All part of life at the Bar?
Chris Daw QC
Pressure, stress, overwork, burnout – all features of the professional lives of many at the Bar. Ultimately, we are all responsible for how we manage our own working lives and how we look after our physical and mental health. A stressed-out lawyer, heading for burnout, is no use to a client, to family and friends or to themselves.
Like beauty, pressure is in the eye of the beholder. Perceptions of pressure will, of course, change over the course of a career at the Bar. Looking back at my 19 years as a junior and almost seven in silk, the early pressures have
been (largely) replaced by the many different pressures felt as a leading counsel.
My top tip, though, applies from the first day of pupillage to the conduct of most serious and complex of cases in silk: manage your time!
The main reason for pressure to turn into its malign cousin, stress, is a failure to plan, prioritise, organise and carry out tasks in a rational order, efficiently and in good time.
It is vital to prioritise your workload and time yourself, even as a very junior barrister. The one thing guaranteed to increase pressure is to allow your time to be allocated, not on the basis of what is the most important task today, but
on the basis of whoever shouts loudest, makes the most demands or, perhaps the biggest danger of all, by becoming a prisoner to your email inbox (switch it off for chunks of the day).
Plan your year(s), your month, your week and your day well in advance and do not become distracted by lower priorities, which will cause you to miss important deadlines or – worst of all – to attend court unprepared.
Operate a continuous professional triage of your priorities – which change daily or even hourly – and be prepared to react to events and reorder your schedule where necessary.
The minute you start to feel too much pressure, stop! Take a breath. Check your priorities. Ask for help or guidance if you need it, including from clerks, more senior barristers or even the judge. Make a new and viable task list and
use your time wisely. Oh, and make time to do something to relax, however busy it gets.
The current situation has made us all think differently about handling pressure and good working practices. If nothing else, we have all learnt that many meetings and hearings, for which travel takes up disproportionate time and expense, could be handled
by video conferencing. If we look to avoid unnecessary travel in the future, we might just free up some extra time to take a break, do some exercise, recharge body and mind. Reducing pressure overall makes it easier to handle stressful moments when
they come along. Take care of yourselves out there and we hope you find these tips helpful.
Strategies for dealing with stress
The Bar is a pressure cooker of a profession. Whether you’re dealing with crime, companies or civil procedure, in an adversarial system, the stakes are always high and are generally public, and barristers can feel like the single person with whom
the buck stops.
Here are five of my tips for managing stress:
1. Be realistic about the work you take on. Some work will take longer than you expect, some things will crop up unexpectedly, and you will inevitably have days when you are less productive than you would like to be. Having a timetable which relies on
you operating at 100% every day is a recipe for disaster.
2. Try and structure your week in a way that works for you. If I produce a single massive ‘to do’ list then work can feel overwhelming. If I break the work down and allocate it to particular days, then it feels more manageable from the off.
3. Schedule things which are purely recreational and make sure you do them. A variant on this is making sure you recognise as ‘work’ things which are in the same vein but aren’t billable (eg extracurricular committee meetings). When
I was Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, I felt like I had been extremely unproductive if I had had a day with just a few billable hours in it – despite the fact that the same day had had eight hours of Bar Council meetings in it
4. Prioritise your sleep. I’m a big fan of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep.
5. I’m very lucky to have some brilliant friends at the Bar who are there if I ever want to vent/sanity check something/join the circus. Having good friends who are also barristers is invaluable, as they can immediately understand the very particular
issues which your work throws up and have often been through it themselves. It’s worth investing in those relationships.
My tips for dealing with uncertainties at the Bar – including COVID-19
Pressure, stress and uncertainty are always part of life at the Bar. With COVID-19, the uncertainty in particular has increased to enormous levels, and many of us are struggling with these new circumstances. Here is a mixture of advice I strive to live
by and a pep-talk:
1. Talk to your clerks and talk to them early. Good communication with them is key. This also involves saying ‘No’. Tell them your actual capacity (that you can maintain sustainably) so that they and you do not have to deal with missed deadlines
and burn-outs. It is also a good idea to estimate generously, as solicitors will be delighted if you finish early and asking for extensions is hard.
2. Talk to leaders and solicitors. Find out until when things are needed and what to prioritise. If it looks like you will not be able to finish a piece in a certain timeframe, let them know early. If working in large teams, a lot of time can be spent
on emails. That can be distracting and stressful. Try to set times in which you check emails and focus on progressing the content you work on in-between. Also make sure to take breaks, breathe and have a cup of coffee/tea now and then.
