Giving the opening address at the 2016 College of Law National Wellness for Law Forum in Australia, Justice Anna Kratzmann suggested that new recruits to the Bar were treated rather worse than entrants to Dante’s hell. As she observed: ‘When, in middle age, Dante figuratively passes through the gates of hell, he was warned. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” read the inscription before him. But what warning were we given when we entered the legal profession of the conditions under which we would be expected to work and the impact they might have on our physical and mental health? What advice did we receive about how we might look after ourselves and our clients at the same time?’

Luckily for our Antipodean cousins, things have moved on in their profession: wellbeing and resilience are compulsory competencies for the Practical Legal Training Competency Standards issued by the Chief Justice of Australia and required for all entry level lawyers, whether barristers or solicitors.

By contrast, awareness of the importance of wellbeing for barristers in the UK is in its infancy. While a change is gradually coming about, largely due to the excellent work of the Bar Council, a shift in culture has yet to materialise. Experience suggests that many barristers, and the systems within which they operate, remain loyal and committed to woefully outdated work practices, many of which are driven by an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism and somewhat quaint notions of what being a barrister is all about (see Wellbeing at the Bar Resilience Framework Assessment, 2015). If being a barrister means that you must display near super-human gifts of service, rigour and endurance, then prioritising one’s own needs can be seen as tantamount to a denial of your barristerial status, and associated with feelings of inadequacy, shame and stigma. In addition, the hierarchical nature of the profession, its deep respect and observance of tradition and the intellectual self-confidence of its members, tend to amplify resistance to change. The role of pupillage as a rite of passage to the profession can serve to perpetuate the old world order (see Dr Justine Rogers, ‘The Psychology of Pupils’, Counsel, August 2017).

Until the UK Bar catches up with developments elsewhere, why should barristers and chambers actively support wellbeing? Here are some suggested reasons why.

1. Stand out from the competition

The Bar has long been fiercely competitive throughout its ranks. Standards of entry are now very high, so much so that senior members frequently observe that they would stand little chance of being taken on if they had to compete with the younger generation.

With such a pool of talent to draw upon, what sets one barrister apart from another? The answer is found in the unique human qualities that everyone has. These influence how we interact with each other, and how we build rapport that leads to strong social and professional connections. They also support the ability to employ creativity and inventiveness to problem solving, written and oral advocacy, and the many other traits that give barristers and chambers a particularly attractive or sought after ‘style’ or ‘feel’.

These aspects of professional conduct are not rooted in cold logic or raw intellect. They are based on how we interact with the outside world, which in turn is a reflection of our internal state of wellbeing. Seen in this way, wellbeing is a vital resource for any barrister and chambers that wants to set itself above the competition. It compliments the uniqueness and individuality upon which barristers pride themselves.

2. Improve your work

Modern business has been quick to realize that happy workers are productive workers, and maintaining workplace wellbeing saves and makes more money. Research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014 has identified subjective wellbeing as having a positive correlation and a causative link with improved workplace performance (see Does Worker Wellbeing Affect Workplace Performance?: A greater sense of wellbeing is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported and respected – positive associations that promote more and better work. By contrast, prolonged high pressure at work can lead to disengagement with work tasks, which in turn leads to higher absenteeism, presenteeism, lower productivity and increased risk of errors (see ‘Proof that Positive Work Cultures are More Productive’ Harvard Business Review, December 2015:

So attending to personal wellbeing should not be seen as being neglectful or as being at the expense of work. On the contrary, it should be seen as an integral part of improving and sustaining the output of each barrister’s and chambers’ practice.

3. It is not all about you

If nothing we have said so far has persuaded you, remember: it is not all about you. All barristers must interact with their fellow members of chambers, clerks, staff, judges and opponents; their friends, families and loved ones. Attending to our personal wellbeing serves to improve relationships with those whose lives we interact with, for their benefit even if we care not for our own.

Quite apart from that, if the profession is to continue to attract talent, it needs to remain an attractive place for talented people to work. Research suggests that the millennial generation that are now entering employment place higher value on work life balance, flexible working – so-called work-life integration – and a strong culture of diversity (see the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, PwC’s Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace, and Ernst and Young’s Next-gen work force: secret weapon or biggest challenge?). These values are positively supported by wellbeing policies and practices. The Bar Council’s wellbeing work is carried out under the aegis of the Equality and Diversity Committee. Senior members of the Bar would serve the profession well by taking a leadership role that supports and encourages the wellbeing of the younger generation.

4. Professional duty

The Bar rightly prides itself on providing excellence to those whom it serves. These standards of excellence are underpinned by threshold standards and competences that all members of the profession are required to observe, contained in the BSB’s Professional Statement for Barristers. They include a requirement that barristers conduct their practice with adaptability and flexibility, by being ‘self-aware and self-directed’, and include an obligation to ‘take responsibility for planning and undertaking personal development and learning’. Such words are apt to encompass an obligation to attend to personal wellbeing, at least where this may impact upon professional performance.

The US National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing, initiated and supported by (among others) the American Bar Association, has put the matter in more forthright terms. In the covering note to its recently released report recommending measures to support wellbeing among American lawyers it said:

‘To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being… too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.’ 

Further information 
Later articles in the series will discuss tools and techniques that can be used to enhance the wellbeing of individual barristers, their chambers and the systems within which barristers operate.