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Wellbeing at the Bar Blog: Stephen Innes

Barristers’ partners: a different perspective – what does the other side look like?

I have recently joined the Wellbeing at the Bar Committee as a representative of Gray’s Inn. Having been an admirer of the website and of the pioneering work of the Committee, it was a great honour for me to be invited.

My introduction to wellbeing initiatives at the Bar was when I attended the Wellness for Law Forum in Inner Temple in 2017. It was quite eye-opening to hear of the research that had been done into the pressures faced by barristers and the effects that this can have.

However, what struck me most vividly from that day was a coffee break conversation with the spouse of a senior barrister. We had just been to a talk which discussed some of the well-known facets of practice at the Bar which can put barristers under pressure. As we were reflecting on that, my interlocutor complained: “we do know that it can be tough for barristers, but no one ever mentions the spouses.”

She made the excellent point that if you are married to a barrister, you are married to someone whose professional existence depends on them having to win every argument: a habit so ingrained that it can hardly be cast off with the overcoat and wheelie bag at the front door of the home. I suppose it could be said that at least if you marry into the Bar you would know what to expect on that front, but it did make me stop to think about what it must be like on the other side of the domestic arguments.

We lapsed into comparing anecdotes about the effects of a barrister’s work commitments on family life: the precious date night cancelled to complete an urgent piece of work; the children disappointed at not being picked up for swimming because court has overrun; space in holiday suitcases being taken up with files; the partner left solo to pack up and drive for the weekend away while the other travels separately from some late-running mediation. All of these were readily familiar to me from being at the Bar, but it was unsettling being confronted by the dawning realisation of the impact as seen from the other side.

Every barrister I know takes their work very seriously. Whilst none of us would say that work should be more important than family, we all know that when work has to be done to an urgent deadline, or if you have to be in court at a particular time, it has to take priority over everything else. As barristers, we may feel in those moments that we are powerless, and have no choice but just to get on with it, probably somewhat grumpily.

But one can see how the effect on the spouse and family could be equally or even more significant:

  • the barrister may have had some say in the matter, but the spouse has probably had no say at all;
  • the barrister may have a better idea of why the work has to be done, whereas the reasons may be hard to appreciate by anyone else, who may feel that they should not have to take second place to work; and because we barristers just take it for granted that we have to do the work when it is there, we are probably not very good at making the effort to explain what the work is necessary, or how it will benefit us to do it;
  • if the barrister is resentful about having to work over the weekend for example, it is easy for that resentment to spill over into family life;
  • family members can worry if they see the barrister working really hard, missing out on sleep and generally not looking after himself or herself, but knowing that they are powerless to do very much to help.

Research described on this website highlights the importance on wellbeing of having valuable relationships. I have no claim to any particular expertise, and I am well aware that my own habits leave much to be desired, but the purpose of this blogpost is to make the plea that you take the time to think about the effect of your working life on your loved ones.

I am sure we all have our own strategies, but for what it may be worth, some of things I have come to find helpful are:

  • sitting down together before the start of the week to run through what I have got on work wise during the week: when I am in court, any big deadlines looming, which evenings I will be out at work functions;
  • telling your partner if you have particular pressures like an important work deadline, a stressful case or a looming tax bill, so that they know what might be on your mind;
  • conversely, putting your partner’s mind at rest by letting them know it went ok in your big court case, that you are eating properly or that you are finally on your way home;
  • if a busy work period means that a weekend or a date night is lost, trying to make up for it subsequently when under less pressure, even if it is something minor like working at home and taking time to walk the dog together;
  • not forgetting to ask how other people’s day was, even if you assume it can’t have been as bad as yours!

Stephen Innes was called to the Bar in 2000 and practices from 4 New Square, specialising in professional liability and costs. Stephen accepts instructions through the Bar’s Direct Access Scheme. Stephen is Chairman of the Gray’s Inn Barristers Committee and represents Gray’s Inn on the Wellbeing at the Bar Committee.

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