As someone who is outspoken, not a fan of routine and with very little patience for office politics, the independent Bar always appealed to me. I was overjoyed at the idea of not having a boss to answer to whilst being provided with a high level of responsibility from the moment I was on my feet. I was really excited at the prospect of being a sole worker. Someone with their own practice, free to determine what work I would and wouldn’t do.

The first few years of my practice were of course not quite like that! As a junior member of chambers I, quite rightly, had to build a practice: picking up last minute returns; putting my time in at the magistrates’ court; and making myself as available as possible to the clerks. As my years of call have increased, I receive more instructions in my own name and have more power over deciding what types of areas and cases I want to develop work in. My independence has finally started to increase. Yet with that came an aspect I’d not really foreseen before embarking on my career; a feeling of isolation.

When camaraderie melts away

At the beginning of our journeys at the Bar, we receive constant feedback on our performance. We have supervisors, advocacy training run by chambers and the Inns of Court, and most of the cases on which we cut our teeth have had a predecessor in chambers, meaning we have someone who knows the brief in depth with whom we can bounce ideas around. We have a natural social group in our pupil cohort and a camaraderie with other pupils across different sets of chambers. However, as we become more senior and our practices more stable, we tend to see more cases from cradle to grave giving us less opportunity to find someone to naturally check tactical decisions with.

The introduction of the Digital Case System has also meant there are fewer people physically present in chambers. We work from home more often. I can find myself going for weeks without going in! As a result, it’s simply not as easy to find someone to riff with, or to take stock about what has happened at court. Although my husband, friends and family are obviously key people in my support network, work conversations often land better with fellow members of the Bar.

Sometimes, frankly, I need to speak to others who do my job and share my characteristics, people of similar levels of call to me, other women, someone from a black or ethnic minority background. There are times when something has happened in court and I want to check whether a judge or opponent has been equally tricky to someone with one of those shared identities. Most of the time it’s simply nice to speak to others that understand the ups and downs of the job so I can jump straight into a conversation without explaining terminology or the background to why a particular decision was the best thing to happen to me that week, or the moment I knew I was going to lose my case. Surprisingly, I’ve found those support networks through my membership of a number of WhatsApp groups.

Support and networking via WhatsApp

One of my WhatsApp groups is of fellow black female lawyers from a range of firms and chambers. We message one another regularly, sending each other interesting articles, job roles or just some bits of gossip. We also use it as a way to network, checking whether someone has a contact at a particular firm, or can get someone into an interesting event. But it’s also a great source of support. If someone has a tough day or a great day they can message the group and vent or celebrate.

We have 12 members, so someone will likely be able to respond within a few minutes with practical advice, reassurance, validation or praise. They’ll understand the nuances of the concerns or joy due to shared backgrounds in law, but also through having navigated the legal profession as a black woman.

My favourite function of the group, however, is how actively social it is. Every few months we meet up. We’ll attend an event that another member has organised, go to dinner, or see a play together. There’s a joy to being together as black professional women, from a range of age groups and backgrounds, simply enjoying each other’s company.

I have similar networks amongst my friends and peers in chambers. For example, I’m part of an active WhatsApp group that started off as a junior tenants group but now is really just a group of friends having regular conversations. We check decisions with one another, swap tips about how to navigate the personalities of certain tribunals, boast about results, and tease each other constantly. It’s a forum for the type of office mate banter we miss out on by being self-employed. Ultimately, it’s a safe space. If someone is unwell, feeling overwhelmed or generally unhappy, they often indicate it in the group before telling anyone in person. If we want to have a moan, we can do so in the group knowing that it will not be mentioned to anyone outside of our number without permission. We’ve been told through the group when people are leaving chambers, expecting a child, getting married, and so on.

What I’ve found most comforting during our exchanges is seeing how people I admire and know to be extremely capable also have moments of doubt and reflection, and seeing how more junior members will give advice and be listened to by a more senior participant. It’s an equaliser: men, women, black, white, we all contribute and listen to one another in a way that is often lost in the posturing environment of a robing room. I asked my friend Tom what he gets from our group and he said the following:

We’re in a profession where the stakes are so high from the outset and we regularly have clients that we can’t do right by, no matter how hard we work and the effort we go to. This is particularly true of cases where the evidence is overwhelming. We’re often the subject of abuse from clients, at the receiving ends of shortness of temper and frustration from judges and opponents. The contrast between the support in our WhatsApp group is often at odds with the atmosphere we deal with at court. In our profession, people tend to hold those things inside. Sometimes people even take pride in the fact that they don’t ask for help when they’re up against it: when they’ve made themselves go to court whilst ill; that they’ve spent 14 hours a day working on particular cases and haven’t had quality time with their families.’

The value of recognising behaviours

I find that it’s often much easier to recognise unhealthy behaviours in other people than in yourself. The groups help to hold people accountable to themselves. If you mention that you feel too sick to go to court someone in the group will immediately reassure you that it’s okay to stay at home. If you mention that someone overstepped at court, the group will push you to make a complaint. It puts the job into perspective. But being a member of a number of groups also helps me to see which problems are common to a lot of different groups and which ones are unique to others. It’s both informative and reassuring at the same time.

I know that the Bar Council is promoting wellness at the Bar and actively combatting loneliness. A small step like creating a WhatsApp group of your peers whose advice you respect and admire is a great way to start to take your own wellness into your own hands.

What the Bar can learn from Jeff Bezos: The Bar Council’s IT Panel says: ‘WhatsApp is only encrypted during transit and messages could still be hacked if your phone is insecure. Flaws in operating systems and apps can be exploited to obtain access to all the contents of your phone. Consistently updating your systems and software can help to defend against this threat as companies are continuously devising new patches to combat hackers. Also, be aware that some apps may require permissions which could involve accessing your device’s confidential information, and even supposedly non-threatening features such as GIFs can be used to harbour malicious programmes.’