Incalculable excitement followed when I received an offer of pupillage at the Criminal Bar. However, coming from a career in the Civil Service, I was not oblivious to the adjustment that would be required. I was used to the oversight of human resources, the availability of employee assistance programmes and every inch of my employment being covered by policies and guidance.

I knew that life at the self-employed Bar would be very different. I thought that representing my clients and making a living would be the only priorities, at whatever cost, and that words like ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ dared not be muttered.

Admittedly, I wasn’t too concerned. This was the career that I had worked so hard for – this was not the time for pessimism.

That changed when, just a few months before commencing pupillage, I was diagnosed with cancer. The months that followed were distressing and, before I knew it, I was about to start pupillage having recently finished treatment. I found myself in a whirlwind of depression and grief, with no time to process what had just happened. Compartmentalisation was my best friend. The tears, the fear of recurrence and the desperate attempts to uncover my post-cancer identity had to wait – pupillage awaited me.

When I started pupillage, I decided to keep my diagnosis to myself.

I didn’t want to be seen as weak. Or incapable. Most of all, I feared Chambers being disappointed that I was not the person they had interviewed some 18 months prior, or that I had short-changed them in some way.

Battling with these fears, while attempting to adjust to life as a pupil, sent my anxiety to severe levels. This was exacerbated by entering the criminal justice system. Low pay, last-minute instructions, lack of documentation before arriving at court and little preparation time became my reality. Something had to give, and I thought it would be my career.

It was at this point that my preconceptions about the Bar and the approach to wellbeing were challenged. When I began to talk about how I was feeling, I was met with overwhelming support.

I was signposted to a video on the Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar website ( of a London silk who shared her experience of having been recently diagnosed with cancer. Oddly comforted by knowing I was not the only one at the Bar to have lived this experience, I reached out, and she reached right back. We met for coffee, and for the first time I could speak to someone who understood and who did not judge me for admitting that I was struggling to cope.

The Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar Programme aims to tackle the stigma around mental health at the Bar. Rachel Spearing, who was so instrumental in setting up and promoting the programme, had presented to my year’s pupil intake during advocacy training at the Inner Temple. I reached out to Rachel.

The words ‘kind’ and ‘understanding’ sum up my encounter with Rachel. I confessed that I thought my career at the Bar may have to end. While respecting this, Rachel still assisted me in considering other options: the demands of different practice areas and potential suitability, how I may wish to disclose my diagnosis, or not, to other chambers if I sought a third-six pupillage, and the possibility of moving to the employed Bar.

Still questioning my future, I spoke to my then Head of Pupillage. I thought Chambers would feel that I had wasted their time invested in me, wasted their pupillage award and that I would be an utter disappointment.

I could not have been more mistaken. I was met with compassion and presented with a range of options on moving forward: a pupillage extension to allow me more time to consider my position, a break with a view that I could come back in the near future, and a secondment to allow time out of the Magistrates’ Court.

It was because of this assistance that I was able to continue at the Bar and made the decision to change my practice to employment.

Having practised in crime and employment, both in and out of London, and hearing the experiences of others in these scenarios, in my view there are notable differences in the approach to wellbeing. The reality is that I could never have stayed in crime. The expectations put upon junior members of the Criminal Bar would have consumed me, even if I was not grappling with a life-changing diagnosis. The attitude in some chambers that you should be grateful for the brief and have no right to complain is disappointingly still prevalent. Having leave in your diary is sometimes still treated as an invitation to put listings in its place. Plunging oneself into debt via bank loans and maxing out credit cards to get through the early years is genuine advice that I was given, despite the obvious stress that would come with not meeting payments. Saying yes to anything, at any cost is, for some, the expectation.

I worked alongside many talented lawyers at the junior Criminal Bar who confided in me their intentions to leave as they could not cope with the pressure. I recall one individual telling me how they developed insomnia and would stare at the ceiling questioning what mistakes they may have made during the day and how a case they had prosecuted may end up in the Court of Appeal.

When I suggested that they contact the Wellbeing at the Bar team, informing them that I had done so, they shrugged it off as ‘not a big deal’ but not before their face betrayed an expression of, ‘Are you joking?’ That expression revealed their view that they had ‘no right’ to complain. A fear that any hint of doing so would demonstrate that they ‘cannot hack it’, pushing their prospects of securing tenancy out of reach.

The civil Bar, in my experience, fares much better. It isn’t perfect, though! Working through the night is still, for some, worn as a badge of honour. But these examples are encouragingly few and far between. While barristers work just as hard outside of London, I feel that there is a greater concern for the wellbeing of others outside of London.

So, wellbeing at the Bar – are we there yet?

It is encouraging that more senior members of the Bar appear better able to juggle the demands of the profession and maintain a work-life balance. However, more still needs to be done to assist those at the very junior Bar. The Criminal Bar Association has proposed a Wellbeing Protocol for adoption in the criminal courts and there is now a wealth of material and support available for those who feel able to ask for help. Where it is not already happening, those most junior need to be encouraged to look after their wellbeing and reassured that speaking up will not end their career.

The Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar programme, and especially the confidential helpline, is a fantastic resource of which everyone should be aware, The assistance I got from the programme, and my former chambers, prevented me leaving the self-employed Bar prematurely. Needless to say, I am incredibly grateful for that. 

Find the Bar Council wellbeing support at The 24/7 confidential helpline is on 0800 169 2040 for self-employed barristers with a practising certificate as well as members of the IBC and LPMA.

Other sources of help include LawCare which offers support for anyone in the legal community – call: 0800 279 6888 (Mon-Fri, 9-5), chat online whenever you see the red ‘Chat Online’ button, or email:; the Samaritans on tel: 116 123 or email:; and international helplines can be found at:

Wellbeing at the Bar Report 2024 Criminal barristers reported having significantly less control over the content and pace of their work, a poorer work-life balance and lower spirits than all other practice areas in the Bar Council’s latest wellbeing analysis published in February, followed by family barristers. Sam Townend KC, Chair of the Bar, commented: ‘Concerningly, younger, more junior barristers, women and barristers from an ethnic minority background reported lower levels of overall wellbeing as did barristers working in criminal and family law. These are the areas we will continue to focus on in terms of personal wellbeing and working conditions.’ Read the full report here.