Our wellbeing stock

Wellbeing at the Bar Leaders report on a year past and present – plus news of the 2020 survey to take stock of six years’ wellbeing progress

Nick Peacock, Chair of Wellbeing at the Bar 2019

For me, it all goes back to the Wellbeing at the Bar (WATB) survey in 2014. Every time I meet a barrister at court, in a settlement meeting, or at an event, and convince myself that said barrister is cleverer than me, has a far more glamorous practice than me and earns far more than me, I remember the survey.

Whatever front we put on it – and if you don’t think you put on a front, just ask yourself how often this year you have said ‘fine’ when someone has asked you how work is going in order to avoid telling them how things really are – we’re not always pushing forward the boundaries of innovative law in the Supreme Court for deserving or affluent clients in between cocktails and holidays in the sun. The results of the survey are a reminder, a reassurance if you like, that it’s common amongst barristers to worry in an unhealthy way, to allow the perfectionism which our clients rely on to seep into our home lives, to lose sleep over work.

The Bar Council WATB Working Group was created to try and do three things: to raise awareness of the wellbeing issues facing barristers, to reduce the stigma associated with talking about adverse wellbeing and to provide information about wellbeing issues. I started 2019 as Chair of the Working Group with an eye on all three of these, hoping to harness the energy and enthusiasm unleashed by the results of the survey.

I think more barristers have looked at our website – www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk – at the end of this year than had at the start. Frequently I have cravenly piggy-backed the tweets of barristers with copious followers to insert links to our website. My thanks, in particular, to @CivilLitTweet during this year for uncomplainingly acceding to my requests to link back to the WATB website in his wellbeing-related litigation threads.

As often as not, though, I have been able to rely on members of the Working Group for inspiration, mostly through the series of blogs which we have published over the year. Without exception, they have made powerful reading, the more so for my money when the author has let slip that ‘front’ and spoken of direct personal wellbeing-related experiences. Amongst memorable blogs about sleep loss, running and Stormzy lyrics, we also posted a blog from the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, which attracted considerable professional and press interest.

I’m happy to say we’re on the way to establishing a network of wellbeing leads in individual chambers. Each month we now post a Wellbeing Newsletter to the network, so that they can disseminate information in chambers about events and ideas. If you don’t know whether your set has a wellbeing lead, perhaps you should volunteer for the role yourself! And apply for one of our Certificates of Recognition.

Lessons learned from my time so far on the WATB Working Group including this year as Chair can be fairly simply expressed. When you ask someone how they are, you sometimes need to follow up with the question, ‘How are you really?’ And if you don’t have a fulfilling life outside work, I strongly doubt whether work will be enough to fulfil you.

I need to say a fulsome thanks to the Bar Council for its fantastic support this year, in particular to Sam Mercer and Jess Kullar (who took over during the year from Kathy Wong). A couple of years ago, the Working Group decided to rotate the role of Chair from within its membership; in 2020 we will be in the capable hands of Vicki Wilson (@BarristerWilson). Please engage with her and the Working Group.

Vicki Wilson, Chair of Wellbeing at the Bar 2020

Imagine seeing Freddie Mercury in concert, setting to one side the obvious difficulty with making it happen at this juncture: this isn’t going to turn into an article about the wonder of holographic performances (at least I hope not). He sings We Are The Champions, there’s thunderous cheering and singing along. Then I come on stage and have a go.

That’s a bit how I feel, following in the footsteps of Rachel Spearing and Nick Peacock and taking up the role of Chair of the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group. I am hugely indebted to them both for what they have accomplished, and more than a little daunted.

Luckily our Bar Council stalwarts, Sam Mercer, who co-founded the Wellbeing at the Bar project with Rachel, and Jess Kullar, will continue supporting me and the rest of the Working Group this year. And, despite the anxiety that I won’t come up to scratch, I am very glad to be part of the cultural change in the way we tackle wellbeing, and I am enormously pleased to have Theo Huckle QC as Vice-Chair.

As Nick says in his piece (naturally he wrote his part far in advance of the deadline, rather than deploying the Vicki Wilson strategy of waiting for sheer panic to descend and seeing what happens), the Working Group was created to try to do three things: to raise awareness of the wellbeing issues facing our profession, to remove any stigma attached to talking about those issues, and to provide support to help deal with them.

It’s fantastic that there is much more open conversation about wellbeing these days, but at the forefront of my mind is a firm intention to ensure that wellbeing does not become an empty buzzword. Even as I type, my email has been pinging with palpable snorts of derision from colleagues in response to a court wellbeing document saying that everyone needs a lunch break: nobody in that chain could remember the last time that their court ‘lunch break’ didn’t involve a hot date with their laptop and Standard Orders Volume 2: Children and Other Orders. I’m very much aware that we have a long way to go.

So I would ask you to remember two things: The first is that the Working Group consists of representatives from every single area of the Bar: all the Circuits, all four Inns of Court, all the Specialist Bar Associations, including the Employed Bar, and the Young Barristers’ Committee, together with representatives from the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks. The whole point of such a large group is that there is at least one person there who has a direct understanding of the nuances of how wellbeing may affect you in practice: I need to know, through them or directly, what you need and what you’ve got to say.

The second is that this year we are having our first major survey of wellbeing since 2014, which will be a combined Barristers’ Working Lives and Wellbeing at the Bar survey. No one jumps for joy at the prospect of doing a survey, but please please please do respond. Every effort has been made to ensure that it can be completed quickly on a smartphone without impinging too much on your busy lives. It was the results from the last survey which led to the creation of www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk, and they have been enormously influential in improving levels of awareness of the real problems in the profession as a whole and amongst the judiciary (even if we very much think this is ‘work in progress’!). This is our opportunity to ascertain the current levels of wellbeing across the profession, and identify what further resources should be put in place.

These are my first thoughts, and I looking forward to hearing from you over the coming year.

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Nick Peacock

Nick Peacock is a barrister at Hailsham Chambers and Chair of Wellbeing at the Bar 2019.

Vicki Wilson

Vicki Wilson, Goldsmith Chambers, is Chair of Wellbeing at the Bar 2020. She tweets as @BarristerWilson.