Are you well?

The life of the self-employed barrister; the background to, and results of, the recent Bar Council “Wellbeing Survey”; what was revealed; and the action now needed.

No-one has ever suggested that life at the Bar is easy. 

No barrister, coming into the profession, takes the view that it is a piece of cake or, if they do, they are rapidly disabused of that notion. If you are at the self-employed Bar not only have you all the stresses of performing day in and day out in the public arena, you also have, in effect, to run a small business. You have to ensure that you comply with income tax deadlines as well as prepare and submit VAT returns. Fees are paid at irregular intervals, and sometimes well after the conclusion of a case. Yet it is your duty to ensure that you run a tight ship financially. This is time consuming and is frequently a source of stress. Then there are all the problems of marketing your abilities. And all this has to be done before you have even untied the pink ribbon in order to start working as an advocate.

It is a significant feature of a barrister’s work that it tends to be performed in public with no hiding place if things are not going well. Many criminal clients are able to give coherent instructions in a rational way. But a significant minority have sociopathic tendencies or personality problems making them very difficult to represent adequately. Those tendencies may only be revealed in the privacy of the conference room. No-one, least of all the judge, will know how difficult it has been to gain proper instructions.

Even the most even tempered judge can have his or her off days as a result of personal or professional pressures. Rebukes to members of the Bar can be administered and they take place in the full glare of publicity. Not all the adverse comments of judges are either well founded or appropriate.

The Bar has an ethos that “the show must go on.” Instead of being off sick for a week, the barrister will struggle to court and represent the client. The consequences are often that maladies go on for longer than they otherwise would. The person doing their best to keep the show on the road feels progressively more and more tired and there is no let-up in the workload within which to recover.

And finally, the barrister is there on their own. There are no assistants racking up the fees for the firm whilst the senior partner is on the golf course. If you are not in work, you receive nothing by way of remuneration.

It is with all these pressures in mind that the Bar Council conducted its wellbeing survey of the Bar. This was designed to obtain an accurate and real-time view of the pressures facing barristers and to understand how they coped with them and what could be done to alleviate those pressures.

The survey results

In many ways, the results are unsurprising. Certain stresses and pressures are a necessary part of producing a good performance. It is just like a car engine. If you need to produce the best performance, you have to put the rev counter into the red zone. But it can only stay there for a short time otherwise the engine is irreparably damaged. It is all about coping, or being helped to cope, so that, when the tell-tale signs of life in the red zone are there, the needle can be brought back into the black.

The full results of the survey can be found here.

The results show that a substantial number of respondents had difficulties in controlling worry and were highly self-critical. More than half had insufficient sleep and a large percentage were unable to take sufficient breaks from work.

Two-thirds considered that showing the signs of stress at work indicated weakness and just under half reported that their work pressures measured 8/10 or more. The same proportion took the view that genuine mistakes were rarely seen as a learning opportunity.

This is the first survey of its kind that has been conducted anywhere in the world and thus no baseline from which to judge trends. It is therefore not possible to say, scientifically, that poor fee rates at the publicly-funded Bar are having a pernicious effect on the wellbeing of that sector of the profession. However those working at the criminal Bar reported higher work pressure and significantly greater prevalence of low mood and lower levels of life satisfaction than their peers in other areas of practice.

One of the most significant findings concerned mentoring (social support). Those that were mentored have significantly higher resilience and reported greater wellbeing than those that were not. Over the next few weeks the Bar Council will be pulling together a working group of representatives from the Inns, Circuits and SBAs to agree and implement a wellbeing strategy across the Bar. This is likely to include identifying existing good practice at a chambers level, extending mentoring opportunities and working with partners like LawCare. This is an agenda we cannot ignore. We need fully to assimilate these results and work hard to find effective ways of alleviating the destructive effects of stress and worry. It is not just something that happens to other people. We are all at risk. Please give this initiative your full support. One day, you may be glad of it.

Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar

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