31 October is a date that always brings back memories of money and exhaustion. Back when we had a points-based CPD system, it was the last day of the CPD year and I would be pushing myself through the final stretch of a full two-month tour of the country, providing courses for family lawyers. The nearer to the date we got, the bigger the audiences and the more delegates who had zero interest in the actual topic and every interest in being able to prove they had enough CPD points by the deadline. Very profitable for me, but not exactly beneficial for the delegates.

The move to requiring established barristers to plan their own CPD and widen the type of material that counts must be a good thing. With my coaching hat on, the part of the regulations that requires lawyers to reflect on their learning is the key thing. However, the guidelines do not provide any models for reflective practice and seem to suggest that reflection is limited to considering the learning activity, its implementation and what the next activity is. I would say, rather, that engaging regularly in the process of reflection is in itself a form of important professional development.

A suggested model for reflective practice

The Bar Standards Board guidelines specifically decline to provide a model for reflective practice but there are several to choose from. One of the best and most widely used is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle. This is an iterative process of learning not from external resources but from your own experiences. Actions are built in, so using the model can cause you to seek any necessary information or teaching to enable you to improve your practice. However, the learning brought about by reflective practice is deeply personal and extends beyond what you do as a lawyer to who you want to be as a barrister.

It is a cyclical process of questions starting with a chosen experience which could be something like a particular hearing or an interaction with an individual. Or you can reflect on a pattern of linked experiences such as how you keep avoiding a conversation with your head of chambers or how you are constantly irritated with your clerk. The questions are as follows:

1: Description

What happened? Consider the actual facts. What was the context? What was the role of others? What ‘system’ were you in at the time? Try to use all your senses to recall the exact situation. Try to be like the Dragnet character Joe Friday here and seek ‘just the facts, ma’am’ without adding your interpretation.

2: Feelings

What were you thinking and feeling at the time? What about now? Our thoughts produce our feelings so can you drill down and think about the underlying mindsets you may hold that caused your feelings about this situation? Feelings are also closely linked to where our needs are being met (or not!) Can you identify which of your needs were being met or not in this situation? There is a list of needs and linked feelings at www.helenconway.com/emotion-words to help you do this.

3: Evaluation

What was good and bad about the experience? Why? How much of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is the way you interpreted the facts, the mood you were in, the ‘baggage’ you brought to the situation? How surprised are you about what was good or bad? If you look at the facts from a different angle do your answers change?

4: Analysis

What sense can you make of the situation? When I use this model with clients this is where the magic often starts to happen especially in group supervision sessions where dialogue can take place between participants. At this stage we are looking for our learnings about ourselves, our thoughts, how we make connections between this event and other events, enabling us to spot patterns. You may find the event on which you reflect brings up vulnerabilities or enables you to celebrate the end of a long path. It might confirm to you that you want to change paths slightly or it might be evidence that you are in exactly the right place. Anything can come out here!

5: Conclusion

What could you have done differently? Try then to anticipate how if you had altered the event what might that do to your answers to questions 2-4. Here we are widening our experience using our imagination and learning from what didn’t happen as well as what did. Think about why you acted as you did and not as per one of these new alternatives.

6: Action plan

Questions 1-5 should elicit a great deal of self-understanding but now we need to have that inform our behaviours. What will you try next time you are in this situation? What changes do you want to make elsewhere in your life as a result of your new understanding?

Then when you have the opportunity to reflect on that action, you start again:

7: Description

What happened when you were in that situation again? (Repeat the reflection for the new event.)

The fascinating thing about reflective practice is that every individual will have a different set of answers. I recently did some formal advocacy training for pupils involving a mock trial and then finished up taking the group through this model. Each pupil had a different factual experience because their role in the study, the time they had to prepare and what was going on around them was different. Two pupils had similar facts but one was panicked and one felt deflated just before the hearing. They had set different goals for their performance so what was good/bad was an individual assessment.

Yet when we got to analysis they had a rich and powerful discussion between themselves about shared themes such as anxiety, the relevance of goals and how tightly to hold them and how they could build their practices without ceasing to be their true selves. The joy of reflective practice as a form of CPD is that they were able to process unpleasant emotions and also to find actions that will impact not only the next court case they do but a much wider part of how they live their lives. 

Add a twist to your reflective practice:
  • Get a friend to ask you the questions and to follow up on your answers with more curious question of their own. Often, they will hear something revealing in your answers that you miss.
  • Try drawing your responses. Either literal representations (cartoons with stick figures are fine) or an intuitive choice of shapes or colours can help you express what is hard to put into the right words. No one else needs to see your art; it’s just for you to understand yourself.
  • Try writing the reflective question with your dominant hand but the answers with your non-dominant hand. This facilitates you bypassing the more analytical ‘left brain’ which can sometimes limit our reflection and allows you to access the more creative part of your brain.