Transitioning back to chambers

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As chambers begin to repopulate amid continuing uncertainties, wellbeing policies are more important now than ever. Dr Anna Colton and Lucy Burrows explain how to spot signs of anxiety and protect members, pupils and staff

Our industry, like every other, has experienced a profound series of changes since March. The initial flurry of activity to move all members and staff to remote working was followed by large fluctuations in work across different practice areas, the cessation of jury trials, the almost total shutdown of the criminal Bar and the move to online hearings in other parts of the Bar.

Some were already set up well for working from home, while others had to jostle with members of their household for working space or commit their kitchen table to the cause. This was particularly the case for pupils and juniors who often co-habit with others in attempt to spread the costs of living in, or close to, London. Parents and care givers found themselves with the fresh challenge of working while juggling childcare, home schooling and other commitments – no mean feat when barristers are required to spend long periods of time concentrating on complex issues and problems.

As lockdown and social distancing eases, and as chambers begin to repopulate, there remains uncertainty about the coming months, particularly in relation to work streams and income, commuting into London and whether, or for how many days a week, to move back into chambers. The concern about the overall impact this period will have had on individual practices remains. It is important for chambers to recognise all these issues and to develop strategies to support the wellbeing of its members and staff through this time.

Missing the link: issues during pupillage

Pupils are faced with a particular set of challenges. Much of the learning during pupillage comes from observing: sitting in conferences with a pupil supervisor, listening to phone calls, watching court hearings, and absorbing the ‘softer’, client handling skills, that are essential to barristers. The absence of face-to-face contact with their supervisors or the opportunity to spend time with other members of chambers can reinforce a feeling of disconnection and can hamper their training. At the criminal Bar, many barristers will have had no work over the last four months and thus for some pupils, their pupillage training/learning criteria will not have been met. Moving forward, pupillage will undoubtedly be more remote and chambers must embrace innovative ways to teach, mentor and support pupils.

Chambers will also recognise that opportunities for advocacy, one of the most important skills for pupils and new tenants to have early exposure to, will be more limited and we should consider more widely other ways to help. These might include additional advocacy training programmes, specific cross-examination skills sessions run by senior members of chambers and inviting (where possible) pupils and new tenants to tune in to their trials or applications. One must not underestimate the importance of observing court sessions and then having the opportunity to discuss them directly with the member of chambers afterwards. Developing one’s own personal courtroom style takes some time and having exposure to others’ is an essential part of the process. Training initiatives like this will also have the additional benefit of creating a more collaborative and inclusive chambers environment as well as enhancing the overall experience for pupils and new tenants.

Mentoring schemes in chambers are extremely important, particularly in times such as these. A mentor is there to nurture and support their mentee. Mentors can be barristers and clerks, though a pupil or junior tenant will need a barrister mentor as a basic requirement. The space must be protected and safe so that the mentee can raise, reflect upon, and unpick concerns and difficulties in their practice or with relationships in confidence and reflect without repercussions. Mentors both champion and challenge their mentees and mentees can learn from their mentors’ experiences and, indeed, vice versa. Particularly in an industry without an appraisal system or an infrastructure of support, mentoring is essential to personal, professional and career growth. It is protective of good mental health as it is the space in which vulnerability can be shown and possible deteriorations in wellbeing and mental health can be detected and addressed. During pupillage, a mentor is independent of the assessment and voting for tenancy for their mentee. Thereafter, the relationship remains equally important, but meetings may become less frequent as tenants settle into life at the Bar. At all times, meetings must be regular and mentors need to be available for support and guidance at all times.

Every set should have one: a protective policy

A good, robust wellbeing policy is now more important than ever because the risks of mental health difficulties across the Bar is even higher than it was previously due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. A well thought through policy, like any good policy, is protective and allows for proactive and pre-emptive decision making and it is advisable for the policy to be drafted by a mental health professional, whose experience is invaluable. It sets out a clear structure to follow if there are wellbeing or mental health concerns in chambers and it raises awareness and reduces stigma associated with mental health issues and wellbeing. In line with this, every set should have a few barristers, clerks and members of staff who are trained in mental health first aid, so that there is a named point of call for anyone who is struggling.

