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Wellbeing at the Bar blog: Valerie Charbit

During my term as Recorder of the South Eastern Circuit, I enjoyed the privilege of assisting two inspirational leaders, each so supportive of the Bar and the profession. To succeed at the Bar requires drive and determination. It also requires sleep. Matthew Walker[1] a sleep scientist says that “sleep could save your life” and that we are “in the midst of a catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” and that “more than 20 large-scale studies report the same clear finding, the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life” and in his opinion the more likely you will develop dementia later in life.

The circuit has sought to ensure wellbeing for its members in a number of ways and will continue to do so:  the Court Sitting Hours Protocol, a new initiative of regular lunch time meetings to ensure better communication between Bar Messes and the judiciary, the Ebsworth lecture on competency based form filling, a practice management resilience and recovery training, and driving forward the new graduated fee system. In the future: speakers from the judiciary who have come forward and who wish to share their views on wellbeing, and continued support to the Bar Council’s Wellbeing Working Group chaired by Rachel Spearing. We are also looking to survey the members and the judiciary working in criminal courts in order to ensure that we have evidence about the quality of working lives, so we can respond fully to new proposals such as the Flexible Operating Hours Pilot.

I am amazed by the lack of sleep that executive committee members must endure in order to respond to consultations, train others on the new Vulnerable Witness Advocacy Training and to assist the leader on various tasks that he is asked to assist on. It is the same for so many barristers and whilst we all accept that part of our professional lives requires the ability to respond quickly to more work, should we have to sacrifice our sleep to do so if the consequences to our health are so serious? We are regularly asked to press the metaphorical reset button after a traumatic case or after we have suffered a personal upset and we do so but we must ensure that barristers have the ability to realise the importance of rest and build it into their working lives. This is a change of culture but it is one that promises better productivity, improved decision making and a positive effect on mood, mental health and, it seems, brain health. When we look at retention at the Bar in senior and junior levels, are we willing to acknowledge that many people leave simply because they are at the end of their tether?

The Wellness for Law Conference marked a turning point for me. On 30 June 2017, barristers and clerks gathered for an all-day conference at Inner Temple. There were representatives from many areas of the Bar. It was my turning point because I realised that if I am to ‘talk the talk’ then I must ‘walk the walk’ and that day I became committed to improving my personal wellbeing alongside circuit members. Adam Kay[2], a doctor, turned comedian after a particularly catastrophic day at work just decided that was it for him; he left the medical profession. Barristers, like doctors, take pride in making sure they do the best they can no matter what the personal cost to themselves, but does our ability to move to the next case show our professionalism or should we pay more attention to making sure that we supervise ourselves by processing the experiences we have had; however that may be. We are privileged to work in a profession which brings us intellectual challenges and a world of fascinating case stories, but do we foster a culture of ‘insecure overachievement[3]’ where we forget to teach ourselves and others that the culture of overwork is counterproductive.

Schools now teach the four R’s: resilience, resourcefulness, reciprocity and reflectiveness. We should try to adopt these ourselves, teaching those that come into the profession the importance of life outside work and the need to plan a career. If we can’t show those more junior than ourselves how to work and realise their true potential then we are complicit in supporting a culture which does not adhere to the importance of creativity, motivation and productivity, all of which are considerably enhanced when those who are working are happy and healthy.

So I encourage you to look to how you can make a difference within or outside the profession. For those who are keen to set the standard in chambers, the Bar Council has recently decided to issue certificates for chambers that encourage wellbeing by mentoring or by other initiatives that might do so – thus far, 29 chambers, Inns, SBAs and Circuits have received Certificates of Recognition. Studies have shown that professionals that meet and share ‘war stories’ or time together have an improvement in their sense of wellbeing. Those of us that started at the Bar 20-25 years ago did not work in a virtual world and there were more opportunities for members of chambers to meet and share time together. My new chambers, 18 Red Lion Chambers, is considering a number of initiatives which have been tried and tested to improve wellbeing. We can but try a variety of different well proven techniques to see if they help any of us. This is the first step to show whether we are truly committed to changing the culture and improving our working relationships and lives.

Find the Wellbeing at the Bar resources on lack of sleep here.

[1] The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

[2] This is Going to Hurt – secret diaries of a junior doctor by Adam Kay

[3]   Article in Financial Times by Andre Hill

Valerie Charbit is the South Eastern Circuit representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group. She has experience of a wide range of complex cases and her practice involves prosecuting and defending in equal measure. She has a broad ranging regulatory practice involving professional disciplinary and health and safety cases. She has particular specialism in  cases involving vulnerable witnesses and the cross-examination of experts. She also sits as a part-time judge for the First Tier Tribunal (Mental Health).