredited Systemic Coach, Systemic Constellations Facilitator, and NLP Master Practitioner, with over 15 years in practice in Los Angeles, Stockholm, and London.
As someone with multiple ancestral belonging to East Africa, the Caribbean, British and Jewish, Zita has refined the art of building cross-cultural bridges related to the transgenerational trauma of slavery, racism, and colonisation. Zita’s unique approach, which she calls Life Therapy, draws upon all her experience, skills, and training to create the space for her clients and the systems to which they belong, to overcome seemingly intractable issues and realise their optimal potential and performance. In addition to coaching individuals, couples and organisations, Zita also co-writes a regular column on wellbeing for The Lawyer Magazine entitled “Loving Legal Life” and a series of articles in the Bar’s journal, Counsel Magazine.
James is an ICF certified coach, constellations facilitator, NLP master practitioner and practising barrister. He runs regular constellation workshops in the beautiful surroundings of the Inner Temple, London. He is qualified in Organisation, Relationships and Systems Coaching (‘ORSC’), and obtained his NLP Master Practitioner’s certification in 2017 (training with Dr Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP). He has also undertaken training in mindfulness, meditation and trauma therapy which he integrates into his coaching practice. James divides his time between 1:1 and organisational coaching, constellation facilitating, training lawyers and legal practice.
Together Zita and James write and see the publication of articles as integral to the systemic approach. By spreading awareness about the challenges in the profession, we invite change at the wider system level, and sow the seeds for the more intimate work in our one to one coaching and workshops.
Constellations and the Fate of the Legal System
Our combined professional insights and experience as well as our personal journeys have led us to bring systemic constellations into the legal system. In our engagement we have come to realise that ‘The Bar of England and Wales’ is being called to evolve as its practices are incompatible with the wellbeing of its members and its culture is failing to provide an environment where younger generations of lawyers can thrive. Centuries old work practices and ethics threaten the health of the system itself and the public which it serves.
When in 2016 James gave his first talk to a packed audience in Middle Temple Hall, “Wellbeing at The Bar – How to Survive and Thrive” he challenged the assembled company to take the brave step of adopting different and more resourceful practices than their forebears. It suggested new ways of being, which James had already started living in his Bar practice. Noting the systemic loyalty to rank within the profession, which presumed that juniors should follow the example of the seniors, the talk ended with the salutary words of Bertold Ulsamer (himself a lawyer): “Children seldom or never dare to live a happier or more fulfilling life than their parents.”
The talk was a watershed moment. It revealed a hidden and unspoken truth: many at the Bar were suffering through their loyalty to age-old practices within the profession. Barristers of all ranks, including retired practitioners and judges, discretely offered their thanks and expressed joy that someone was finally speaking out. Their words were a collective sigh of relief. The holding of this event at Middle Temple Hall was significant in systemic terms. The Hall’s walls are adorned with the names and coats of arms of generations of senior members of the Bar, conferring upon the spoken word the establishment’s authority, past and present. We had a clear message: that change was needed and called for by those present. We left with a sense that the system had permitted us to initiate regeneration.
As a performative profession, the Bar deeply touches a barrister’s values of self-belief and self-esteem and what it means to be seen by others. The need to represent others, including those whose values are not shared by the barrister, can create a tension with hidden values and loyalties, potentially exacerbating the stress of an already demanding job. Constellation work offers a wealth of insight into these and other relevant territories.
There is a deep resonance between the legal system and systemic constellations in that ritual, order, loyalty, place, belonging and atonement all play a critical role. Systemic Constellation Work can reveal the hidden dynamics around the core behavioural patterns of a barrister which are around helping and conflict.
To illustrate the depth of traditions and orders that hold up the Bar the following section describes its structures and ways of working to provide an insight into how Systemic Constellation Work can help redress its imbalances and significant shortcomings.
The Bar system
The legal system is rooted in complex traditions, relationships and an enormous work-ethic. To gain a significant reputation, barristers make great sacrifices and perform at peak levels over long periods of time. It is broadly accepted that exceptional work must come at a huge personal price. Because the system values intellect and devalues feeling, there is an enormous pressure on barristers to place their work above their personal life. This leads to suppressed emotions and poor work life balance, which has an impact on barristers’ capacity to handle their cases well. Therefore, many suffer from persistent high levels of stress and often burn-out.
