In order to perform at your best you must feel at your best; and to feel at your best you must invest in your wellbeing and personal development. Personal work on your wellbeing will enhance your professional performance, and beyond that, it is certain to enhance your enjoyment of life.

But why is change often so challenging? How can you go about making changes to support your wellbeing and professional performance? What kinds of steps work? In this article we discuss these issues and provide some guidance.

Why many fear change

It is common to hear barristers say that the work practices and stresses commonly experienced at the Bar are inevitable. It is part of ‘Life at the Bar’, they say, as though work and life were one and the same, and as if by entering the profession their life choices were no longer in their hands. Underlying this belief is a hidden loyalty to established rules and customs of the profession, and a fear of the consequences of being seen to question or even break these rules. It is helpful to understand this, because it explains why many resist or struggle to even conceive of initiating change.

Rules of belonging

Every tribe has its rules of belonging, the rules which determine whether you feel part of the tribe, or risk exclusion from it. The Bar – the tribe of barristers – is a case in hand. The profession is steeped in rules and practices which must be rigorously followed to gain entry. These are reinforced by customs and rituals which imbue these rules with a timeless, seemingly unquestionable authority. If we want to join in, we must be loyal to these rules: we must follow them, and be seen to follow the customs and behaviour of the tribe. If we choose to deviate from the rules, we risk exclusion, which in turn causes deep fear.

Innovation at the Bar can sometimes come slowly. The intensely hierarchical nature of the profession (pupils, junior barristers, senior juniors, junior silks, senior silks, first instance judges, and so on), and the conservatism inherent within the legal mind (represented most clearly by the doctrine of precedent), instills a loyalty to the principle that things should be done the way that they have always been done before. The traditional system of training through pupillage, where a pupil follows and learns from a pupil supervisor who is required to be a relatively senior practitioner, is largely based on this principle. Of course, the pupil not only learns about the law and the core skills of being at the Bar; she or he also learns about the work practices apparently expected if they are to become successful members of the profession.

So whilst instilling a loyalty to rules is a necessary part of survival for any group, it can also stifle change, particularly if the change sought is seen as being in conflict with other rules of the tribe.

Making changes to work practices at the Bar in order to support much needed wellbeing practices exemplifies this. There are many rules and customs around work that barristers are taught or learn by observation, which come with the message that ‘This is what barristers do, so if you want to be a real barrister, this is what you must do.’

Here are some which you may recognise:

  • You must be perfect and never make mistakes (real barristers are so clever and thorough that they never make mistakes).
  • You must be prepared to take on work at the last minute (real barristers can get on top of a brief at short notice and have an endless supply of midnight oil for burning).
  • You must never turn away any work if you want to be successful (real barristers do not turn work away because it benefits their competitors and loses clients, and anyway, hay must be made while the sun shines because the drought may be just around the corner).
  • Junior barristers must be prepared to compromise their schedule at the request of more senior colleagues, particularly silks (the silks had to do it when they were juniors, so this is just the way it is).
  • You must work evenings and weekends (real barristers put their work before their friends and family, who know they must take second place; this rule also supports some of the other rules).

This is a non-exhaustive list. You may be able to think of others rules that apply to you or in your chambers. You may disagree with some of them. But it is hard to deny their presence, to varying extents, in the lives of members of the profession.

"By thinking of wellbeing as a verb, it becomes something you do, it is dependent upon actions that you take, and these are your own responsibility – are you being well?"

So when you try and initiate change, do not be surprised to feel some internal conflict. The guilt associated with breaking free sets up a powerful form of resistance, that requires strength of character and commitment to overcome. If you feel that there is something holding you back then seek the support of colleagues who have already started the process themselves – by their example you will know that you can work sustainably and comfortably and still be a barrister. Their example will reduce the sense of fear at challenging established norms of behavior. There may be other loyalties at play, such as loyalties to your family (my mother worked all hours, so I must work all hours). A coach or skilled therapist can help you identify what is holding you back, and establish what solutions will work for you.

There are a number of techniques and exercises that can support a change in mind-set and a shift to a different pattern of behaviour. However, in our experience the starting point requires a genuine acknowledgement and understanding of your current position before successful, generative change can be realised.

Take personal responsibility and be active about your wellbeing

A key step in bringing about change is to take responsibility for yourself. This requires a shift in mindset. Start to see yourself as the master of your life, rather than the victim of circumstances.

Playing the role of victim is easy. It is convenient to blame our own unhappiness on external circumstances, as though they compel us to act in a certain way. Hence people are heard to say ‘I can’t really take a rest until my trial finishes’ or, ‘Once I get over this busy period I’ll be able to sort myself out,’ or ‘I need to cancel tonight darling, I have to work–you know how it is.’

If you are serious about working better, take ownership and accountability for your decision, imagine it is an agreeable and binding contract with yourself. No one else can nor should they do this for you. Do not fall into the trap of making change dependent on some future event: the horizon moves away just as quickly as you move towards it. Understand that everything you do is ultimately a matter of personal choice, and for as long as you blame your situation on your circumstances, you are abdicating responsibility for yourself.

One thing that can help is to think of wellbeing as a verb, rather than a noun – not wellbeing, but being well. Wellbeing should not be a noun at all. You cannot go to the Pegasus Bar and ask for a bottle of champagne and a packet of well-being. You cannot buy it off the shelf or hold it in your hand. It is not a pill that you can swallow to make yourself feel better.

By thinking of wellbeing as a verb, it becomes something you do, it is dependent upon actions that you take, and these are your own responsibility – are you being well?

One step at a time

Change can seem daunting, particularly for those most in need of it. Instead of focusing on how far there is to go, take some simple actions to get the process underway. Every journey starts with a first step. Our next article will offer practical guidance on the first steps that you can take.

Contributors James Pereira QC and Zita Tulyahikayo