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Wellbeing from a TECBAR perspective as told by Riaz Hussain QC 

TECBAR, the Specialist Bar Association for employed or self-employed barristers who practise in the Technology and Construction Court, was founded in 1983 and now has 400 members.

A TECBAR or construction related practice is intellectually and mentally challenging. A long building project will engender thousands of records; each of which may be the key to establishing one’s case. Case preparation is gruelling and requires alertness, diligence and foresight. Advocacy is tough, and the hours are long in hearings and arbitrations. Competition for construction work is fierce. At the same time, there is a general camaraderie between TECBAR barristers – we tend to know each other and usually offer a friendly ear. Likewise, the TCC Judges are generally polite, reasonable and accommodating.

The issues around wellbeing differ from those at the criminal and family Bar. Generally, the subject matter of our work is not particularly emotive or traumatic in itself (although of course there is always a human element). The main issues around wellbeing are overwork (and work/life balance), competition for work both between and across chambers and the usual workplace stress of egos, rivalries, and (real or perceived) unfairness of opportunity. These wellbeing issues are all matters that good chambers management and clerking can help avoid.

For junior practitioners, there is a real struggle to be available at all hours to a silk and to solicitors in preparation for heavy cases. At the same time, a junior practitioner will wish to keep alive their own advocacy and practice. Hearings can be long; sometimes lasting 6-8 weeks (often overseas). Add to this the real (and perceived need) to market oneself by giving talks, attending lunches and social events. There will be prolonged periods with little time for everyday activities, managing one’s health or family life.

The antidote to this lies with the chambers and the individual practitioner. First, chambers ought to create a practice management culture where clerks play a pastoral role, not pressing junior practitioners to take on more work than they can healthily manage.

I asked my chambers’ senior clerk David Barnes for his wellbeing advice and he seconded this view:

“In my experience the biggest issue for barristers tends to be in and around being able to manage the day to day pressures of managing their workload. This is why I think members benefit from proactive clerking to help them manage their cases. This is likely to be particularly so for TECBAR members given both the technical and factual nature of the work. It often means that the cases are quite consuming. It also means that practitioners take on fewer cases due to the general size of the disputes. This in itself brings a degree of uncertainty into their life as they feel exposed given the high proportion of cases that settle. “

Silks and senior members must also adhere to a culture where they pull their weight, communicate clearly with juniors as to what tasks are required and be realistic about the same.

At the same time, practitioners themselves must guard against a constant fear of famine whereby they take on work (with no break in sight) or feel terrified to set realistic deadlines with solicitors. They will find it easier to do so when they feel chambers as a whole support them.

Chambers must see junior practitioners as barristers in their own right first and foremost and help them to develop the kind of practice they wish. A real problem that David Barnes noted is the reduction in terms of advocacy opportunities for smaller cases:

“Following the introduction of the HGCRA [the Adjudication Act 1996 which allows for construction disputes to be temporarily adjudicated on in a short period often just by written submission] there has been a significant fall in the number of smaller cases which has resulted in a reduced amount of advocacy opportunities for young practitioners – this uncertainty is another frustration to young practitioners feel which no doubt increases their stress levels as they strive to develop their advocacy skills.” One answer may be to diversify the practice to enable juniors if they wish to do non-specialist advocacy even at a discounted rate.

Of course, there should be fairness and transparency within chambers and a solid auditable monitoring of work opportunities is the key to this. People will understandably be unhappy if they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they are being treated unfairly. If these feelings are allowed to fester, then chambers can become a toxic environment and TECBAR practitioners spend a lot of our working time actually in chambers.

Finally, at all levels (and across the Bar), our own ego is sometimes inimical to our wellbeing. Advocacy is a craft that barristers love. However, a danger with a self-employed profession where one does not have titles or ranks, is the curiosity “am I doing better than everyone else?” This is a battle that one should avoid fighting. The question should be “am I performing this craft that I love as well I can?”

Riaz Hussain QC (2001 call, 2016 silk) is a barrister at Atkin Chambers. He is the TECBAR representativeon the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.