We know the wellbeing of barristers and chambers’ employees has been a challenge over the last couple of years. COVID lockdowns, isolation, too much work, too little work; all against a background of war, a faltering economy, a creaking justice system, climate anxiety and a very real sense there is little good news anywhere. Statistics on bullying and harassment (as well as other inappropriate behaviours) released in December 2023 by the Bar Council, attest to the negative impact these pressures have had on our culture and interactions with others.

Bar Council research undertaken in 2021 established a new Barrister Wellbeing Scale (BWS), effectively a baseline against which we could measure and track barristers’ wellbeing. This scale, developed by the Quality of Working Life research group, based at the University of Portsmouth, looked at data on the profession both in England and Wales and in New South Wales, and identified four sub-scales (Psychological Wellbeing; Perfectionism; Workload Management and Supportive Work Environment) which, when combined, could provide an indicator on the general wellbeing of members of the profession.

We have now been able to take data generated in the most recent 2023 Barristers’ Working Lives survey and compare it with wellbeing scores from Barristers’ Working Lives in 2021 (the most recent previous survey) – see box, below:

Wellbeing at the Bar 2023: key findings
  1. Overall wellbeing: Barristers reported higher levels of work satisfaction and wellbeing in 2023, when compared to 2021, with three of the four main wellbeing measures up (Psychological Wellbeing; Workload Management and Supportive Work Environment).
  2. Good/low mood: 60% of respondents agreed they had good mood, though over a third indicated they tended to feel down or in low spirits (34.9%) of these, just under a quarter (23.7%), reported low psychological wellbeing.
  3. Workload: Half (49%) of respondents reported they were managing their workloads well, but a third (31.4%) indicated they weren’t coping.
  4. Job satisfaction: 61% of respondents felt they were satisfied with their job (the same percentage as in 2021).
  5. Supportive work environment: Over 73% of respondents agreed they had supportive colleagues and/or work environment, a rise of 6% compared to 2021.
  6. Difference by background: Women, barristers from an ethnic minority background, and those who are younger and more junior, had lower overall wellbeing.
  7. Difference by practice area: Barristers working in family law had significantly lower overall wellbeing compared to all other practice areas, except for the criminal Bar. Barristers practising in commercial law reported the highest average overall wellbeing.
The Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar Report 2024 draws on data from the Barristers’ Working Lives 2023 survey and can be viewed here.

Wellbeing certificate programme

We don’t want to overstate progress. But even a shift of a few percentage points in the right direction deserves acknowledgment. And for those who have been working so hard across the Bar – both to assist members in managing their workloads (scores are up 4% here), and in creating more supportive work environments (another gain of 6%), this is an opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work underway.

Last year we revamped the wellbeing certificate programme – originally introduced in 2017 to encourage chambers to act on wellbeing. The new wellbeing scale developed at Portsmouth has enabled us to identify what drives wellbeing at the bar, and the new certificate criteria now evaluates chambers for good practice in these areas.

The assessment of certificate applications is now much more rigorous and involves not only a formal application, but also at least two follow up interviews with members and employees. This means we have been privileged to witness the efforts so many chambers have made to support wellbeing. Having been personally involved in many of the interviews, I can only salute the efforts of so many who hold their chambers’ wellbeing brief – including barristers, clerks and chambers managers – for the efforts they are making.

All those (45) chambers who have successfully secured the new certificates so far have rightly put great emphasis on regular structured practice review for all members, providing career development and support, as well as in rebuilding chambers as a thriving community of barristers ready to assist each other. Successfully encouraging members and employees back into chambers to do this has proved their biggest challenge. Many sets have introduced high quality social/other events that are worth travelling into chambers for – recognising people will come in only if it provides an opportunity to interact with others. This takes time and considerable effort.

In addition, and in the hope of inspiring others, we wanted to share examples of other innovative ideas we’ve been told about over the last few months:

  • Email etiquette policy (4 New Square): This policy applies to all members of chambers and staff and sets out ten guidelines on how and when to send emails, use of the delayed delivery function where the recipient is away from work, on holiday or outside normal working hours. The policy highlights power dynamics between barrister/pupil, senior/junior barrister, senior member of staff/junior member of staff, and the pressure this may put on a recipient to respond even when not working. It states not to send criticism via email as it may be misunderstood. It urges members and staff to only copy in others, when necessary; as well questioning whether an email itself the best form of communication in any circumstance.
  • Training for clerks (St John’s Buildings): Clerks are given specialist training on how to support barristers when they ask for help, as well as how to proactively check in, spot potential issues, and offer support during challenging times.
  • Appointment of a junior representative (Central Chambers): A member of chambers who has been a tenant for less than five years is responsible for supporting junior members of chambers. They are expected to check in with junior members on a regular basis.
  • Break-out space (39 Essex Court): A new break-out space includes amenities, such as sofas, soft drinks, table tennis, darts, and pool (as well as another room with a bed). This all provides a space for a break from work to socialise or take time out to recharge. The space has been carved out of a previously under-used area in chambers.
  • Special tea (Atkin Chambers): Chambers offer a range of very successful and well attended in-chambers social events. These include tea every day at 4pm and the introduction of ‘not to be missed’ cakes once a week.

Aside from the above, what has really impressed us has been the personal dedication of so many individuals who go over and above to support and assist colleagues wherever possible. We were given examples where members of chambers and clerks/practice managers have cared enough to visit barristers at home when they were worried about them just to make sure they are OK.

The junior Bar

There is, however, one clear message from everyone we have spoken to across the Bar (and not just those we have assessed for certificates). That is a real concern for the most junior barristers. One senior representative of a leading set observed while the workload seems heavy for more senior practitioners, they still have an advantage over their more junior colleagues. They have learnt how to do things more quickly because of their greater experience, they are less afraid of making mistakes and less wary of tapping into a support network for advice and encouragement (they have established their network). They know that there is more to practice than just poring over thousands of pages of documents online late at night, they have less debt and will be more resilient when faced by an angry and impatient judge or colleague. It is important we remember this.

The Young Barristers’ Committee is currently trying to establish what good practice there is in supporting junior members, in tackling isolation and in supporting the development of networks both in chambers and in the hybrid workspace.

The junior Bar is the future of the Bar, and their wellbeing needs to be a priority for all of us. If you have any examples, please get in touch by emailing YBC@BarCouncil.org.uk, and if you haven’t yet applied for a new wellbeing certificate, please do so – the next deadline is at the end of March. 

Resources and further information

Apply for your wellbeing certificate – the next deadline is at the end of March 2024: Information about applying for a Certificate of Recognition and a list of successful applicants can be found here

Assistance Programme for those in need of advice and support

Other sources of support include: LawCare on 0800 279 6888, email: support@lawcare.org.uk (Mon-Fri, 9-5), and www.lawcare.org.uk whenever you see the red ‘Chat Online’ button; Samaritans are on 116 123 or email: jo@samaritans.org; and international helplines at befrienders.org

Advice for chambers

The sub-scales in the Barrister Wellbeing Scale:

  • Psychological wellbeing (PWB) is based on aspects of psychological wellbeing and mental health, for example, ‘I tend to feel down or low in spirits.’
  • Perfectionism (PER) is based on the tendency for individuals to attempt to be perfect in their working behaviours and the negative psychological consequences when this is unachievable, for example, ‘I tend to dwell on my mistakes.’ (Note: our focus is unhealthy levels of perfectionism.)
  • Workload management (WLM) is related to perceived ability of an individual to control their workloads and the impact of this on their wider life. An example WLM question is: ‘I have significant control over the content and pace of my work.’
  • Supportive working environment (SWE) is related to evaluations of workplace.