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Charlotte May QC’s wellbeing journey

My wellbeing journey started back in 2014, when I was invited to join the Bar Wellbeing Committee as the IP Bar Association representative. I confess that, at the outset, I did not know much about wellbeing or why it was relevant to practice at the Bar. Shortly after I joined the Committee, and in an effort to learn more about it, I attended a talk organised by the Chancery Bar Association on wellbeing. The guest speaker was Dr Bill Mitchell. He is a clinical psychologist with an interest in helping working professionals (including lawyers) manage the constant stresses of daily life. He explained the balance between performance and stress in terms of a regular bell curve. The sweet spot is at the top of the curve, where the level of stress is just enough to result in peak performance.

We all know that a little bit of stress or adrenaline can help. However, it is easy to get the balance wrong, and to slip down the wrong side of the curve. That can happen very slowly, subtly and over an extended period of time, which means that you do not notice when stress starts to undermine your ability to concentrate, to retain information or just perform at your best. I certainly had not recognised that I was starting to slip down the wrong side of the curve until I heard Dr Mitchell’s talk. I was so used to cramming about 12 hours work into the 9-hour window I had in chambers between dropping my children at school in the morning and rushing home in the evening to see them still awake, and then switching on my computer and starting work again once they were in bed, I had not noticed the detrimental impact it was beginning to have.

Dr Mitchell explained that it is possible to readdress the balance by prioritising what he calls the “non-negotiables”. These are the things that you cannot live without (or at least should not go without for extended periods of time) in order to perform at your best. For some it may be a regular session at the gym or an evening out with friends, for others it may be a hot bath, winding down in front of the TV or even just a decent night’s sleep. The key message, though, is that it is up to you to identify what your non-negotiables are, and to find a way to make them a habit.

This was my Damascus moment. I realised that not only did I have permission to put myself first for a change (something which I hadn’t done for so long I had virtually forgotten how to do it!) – but that in fact it was my responsibility to do so in order to maximise my chances to be the best lawyer I can be. Since hearing Dr Mitchell’s talk, I have put wellbeing on my daily agenda. I now find time for regular exercise, I have rediscovered reading, and I know a lot more than I did about the box sets available on Netflix. The resulting benefits to my practice have been significant. I now work more efficiently; I have a greater perspective; and I really enjoy my job precisely because I am not doing it all of the time.  I also try to respect the wellbeing of my juniors and instructing solicitors, for example by not sending emails late at night or at weekends (unless absolutely necessary) or imposing unrealistic deadlines on drafts and other documents. This helps to create a happy team, and hence a productive one – something which is obviously in everyone’s interest.

If you haven’t put wellbeing on your agenda yet, I hope that this has piqued your interest. There is no better place to start than the Bar Council Wellbeing website, which you can find at www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk . It has a wealth of information tailored to you. There is even a summary of Dr Mitchell’s talk which you can find at https://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/staying-well/ – it takes less than five minutes to watch and it could help you become a happier person and a better lawyer. It certainly did for me.

Charlotte May QC (1995 call, 2014 silk) is a barrister at 8 New Square. She is the Intellectual Property Bar Association representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.