In your corner

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Whether contemplating Silk or dealing with the profession’s challenges, another barrister in your corner can make all the difference, as Sam Mercer explains

Mentoring comes in many forms. 


It isn’t always the intense one-to-one relationship that may immediately spring to mind. It could be a simple one-off conversation over dinner, in the robing room or on a train. It might not be face-to-face with a coffee, but over the phone, via skype or email. And some people just naturally do it. This applies to most members of the Bar who probably wouldn’t classify giving a colleague a bit of advice on a difficult case or a judicial application, or even perhaps volunteering to run a moot for their Inn, as mentoring. It is.

Supportive traditions

Providing support to fellow barristers has a long tradition at the Bar. Most practitioners will have benefitted from advice at some point in their careers and it is common to see a more experienced barrister sharing their greater knowledge and understanding in order to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of the profession. The pupil/pupil supervisor is a perfect example of a mentoring relationship.

At the Bar Council, we hope we are therefore pushing at an open door by encouraging more barristers to become mentors and in promoting mentoring in general. We were already convinced of the benefits of mentoring at every stage in a barrister’s career, well before our recent wellbeing research provided compelling evidence of the link between greater resilience (wellbeing) and mentoring (Wellbeing at the Bar Report April 2015). The reason is simple; when you are mentored you have an obvious link with support, you can learn from your mistakes in a supportive environment and are able to process the learning to a more positive and resolving end. Social support is critical to our wellbeing and is even more valuable when it comes from someone who understands a barrister’s unique work environment and pressures. Having another barrister in your corner makes you better able to cope with the challenges the profession all too often throws at you.

Form and function

There are lots of great examples of different types of mentoring at the Bar. In conversation, one senior junior (16 years’ Call) recalled her own experiences of mentoring at different points in her career. Each experience was very different, but of immense value. The first was a simple and brief conversation over dinner with a female Bencher when she was a student ‘…yet her invaluable advice stayed with me through the challenging years of application, failure and some negative experiences I had during mini-pupillages’. Her second experience was when an emotionally intelligent pupil supervisor took the trouble to ensure more junior members of chambers took her under their wing when she first started out in practice, ensuring she had someone to turn to, to ask the ‘stupid’ questions that she didn’t want to raise with more senior practitioners. She felt the advantage that this gave her shouldn’t be underplayed: ‘It means you are developing your practice with more confidence because you are asking more questions and have somewhere to go.’ More latterly, she talked of having acquired two ‘fairy godmothers’ late in her career; senior women willing to share their experience and provide advice.

What was particularly compelling about this barrister’s experience was the point she made about her own background, confiding that she didn’t come from a traditional background, had no lawyers among her family, friends nor any ‘useful’ connections. This meant that she felt she had no one to turn to for support or advice. Mentors filled the gap. As an aside, she also suggested being open to mentoring and receiving advice meant those she engaged probably tended to open up more and were willing to share their experiences.

Silk and judicial mentoring

While one-off, informal mentoring very much has its place, for some barristers more structured mentoring may be more beneficial, particularly when making a Silk or judicial application or when working out how to resolve an issue with a career and practice.

Some of the specialist Bar associations have been running mentoring schemes, particularly to support Silk and judicial appointment, for a number of years. And more recently the Bar Council has developed its own mentoring service designed to fill in the gaps where barristers are perhaps unable to access mentoring elsewhere. The Silk and judicial schemes in particular help mentees gain a better understanding of the appointments processes. It also gives those in the profession who are concerned by the lack of diversity among QCs and the judiciary an opportunity to do something about it by encouraging and supporting more women and black, Asian and minority ethnic barristers as they make their applications.

Highs and lows

The value of more general mentoring is increasingly being recognised, for those who are struggling in chambers, who have a practice which isn’t developing as they would wish, who wish to transfer to another practice area or those who simply could do with a bit more support. Like the Bar Council, chambers and the Inns are increasingly recognising the value of mentoring in helping keep barristers in the profession. Times are tough for many and we could all do with a little help. As the demand for mentoring grows we need more barristers to volunteer to be a mentor and more to grab the opportunity of being mentored. It is, after all, good for you.

The Bar Council provides support and advice for mentors and mentees. For more information email: smercer@barcouncil.org.uk or visit here.

Contributor Sam Mercer, Head of Policy, Equality & Diversity and CSR at the Bar Council

COACHING VS MENTORING

Coaching and mentoring are development techniques based on the use of one-to-one discussions to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance. It is possible to draw distinctions between coaching and mentoring, although in practice the two terms are often used interchangeably. 

What is coaching? Coaching targets high performance and improvement at work and usually focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence. The process typically lasts for a relatively short defined period of time, or forms the basis of an on-going management style.

What is mentoring? Mentoring involves the use of the same models and skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing associated with coaching. Traditionally, however, mentoring in the workplace has tended to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of staff. Source: CIPD

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