What is ‘Kindness at the Bar’? It’s a question we have been asked since we launched this project. You know what kindness is when you see it, at the Bar or anywhere else – its effect is positive and life-affirming and it makes the working day better.

The drive for this project

Valerie Charbit invited Professor Robin Banerjee to look at how the Bar could spread kindness in its workplaces. He brings a wealth of understanding on this topic having carried out the world’s largest ever public science project investigating the topic of kindness in conjunction with the BBC.

Robin first presented his research to the Bar in November 2021 at an event hosted and supported by Middle Temple, the Leaders of the South Eastern Circuit and the Criminal Bar Association, the Senior Presider, and the Bar Council’s working party group for Wellbeing at the Bar (WATB). Since then, the project has been sponsored by WATB.

That talk resulted in two focus groups, organised and run by Valerie and Robin, in June and July 2022 to consider how Kindness at the Bar could be progressed. More than 20 barristers were involved, representing a diverse selection of silks and juniors, drawn from different geographical areas and specialties. Together, they explored a range of questions concerning barristers’ experience of kindness and its impacts, as well as the barriers to kindness in the profession. Robin then undertook an analysis of the results with his researchers.

Research shows that kinder workplaces create a more positive environment for productive work. They foster a more diverse and harmonious workforce where the stresses and strains of the job are mitigated by kind and supportive relationships. This is not a new idea:

‘Practising kindness by giving compliments and recognition has the power to transform our remote workplace… In workplaces where acts of kindness become the norm, the spillover effects can multiply fast… Higher rates of these behaviours were predictive of productivity, efficiency, and lower turnover rates.’ ( Harvard Business Review 7 May 2021)

Three overarching themes were apparent from the focus groups and Robin’s analysis:

  1. Explicit and implicit rules of conduct at the Bar.
  2. Workplace contexts and conditions.
  3. Individual differences in levels of kindness.

Together, they demonstrate that Kindness at the Bar is complex and nuanced, influenced by a wide range of factors. Importantly, whereas many barristers may instinctively start with the last of these themes, simply describing who is kind and who is unkind, attention to all three themes is essential in order to understand and promote kindness at the Bar.

Explicit and implicit rules of conduct

It was very clear from both focus groups that there is a heritage of kindness in which the Bar has long since involved itself and which is relied upon by government, wider society and the profession in resolving problems. This will come as no surprise to those who work on various committees in chambers or Specialist Bar Associations, Circuits or under the Bar Council, nor to those who do pro bono work and assist the Bar with responding to vast swathes of materials in respect of legislative change. However, such positive conduct at the Bar is often taken for granted, whereas it should be acknowledged, applauded, and built upon.

In fact, Robin and his team identified a wide range of explicit and implicit rules of conduct through the contributions of barristers in the focus groups. The former refer to clearly stated roles, regulations and expectations that dictate the behaviour of those working at the Bar. In contrast, the latter refer principally to the beliefs, often unspoken but nonetheless deeply held, that are developed by barristers throughout their career concerning the manner in which a professional barrister ought to behave.

Barristers voiced examples of how changes in the explicit regulations or chambers’ codes of conduct have changed how they behave in their workplaces. For example, one barrister commented on the impact of changes to the rules of court on interactions between judges and barristers. Indeed, setting out further workplace ethics in writing could potentially expunge some unkind behaviours and allow others successfully to challenge them (see, for example, the Family Law Bar Association Respectful Working Policy and the BSB commitment to wellbeing).

But especially striking were rules of conduct that were unspoken and yet deeply impactful. In some cases, these appeared to be learned from pupil supervisors and leading barristers, ie from those in positions of responsibility. In other cases, these unspoken rules were picked up from clients, opposing barristers in court, judges and others. Some barristers gave examples of unspoken rules of aggression:

‘You inherit traits from your pupil supervisor and from those you’re seeing in court, and if those people are aggressive macho bullies, then you think… to win this case I need to do that.’

‘I don’t recall anyone ever saying to me, you need to be more or less aggressive… I think it’s an osmotic process.’

Others gave examples of how these internal models can be adjusted to promote kinder conduct. Although the Bar is an adversarial profession in court, there is an opportunity for the Bar collectively to show that despite having opposing positions, kindness between advocates can still exist without diminishing the strength of an argument and without reducing the prospect of success:

‘I think about culture change and seeing the way people do things, and realising that is how you can do things; you can do this job and be kind.’

