Barristers are well trained in ways of undermining the credibility of those who hold themselves out as experts. When cross-examining, we are adept at challenging an expert’s training, qualifications or experience. If we show that their work falls short of the standards of their regulating body, we know that their reputation, and their credibility, can lie in tatters. Exposing the shortcomings of others is one of our great strengths.

But how would we fare if placed on the receiving end of such a challenge; if others called our own professional training and standards into question?

Imagine a world where…

Pause for a moment and consider this: Imagine a world where your regulatory body required you to display not just sound legal knowledge, but good competency in the practice of certain skills.  

A world where your regulatory body requires you to have good communication skills, including non-verbal communication, the ability to adapt when communicating with people from different backgrounds, the employment of listening techniques, and an understanding of other mediums of communication. A world where you are required to understand and apply the principles of team working, to know when and how to offer assistance in a team, to comprehend how your behaviour could affect those within and outside the team, and to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses as a team member. A world where you are required to know how to demonstrate empathy with others and how to act accordingly. And imagine you are required to assess and make good any skills shortfall, throughout your professional life.

Now ask yourself: what training have you had in any of these skills? And how well practised are you in them? For example:

  • What methods and techniques do you employ to support team relationships? 
  • What exercises have you done to examine your role in team dynamics? 
  • What training have you had in non-verbal communication? 
  • What work have you undertaken to deepen your capacity for empathy? 
  • What measures have you in place to assess and update your practical skills, as opposed to your legal knowledge?  

For most barristers, the answer to these questions probably lies in a range between ‘none’ and ‘almost none’. 

And now the reality…

Enough of imagining. All the skills listed above, and many others, are expressly set out within the Bar Standards Board (BSB)’s Professional Statement for Barristers. According to the BSB, this document ‘describes the essential knowledge, skills and attributes that they [ie practising barristers] should expect of themselves and their peers’. The obligation is on each of us to be ‘self-aware and self-directed’ and ‘take responsibility for planning and undertaking personal development’. Failure to do so could have dire consequences. The Professional Statement ‘may be used as an evidential point of reference when a breach of the requirement for competent practice set out in the Code of Conduct has been raised as a matter of complaint’. 

This is not an imaginary world.  

Quite apart from professional obligation, there are other reasons to engage in skills training. Modern, updated practical skills empower us to become better at what we do. They provide resources that grow with us as our practice and experience grow. They support our wellbeing.  

Contrast the current way of doing things. Pupils and qualified barristers learn most of their skills through a traditional process of observation and osmosis by exposure to the professional habits of others, together with learning ‘on the job’. This is haphazard, unnecessarily slow, and lacking transparency and accountability. It involves little active teaching, learning, or practice. It gives little chance for barristers to spend time in the learning zone where they can practice and make mistakes – a necessary part of mastering any skill. 

New skills training for the Bar 

We think it is time for a change.  

We consider that skills training based around four core competencies can provide the Bar with the skills it needs to support its professional obligations, enhance its client service and increase its wellbeing. The four competencies are self-awareness, relationships with others, communication skills and problem-solving. Together, these areas embrace the skills in the BSB’s Professional Statement for Barristers. From our experience coaching barristers, these are also the areas where individuals need support to move from the limits of stressful under-performance, to the wider possibilities of a well-resourced, sustainable practice. 

All of these competencies can be taught, learned, practised and applied in legal work using tried and tested tools and exercises.

What does each involve?

1: Self-awareness

Every barrister will remember times when they felt they were losing control. We all know clients, witnesses, opponents, judges and even colleagues who seem to get to us in some way. Just the anticipation can be triggering. These are natural reactions to have from time to time. If left unmanaged and unattended to, they can disarm us so that we become unskilled. We may struggle to prepare, or lose our composure when on our feet. This leaves our client vulnerable and hands an advantage to our opponent. The personal toll can mount up. 

Imagine developing an awareness of your behaviours and processes and how they impact your work and wellbeing, and then learning techniques to manage and empower yourself. Skills that enable you to understand different parts of yourself so that you can avoid the self-saboteur. Learning that allows you to invoke a secure self: to manage stress, resource yourself from within, manage your triggers and reactive behaviour. Discover your blind spots, acquire an understanding of what best supports you in your working relationships, so you become comfortable with setting boundaries, delegating, and conflict resolution. Learn to address behavioural traits commonly found amongst lawyers: perfectionism, imposter syndrome and self-esteem issues.  

A competency of self-awareness would empower barristers with the skills they need for self-management and self-regulation. 

2: Communication skills 

Oral and written advocacy are taught at both bar school and the Inns. Yet there is more to speaking than the words we say, and more to writing than what we write. 

What training is given to resource barristers to be effective communicators, so that they can bring to their communication the energy, attitudes and attributes needed to engage effectively with a particular witness or a particular judge? What if barristers were trained and practised in active listening, rapport building, non-verbal communication, harnessing the use of hidden language patterns, metaphor and storytelling? What if you were taught communication techniques to diffuse toxic or aggressive communication so that you could move past conflict into a more resourceful place. Imagine the strength this could add to your practice.   

Communication skills training would resource barristers with the skills needed to support the successful delivery of their advocacy.

3: Relationships with others

Lawyering is all about relationships. For barristers, the two relationship dynamics commonly in play are collaboration and conflict. There are others.  

Team working engages in collaboration for an aligned purpose. It requires an awareness of how complex relationship systems work, an appreciation of the seen and the unseen, and how to unearth what is hidden. Hierarchical dynamics can require particular self-awareness from barristers, an awareness of when to step up and lead, and when to fade and leave space for others.  

Each time you step into court, you hold several relationships – with your client, solicitor, court staff, judge, even your personal relationship with your role as a barrister. You also stand in relationship with the wider system, of which you are a part. When you stand before a witness and prepare to cross-examine them, you stand in relationship with them. How you enter that relationship, how you hold it, what you bring and what you acknowledge in the other will influence the outcome of your advocacy.  

Astonishingly, barristers receive no training in relationships. The competency of relationships with others would train barristers to engage in relationships in a purposeful, empowering way so that they can leverage their relationships towards their clients’ goals.

4: Problem-solving

Barristers are paid to solve problems. Yet beyond the confines of legal reasoning, they are not trained problem solvers. The skill of problem-solving would address this obvious shortcoming.

There is a range of skills that can be learnt to find solutions to problems. These draw on creativity, the subconscious, intuition and phenomenology. They utilise mindsets that are open to broader possibilities than logical reasoning can provide, that move beyond the confines created by the pressure to be ‘right’ rather than ‘wrong’. When working in teams, problem-solving has an added dimension; team culture will influence the readiness of teams to engage in the risk-taking that creative problem-solving often involves.

A vision for the future, starting now

Our challenge at the Bar is to embrace a new culture where skills training is valued as much as knowledge. Where skills in self-awareness, communication, relationships and problem-solving are actively taught, learnt and practised. Where the training empowers barristers to call upon the resources they need whenever they need them. A profession where well-resourced barristers enjoy what they do and take pleasure from it, and where clients receive an excellent service from professionals whose skills are matched to the task in hand. Your clients deserve this. So do you.