Strategies for managing anxiety

Both the last five months and the period of transition back into chambers has, and will increase, overall levels of anxiety for many members and staff. The anxiety can reach a point where it becomes overwhelming and while anxiety cannot always be removed, it can be managed and reduced. A number of effective strategies are outlined below:

  • Try to recognise the symptoms and signs in both yourself and others around you. The most common, but by no means the only, are:
    • palpitations, shaking, sweating, hypervigilance to threat, tunnel vision, a lump in the throat, tearfulness, nausea, an upset stomach, disturbed sleep, insomnia, intrusive catastrophic thoughts, ruminating on risks and danger.
  • Offer support and signpost where help can be obtained (see links on p 25). Depending on what is causing the anxiety, it might simply be having a conversation with your senior clerk about expectations, or discussing with your leader any time constraints you have such that he/she is informed and you can work together to get a pleading or skeleton argument served on time. Don’t try and suppress anxiety – it will bubble up and show itself when you least want it.
  • Some chambers are able to be flexible around working hours so that you can commute outside of rush hour.
  • It’s not new, but getting enough sleep is key. Sleep deprivation is a direct cause of low mood, decreased tolerance, increased emotion and impaired concentration.
  • Eating healthily to fuel the body and mind.
  • Exercise: the endorphin hit from exercise lifts mood, concentration and provides a physical and psychological outlet for anxiety and stress.
  • Mindfulness, meditation and yoga – all work on quietening down the adrenal system and are proven to reduce adrenaline, anxiety and stress. Many high performers swear by meditation/mindfulness and it’s worth trying for 15 minutes a day. The less time you think you have available, the more you need to build it in.
  • Put boundaries on working hours, ie having one weekend day off per week and ensure clerks, barristers and clients explicitly know these.
  • Have a cut-off time for responding to emails so you don’t find yourself checking your phone and responding in the middle of the night.
  • Don’t take your phone into the bedroom at night. If it’s your alarm clock, go and buy a proper one.
  • Establish a regular ‘date night’ with your partner or ‘friends evening’ with friends ideally once a week, so that it becomes routine. This has been much harder during lockdown but it is more important than ever. Regular activities not only become accepted as part of a lifestyle and routine but cancelling them more than once serves as a red flag that all may not be well.
  • Create ways to counter the loneliness and the absence of inbuilt support:
    • find a mentor – many sets of chambers have mentor schemes, but if yours does not then reach out to others;
    • make friends;
    • participate in activities with like minded people;
    • have frank conversations with clerks around expectation management, work issues etc. The same applies to clerks – speak to your team leader and senior clerk.

Finally, if you are worried about yourself or a colleague please don’t wait to seek help. Get in there early. It does not need to be a long-term intervention and for many, relief and management strategies can be gained in very few sessions. All that waiting to seek support does is entrench the difficulty and ensure that treatment will take longer.

Additional help and support can be found here:
Wellbeing at the Bar – www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk
LawCare – www.lawcare.org.uk
Mind www.mind.org.uk
Samaritanswww.samaritans.org
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Dr Anna Colton

Dr Anna Colton, BSc. D.Clin.PsyCPsychol. C.Hyp., is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Executive Coach. She works closely with the Bar, delivering talks and training to chambers, writing wellbeing policies and coaching barristers and clerks. She appears frequently on radio and television, as a leading expert on mental health and wellbeing issues.

Lucy Burrows

Lucy Burrows is Deputy Senior Clerk at 4 Pump Court. Lucy sits on the Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar committee and is also a member of the working group for Middle Temple’s Talent Retention Scheme. She is a member of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC), sits on the IBC’s Management Committee and is also involved with its mentoring sub-committee.