The evolutionary life of the individual barrister begins with being a trainee barrister, also known as pupils who are allocated “pupil supervisors”. Conventionally pupils learn their craft through observing and faithfully copying their pupil supervisor’s manner of working, much like children learning from their parents. Pupillages last for 12 months.
Full-time members of chambers, known as tenants, have a variety of ranks. A new recruit is called a “junior tenant”. Above them, anyone who has not become a King’s Counsel is known as a junior. The ranks of juniors are then
divided into “junior juniors” and “senior juniors”, according to the length of time in practice. Successful juniors of several years’ standing may apply to become a King’s Counsel, who then rank above juniors, even juniors who have been in practice for longer than the newly appointed silk (incidentally, King’s Counsel are known as “Silks” because, unlike juniors, they are allowed to wear a gown made of silk. Juniors must make do with wool). Silks are then subdivided into junior silks and senior silks. Name boards that adorn the front doors of chambers and members’ pigeonholes inside chambers are traditionally ordered by these same rankings. These orders of time and place are ingrained in every barrister’s being. Progress, status and hence continued belonging is gauged through movement up the ranks.
There is a similar hierarchy pertaining to the system’s institutions and the operation of the law itself. Take the Inns of Court, the traditional seats of barristerial education and learning. When dining at the Inn, barrister members must enter the hall first and then stand in silence as senior members of the Inn, known as Benchers, parade into the hall and take their place at the high table. It is conventional to toast the Sovereign at dinner as head of state whose Parliament makes laws and whose judges and counsel administer justice.
The laws are themselves hierarchical. The doctrine of legal precedent values decisions from higher courts above those from lower courts and tends to give greater reverence to older decisions over newer ones.
Court process is also marked with rituals of space and order. Even the places where lawyers can sit in court have hidden codes. Traditionally, there is a juniors’ row where junior barristers sit and a row behind them where the junior’s solicitors must sit. There is then a silk’s row, in front of the junior’s row, closer to the Judge, reserved for King’s Counsel only. A further row in front of the silk’s row is for the silk’s solicitor: because silks, unlike juniors, are allowed to have their solicitors sitting in front of them. The procedures of the court are, as everyone knows, highly ritualised. Standing and bowing mark the start and end of proceedings.
There are other day-to-day practices to which most at the Bar are tacitly loyal to ensure their status as a ‘proper’ barrister. They include evening and weekend working, rarely saying no to work, performing on limited sleep, a willingness to prepare complex cases at short notice, and prioritising work over social and family commitments. Standards of work are exceptionally high. There is an expectation that a ‘proper’ barrister will perform flawlessly to the standard of excellence without faltering, ever. These unspoken rules expressed in shorthand may look and sound like a sigh, a wry smile, a simple understanding of the code: “this is life at the Bar”.
Further, the wellbeing of the archetypical barrister is enmeshed with the wellbeing of the client, which makes the loss of a case a personal defeat. This has detrimental consequences on a systemic level: the barrister takes the place of a rescuer and rejects the fate of the client, which leads to even higher levels of stress, resentment and debilitating self-judgement.
Observing these orders, rituals and values supports belonging. Belonging is a foundational human need, and humans will make great sacrifices to belong. In systemic work we call this ‘loyalty’ to the system. When belonging is assured, we feel that life is safe and will flourish. When it is under threat, we fear exclusion. For this reason, barristers rarely ask for support. To admit that they are overworked or suffering from stress is to concede that they are not a ‘proper’ barrister, because a ‘proper’ barrister always has what it takes to succeed. In this way we see that there is a dark side to belonging: it serves to protect the system even at the cost of the individual. It will continue to do so, until the cost to its members is so great that the system itself is called upon to change.
The role of systemic constellations
It is on the cusp of this movement of change that we have found the place for our work. At the heart of it is the concept of accepting one’s fate and the fate of others. The idea was popularised by Friedrich Nietzsche who coined the Latin term, amor fati in 1882. However, it dates back much further. The Stoics, made accepting one’s fate a staple of their philosophy through accepting what was and was not within one’s control.
Contemporary society often fails to accept that the only thing we can control is the mindset and the judgments we apply to events, but not the events themselves. We have very little control over our fate or the fate of others. Yet we tend to exert most energy, and fight battles against events and situations that we cannot change and beyond our control.
When we coach barristers or hold workshops, we typically use spatial mapping exercises, engaging both floor maps and live representatives in many of our activities. Here are some examples of how these tools can be applied to Bar practice.