3. Sleep and exercise: the key is to find times to fit them into a routine and to not give them up during high pressure phases. I have found that exercising in the morning works better for me, as I can talk myself too easily out of gym commitments in
the afternoon/evenings. Having clear, regular commitments seems to work for some and putting them into your work diary can help adhering to them.
4. If you are ill, take time off until you are better. I thought I was showing the height of commitment when crawling into chambers during pupillage with pneumonia. I now appreciate, post pupillage-haze, that that was actually fairly stupid and irresponsible.
5. Don’t constantly read the news. I am bad at this. Consider turning off push-notifications and just get the news update in the morning and evening.
6. Try not to catastrophise. It is probably normal (I hope), after reading too much doom and gloom, to conclude that everyone you love will die, that there will never ever be any work for you again and that it is time to bunker down for the zombie apocalypse.
However, none of this is likely to be an accurate prediction. Things will be tough, but they will be fine eventually and you will get through this. If you are reading this, chances are you are a highly skilled, driven, resilient and resourceful individual.
Trust in that.
7. Focus on things you can change. Make sure you let chambers know what capacity you might have. Be a kind neighbour. If you are tech savvy, offer help to chambers or more senior members who might not be familiar with Skype, Zoom & co. Find ways to
contribute and keep busy.
8. Share your worries and stories. We are part of a community and even if you are self-isolating, please know that you are not alone. Talk about your worries with colleagues, friends, family – it is perfectly understandable to be worried in these
times and it is crucial to let people in on these thoughts. They are not weakness and you, being a barrister, are probably quite accomplished at portraying a confident façade, so please reach out and share. Now might be a good time to check
out Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability: bit.ly/3eXGUGl
9. Appreciate that you are responsible for your wellbeing and that you deserve to be well. See some sunshine and people (virtually). Do things that will keep you sane and bring a smile to your face. I have decided to take my balcony garden to a completely
new level. Wellbeing is now discussed more, but it is not some new snowflake, generation X idea. The concept of the good life also kept the Ancient Greeks up at night. Surely, living a good life in which you thrive is something that many generations
can see as a worthy goal. Mindfulness can help with that. For a great barrister introduction, have a look at Gillian Higgins’ work: www.practicalmeditation.co.uk
10. Stay inspired and amused. Some personal movie highlights include: Defending the Guilty (BBC Comedy, 2019), Pride (2014), On the Basis of Sex (2018), Just Mercy (2019).
Dealing with those distinct pupillage pressures
Pupillage is a stressful time. Everyone will experience pressure over the 12 months but there are ways to reduce the burden.
Before coming to the Bar, I worked for nine years in an entirely different profession. I learnt there are two types of pressure: the short-term pressure of a fast-approaching deadline; and the long-term pressure of where your career is going.
I was never in the Scouts, but it turns out they got at least one thing right: the key to coping with both types of pressure is preparation.
When you are thrown some papers shortly before you’re due in court, you’ll always be in a better position if you have already made a plan of the steps you need to take. One idea I stole from a colleague is to have ‘cheat sheets’
for the common types of hearing faced in your early years with all the procedural steps and legal tests. It makes those last-minute rushes to court far less panicked.
This also works for the long-term pressure. If you have planned for all the possibilities – for example (whisper it) not getting tenancy, or you or your chambers struggling financially because of coronavirus – and worked out what to do in
each scenario then, when one of them occurs, you’ll be much calmer. You don’t want to be worrying all the time but if you put aside a small amount of time each week to get things in order it will make a big difference. Good first steps
are saving a bit of money and keeping a regular eye on which chambers might be recruiting for a third-six.
With this approach you’ll be able to think more clearly under pressure and prioritise what needs to be done, hopefully avoiding that heart-stopping moment where you have no idea what to do.
Recognising the difference between stress and pressure: Stress and pressure are two different things. We need pressure to enable us to function and perform well. When demands are high and possibly unreasonable we may not feel we can adequately respond
to these expectations. We may feel out of control and overwhelmed. This is when we tend to experience stress responses. This may happen over a long period of time or in short bursts. Excessive levels of stress have been shown to lead to burnout, a
state of complete mental and physical exhaustion. Source: www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk
For more information see: www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/problems/stress-barristers
Self-employed barristers, and members of the IBC or LPMA can ring the confidential helpline on: 0800 169 2040.