Benchmark your budding best practice: putting mental health firmly on the chambers agenda is the right thing to do and benefits the bottom line.
Fiona Fitzgerald offers a practical view from a chambers CEO: Bar is no longer behind the curve.
Change is in the air. The Bar’s Wellbeing Portal, launched last year, aims to counteract the stigma around mental health, encourage openness and offer help and practical solutions.
Chambers are also doing more to facilitate wellbeing in the workplace and finding that everyday practices can make a huge difference. A hot topic at a recent lunch of chambers directors was that everyone is having to work harder just to keep up: no wonder wellbeing is firmly on the agenda.
Team Bar: applying management techniques
When I joined Radcliffe Chambers in 2014 from a law firm, I noted a stark difference: there was little or no soft skills training for the Bar. This has now changed. In contrast solicitors have, for many years, received training on stress awareness, time management, networking and general case management. We all know that to succeed at the Bar you not only need great advocacy and analytical skills, but must also be good at developing your practice. It is no longer solely a clerk’s role, but a team effort which can also involve marketing staff and, in some cases, chambers management.
Many solicitors look to barristers as experts and the fount of all knowledge, hence the two-tier system. But I quickly realised that the Bar can be a lonely place. To address this, the value of practice group meetings to discuss strategy and market intelligence in areas of law should not be under-estimated. Equally important is the creation of opportunities for informal get-togethers, such as chambers tea or drinks parties. We introduced an informal lunch every two months for members who cannot attend evening events, allowing them to catch up, discuss cases and to find out what is happening throughout chambers and the wider market.
One of the excellent things about the Bar is the strong sense of camaraderie; the ‘work buddy’ system is an extension of that. A buddy could be a fellow junior member for a new pupil, a tenant applying for Silk or a junior clerk. As a past chair of the Association of Women Solicitors, I have witnessed the efficacy of our mentoring and coaching schemes. The Bar Council runs similar programmes as do the Circuits, Inns, other specialist Bar associations and some chambers.
Managing by walking about (MBWA)
Social and work get-togethers are helpful, but there is nothing like an individual conversation to ensure all is well. At Radcliffe we adopt the concept of managing by walking about, developed by W Edwards Denning and subsequently adopted by business-thought leader Tom Peters: ‘If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.’
Every two weeks I do an informal walk through chambers and catch up with members to see if there are any issues. If I haven’t spoken to someone I try to get in contact. Proactivity is the key: if you can see if something is not quite right you can deal with it. The first step is to develop a simple action plan – examine the issue and develop a strategy to get back on track. The member will be at the heart of the plan, but clerking, marketing and management teams can also be involved. Implementation is fundamental.
Meeting the obligation to support
The Legal Practice Managers Association, a networking forum for those working in senior management positions (mainly at the Bar), held two well-attended sessions on this topic in the last year. We heard a number of different approaches: many chambers already have stress awareness or wellbeing policies in place, some have a formal risk assessment process, and others had arranged training or information sessions.
The key is to be proactive:
- be aware;
- be active with solutions;
- continue to monitor; and
- assess and adapt processes and procedures to avoid it happening again.
Whilst stress can be part of everyone’s daily working lives, at the Bar it can be immense, with increased competition for work, pressure on fees, pursuit of perfectionism, time pressures and more demands from our clients. It can also arise from too much work or too little work, but it is the negative response to such pressure which morphs into stress. Stresses and strains arise from home life too and it can be very helpful for all concerned to have some understanding of what is going on at home.
Chambers can be supportive here and assist if time off is needed for caring commitments, family illness, bereavement or relationship issues. Work can be allocated and moved around for periods of time whilst also ensuring fair allocation. Chambers have an obligation to support our members and staff but not only that, it makes good business sense. If people feel valued and listened to they feel more engaged.
Contributor Fiona Fitzgerald is Chief Executive of Radcliffe Chambers
A good chambers wellbeing policy should:
- provide context and set out your vision/the aim;
- clarify expected behavi`ours within chambers/your organisation including eg work life balance (for members, staff and pupils), linked to your constitution if appropriate;
- outline what is available to support wellbeing eg mentoring, awareness training, employee assistance programmes;
- confirm links to other policies eg harassment, equality & diversity, flexible working/career breaks;
- explain what chambers will do to support wellbeing and mental health; and
- summarise how the policy will be communicated and reviewed.
Win-win: promoting wellbeing in chambers
Former clerk David Wright outlines business benefits, sources of help and how to reach high-performance
One in four adults in the UK will experience a mental health concern in any one year (Mind, 2016). The Wellbeing at the Bar scheme aims to tackle the stigma associated with mental health and encourages members of the profession and those who support it, to better understand wellbeing and feel empowered to make healthy choices. Chambers should be proactive in promoting the scheme and other support services available to chambers, its members and staff who are exposed to emotionally and psychologically challenging environments on a daily basis.
Furthermore, market developments, technology and alternative business structures have disintegrated the edges in work undertaken by chambers. These factors are challenging enough for the most experienced barrister or clerk, but we must also add into the equation constantly changing job roles, life responsibilities and frequent shifting interests in the broader scope of our lives, all contributing to the mounting levels of stress.
Management committees proactive in member and staff wellbeing will thrive. Demonstrating high levels of empathy from leadership roles within chambers will promote a healthy and productive working environment with engaged and loyal member barristers and staff, which in turn will improve client experiences and retention. As Richard Branson said: ‘If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers, it’s that simple.’
Sources of help
If you are not comfortable discussing health issues with work colleagues, there are a number of other sources of help such as LawCare listed at www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/barristers-support/. Discussions with your GP could also be a positive step and help you feel more in control of your situation.
Embrace change and elevate efficiency
Change can be stressful. There is a desire to stay within comfort zones due to the uncertainty of our competence in doing something different, fear of losing control, or concerns that change will result in further work commitments. By letting go of this fear we start to consider, proactively, potential change as an opportunity to improve our individual wellbeing, careers and personal development.
Elevated levels of efficiency and effectiveness is fast-becoming an ‘operational style’ employed by high-performing professionals. Barristers have an overwhelming number of things to do and still need to function productively, with a clear head and a positive sense of ‘relaxed control’. Reflect for a moment on what it might feel like if your personal and professional commitments were in complete control at all times. What if you had completely clear mental space, with nothing distracting you unproductively. It is possible to take control of it all, stay relaxed, and get meaningful things done with minimal effort, across the whole spectrum of life and work.
Go with the (work)flow
- Start by reviewing and improving practice management procedures to achieve a clearer mind and a feeling of control.
- Emails are a popular form of communication and a good place to start. Review how you capture, clarify, organise and engage with clients by email and develop a system of organisation that works for you. Continuingly reviewing and improving the steps in your email workflow can help you achieve a clearer mind, lower levels of stress and improved mental wellbeing.
- Clarifying and organising your workflows will allow your mind to let go of the lower-level thinking and graduate to intuitive focusing; what martial artists call ‘mind like water’ and top athletes refer to as the ‘zone’. Your physical organisation system must be better than your mental one in order for that to happen.
Contributor David Wright is Director, Barrister Consultancy Services and Vice Chair, IBC Career Development Committee.
Two years ago, the Bar Council’s comprehensive Wellbeing Survey revealed that 63% of its 2,456 respondents felt showing signs of stress at work indicated personal weakness. At least 300 acknowledged experiencing emotional exhaustion, while 1,364 said they did not get enough good quality sleep.
This article first appeared in Counsel Magazine: April 2017