Take a barrister who finds they are exhausted after a day of legal argument before a judge. A common complaint might be, “I tried really hard, but the judge was having none of it. It was demoralising. I felt like such a failure.” Here we might set up the barrister in one place, the desired outcome in another, the judge in another. Often a barrister will associate themselves with the desired outcome, and so place themselves next to it, as though they were responsible for its fate. By asking for phenomenological feedback and insights as the barrister moves from place to place, different perspectives are gained and hidden dynamics revealed.
A common insight would be that the barrister feels the need to get the judge to “see” the desired outcome, “agree” to it and to “move” to join it.
The barrister may feel a sense of approval when the judge looks or moves, and rejection when the judge refuses to engage. We then move the places around. For example, when the barrister tries standing next to the judge, rather than opposite, both facing the desired outcome, the system often relaxes. The barrister starts to see themselves not as the judge’s opponent but as their resource, to support them towards a resolution. No longer do they stand in the way of the resolution, instead they guide the judge towards it.
If we then introduce the opponent’s desired outcome, the barrister sees that fate is not in their hands, that there are other outcomes open to the judge. And like the relationship of parent and child, the judge is “big” and the barrister is “small” – in other words, it is the judge’s role to decide the outcome of the case, not the barrister’s. In this way roles and place are restored, and the barrister can find relief from the stress of a “lost” case. And by maintaining an appropriate distance and perspective on the judge and the outcome, the barrister can better maintain their position as helper to their client.
Another example is the exploration of dynamics around cross-examination. Cross-examination in a public court in an adversarial legal system such as ours inevitably engages the barrister’s dynamics around conflict, boundaries and being “seen”. Despite appearances, many barristers find even the thought of cross-examination hugely stressful.
Let’s look at the case of a barrister who finds they lose control of “difficult” witnesses when trying to cross examine them. By setting up a representative for the barrister, the witness, and the judge, we can explore this dynamic. Phenomenological information and further inquiry reveal that the barrister uses their family patterns of conflict resolution. Statements like “I feel helpless when the witness disagrees with me” or “I start to get aggressive when I do not get my way” will trace back to family patterning. Sometimes it is not the witness but the Judge that is significant. “I am afraid that the judge will not approve of my questions” could reveal a parent-child dynamic in operation, where the agency of the barrister (as child) is tied to the need for approval of the judge (as parent). Testing this by changing the gender and age of the representatives can reveal information.
While these kinds of exercises open up the need for deeper family work, there are often simpler and more immediate movements that can be made to resource the barrister.
For example, placing one of both parents behind the barrister can disrupt the pattern of association of the judge with the parent: once the parent is behind the barrister, they cannot also be in front of them. Another technique is to introduce the barrister’s own client into the constellation. This helps engage the systemic values of service and excellence, and re-establishes the barrister’s place as a performer of a systemic role, distinct from the personal. This can help make space between professional performance and personal dynamics. Interestingly, we have found that generating phenomenological feedback is easier than we anticipated: most barristers experience some level of physical stress or anxiety around cross-examination. They know that when things go well or badly, they feel it in their body.
Another place where constellation principles provide insights and healing is in addressing patterns of persistent over-work that is rife within the profession. James’ own experience is a case in point, where his own over-work seemed both inexplicable and unresolvable.
When viewed through the constellation lens, insights and solutions presented themselves. As the son of two immigrant parents, James was loyal to a pattern of hard and long work hours. Like many immigrants, this pattern was informed by the imperative of avoiding failure, a belief that security was contingent upon irrefutable success, and a sense that true belonging depended upon obtaining sufficient social status. These are the patterns he had witnessed growing up. And like many immigrants, the thought of working less than his parents seemed like a betrayal of their sacrifice. The Bar is a good fit for someone running these patterns: although they fuelled his burn-out, they also fuelled his success. In one memorable constellation, facilitated by Bertold Ulsamer, James witnessed his parents facing each other and saying “Look! We made it!” Seeing this James realised that the struggle to succeed was his parents’ fate, not his, and that they had indeed succeeded in gifting a life of new opportunity to their children. This made space for a more sustainable way of working while also allowing the creative sides of these patterns to find expression.
Our work engages the overlapping realms of the personal, family and professional systems of barristers, the wider legal system, and the structures and values of the society which it serves. Into these realms we find that core principles of constellation work, such as fate, space, distance, orders and seeing, bring new perspectives, and with them comes relief and empowerment to the profession and its members. Despite the profession’s pomp and grandiosity, it is in these simpler, quieter truths that the tools for change are found.