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Recovering from a set-back in your career

Everyone joining or practising at the bar will have experienced setbacks in their career.  As a student applying through Gateway for pupillage, as an established practitioner applying for silk or judicial positions, or as any barrister managing the failure of their advice or judicial acceptance of their legal opinion.

Failure isn’t something that high functioning professionals speak about, as we only ever wish to be reminded of success. But in fact, lessons learnt from failure can be more valuable than the victories. If we can muster the strength to reflect upon these experiences and do so in a structured and positive way, then the shame, disappointment, frustration and other negative emotions associated with failure can be turned into positive ones, used for managing future experiences.  This is no easy task when (according to research) human beings are hardwired to focus on risk and danger.  Therefore, it is no surprise that we remember a negative experience or comment for five times longer than a positive one, as part of our survival instincts.  Add to that the perfectionism and rumination traits and behaviours of barristers, and you have a toxic cocktail for your mental health and wellbeing.

So, what steps can we take?

  1. Face the facts – Whether you sit down with a friend, family member, teacher, mentor or therapist, talking about what has happened is the starting point to getting the facts established from the fiction. Writing them down or dividing them into fact and feelings on a page can also be useful for confidentially journaling the positive or negative emotions attached. This helps with processing them later.
  2. Learn from the experience – adopting the mindset of learning is a protective factor. It allows us to be forgiving of mistakes and use what we have learnt, both positive and negative, to shape our behaviour in future.
  3. Focus on the positive – a wealth of research has proved that focusing on positive experiences, or in the case of really awful experiences, what positive actions will come from them, can reframe these negative experiences – with all the associated fear and trauma – to more neutral ones.
  4. Cultivate a growth mindset – a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, according to research, drives motivation and achievement. There is power in our beliefs (conscious and unconscious) which affect all aspects of our lives. Operating with a growth mindset sees challenges and failures as opportunities for learning, creates neuro plasticity (flexible thinking pathways) and better resilience.  Growth mindsets can also transcend socio-economic factors, suggesting that they can be applied to all ages, and stages of your career. Recognising which mindset, you’re in and consciously working on yourself to be more focused and positive will impact your learning, self-care and confidence.
  5. Reach out to your network – it is times like these when you need your friends.  Social support, love and kindness from those around us should never be underestimated. Take care to foster positive relationships with others.
  6. Avoid negative influences – these can be people, places, habits or isolation, to name a few.  In a competitive environment where toxic comments can be injurious to our mental health, take time to reflect in a safe place and regain perspective before the ‘mood hoovers’ fill you with further dread, doom or other negative emotions.
  7. Stay healthy – experiences which knock us off course or have been traumatic and tumultuous can fill our body and mind with chemicals that prepare us for fight or flight. Any emotive experience can leave us feeling exhausted after the immediate danger passes or running for unhealthy fixes. Remember the basics of diet, sleep and exercise during these challenging periods to keep you fuelled, clear-headed and help dissipate the harmful build-up of chemicals in the body. See the ‘staying well’ tips from Dr Bill Mitchell for a reminder of the reasoning behind this.

Do not be afraid to ask questions, be curious to obtain facts and feedback so that you can reflect and learn.  If you are the one who is asked to give this, please take time to be constructive with your comments. Honesty is of course important, but take care to choose appropriate language, give examples if possible, and provide some structure which can be usefully reflected upon and managed for the future.  Most importantly, know that we have all experienced setbacks in our career. Don’t look back, look forward. In this business success is not final, failure is not fatal: it’s the courage to continue that counts.

Rachel Spearing is a Barrister at Serjeants’ Inn Chambers in London.  Called in 1999. She has a wide civil and criminal practice covering coronial, police, regulatory and disciplinary Law.  She co-founded the Wellbeing at the Bar Programme and is Director of Wellness for Law UK a ‘not for profit’ organization supporting the Bar.

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