Indeed, barristers reflected that the many acts of kindness modelled by members of the Bar in the workplace could be brought to our collective attention and celebrated, ensuring that such behaviour becomes the norm.

Workplace contexts and conditions

Chambers, courts and other institutions where barristers collectively meet are identifiable, and important in promoting kindness. The Circuits and Specialist Bar Associations have made huge efforts to promote cohesion and good working relationships. Yet the features of the workplace context and conditions of work at the Bar are often overlooked when considering kindness.

Barristers noted that the resources to which they have access in the workplace play a role in levels of kindness. It was clear that many worked in physical workspaces of a poorer quality, including those that are run down or which have limited facilities, and barristers found that this in turn negatively impacted upon their relations with one another, even forcing individuals sometimes to compete with one another for access to suitable work environments:

‘You’re fighting to get that conference room that’s open. You’re fighting to get the new room that doesn’t have a bucket with a leak from the ceiling.’

Staffing resource was noted as relevant too. Courts with staff who actively assist the Bar in access to the courtroom or conference rooms, and who have taken into account counsel’s availability when listing cases, were seen as kinder places to work. And whereas there was once the possibility of a pastoral role being taken at the Central Criminal Court by a registered nurse (matron) there is now no one assigned to ensure that those who work at court are ‘looked after’. This perhaps raises the question as to whether HMCTS are willing to take on this role.

Many also described how the features of specific workplace made a difference to the aforementioned rules of conduct that might be picked up:

‘I’m on the XXX Circuit… and there’s a lot of camaraderie. Everybody sort of knows each other, and I think that really helps with the kindness issues.’

‘I’ve seen a little bit of tribal attitude… where you look after your own within chambers, but once you’re outside of chambers different standards of behaviour apply.’

Another point raised in the focus groups is the medium of communication for barristers and how that impacts kindness in the workplace, with many barristers referring to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in having changed patterns of interaction, with all the challenges of remote communication:

‘[Being kind] is less easy to do when people are more often working remotely because [when in person] there is a culture of leaving the door open and being able to just poke your head around the corner and ask people for five minutes of their time, and you can usually see whether it’s a good time or a bad time.’

‘You put things in an email where you don’t pick up the consequences which you possibly wouldn’t put if you were face to face.’

On the other hand, a face-to-face court hearing might require the barrister to travel for four hours when the same hearing could take place remotely without any injustice, and this in turn also dilutes the spirit of kindness in the workplace.

Striking the right balance, with an explicit emphasis on kindness, is a key priority. Perhaps the Bar needs to focus on how its members communicate with one another so that kindness filters into all modes of communication for barristers.

Individual differences in levels of kindness

This theme seemed to be the most obvious starting point for discussions of kindness at work – which of the many people that you encounter at work are the kind ones, and who are the aggressive bullies? Barristers in the focus groups were readily able to discuss individuals who seemed to them to embody kindness or unkindness.

This was not surprising to Robin, given longstanding psychological research showing that we tend to attribute other people’s behaviour to dispositional rather than situational influences –whereas we often attribute our own behaviour to external causes!

Through discussion at the focus groups, barristers illuminated a range of factors that give rise to making some people kinder than others. These included references to natural temperament and social skills/understanding (such as empathy), but there were numerous references to aspects of the job that might lead a given person to display, and to experience, different levels of kindness.

These might include characteristics such as one’s own level of authority or seniority, and the stresses associated with a particular role:

‘Having the power now being more senior, it’s much easier for me to be kind.’

‘Sometimes they don’t mean to be unkind. I just think that’s just the natural reaction if people are really pushed and stretched with what they’re doing day to day.’

There are likely to be wider structural factors at play here. Barristers also noted that demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background all had a part to play in how kind barristers were, and how much kindness they experienced from others. Interestingly, many also felt that particular relationships they had with others in their workplace helped them to experience greater kindness, raising the question of how those who are feeling more isolated can be supported.

Next steps

The report on the results of this work has now been delivered. It concludes that achieving culture change to promote kindness at the Bar cannot be reduced simply to creating a new policy, charter, or guidance document relating to barristers’ behaviour. A critical issue is how the emerging insights can feed into a transformation of the Bar environment as a whole, including resources and support for barristers’ professional development – in terms of both early career and senior leadership – and their workplaces. Further research and co-production with more barristers and a wider group of stakeholders will be needed in order to generate a clear direction for future activities and identify strategies to achieve meaningful change.

Kindness at the Bar, embraced from the top down and the bottom up, and actively promoted by all parts of the profession, should be a good news story for the Bar this year.