The concept of “wellbeing” at the Bar has been floating around for quite some time now. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, wellbeing has now been thrust directly and more sharply than ever into the legal spotlight. Many barristers are wondering just what the long-term impact of the national public health emergency will be on the justice system and on each member of the Bar’s wellbeing. It therefore seems appropriate to shed some light on a few of the so called “stressors” which many barristers come across at work that can have a serious impact on their mental health and wellbeing. The aim of this blog is to provide you with a couple of useful tips to reduce the impact of stress at work.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
When a client needs to call upon Lady Justice, they often feel as if they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. One of the first steps in a barrister (or solicitor’s) professional role is to lessen that burden and attempt to unpick the problem that led to that client’s involvement in the court system in the first place. They do this through giving the client sound legal advice. However, there can be times where not even the most experienced barrister will have the requisite skill to get their client out of a sticky, potentially life-changing situation, particularly if you practise in the family or criminal spheres. Human beings (on the whole) are natural empaths. When a friend, family member, or even a member of the public has a problem, many of us will naturally try to help, give advice, and attempt to provide a solution. However, this is not always possible when one has a client who is on the verge of a mental break down or, in the extreme, feels suicidal. During these moments, a barrister can become almost like a “sponge” and absorb all of their client’s emotions; in doing so experiencing secondary trauma. Of course, this will vary depending on the particular personality of the individual barrister. The same phenomenon applies to solicitors who also pride themselves on managing their client’s expectations. When those expectations are not reached, it can be a hard pill for even the most (seemingly) thick-skinned amongst us. The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress (also known as compassion fatigue) may include feelings of isolation, anxiety, dissociation, physical ailments, and sleep disturbance. Additionally, compassion fatigue is associated with a sense of confusion, helplessness, and a greater sense of isolation from your friends and supporters than is seen with burnout. (Figley, 1995, 2002). It is preventable and treatable, however, if left unaddressed, symptoms can develop into mental and physical health problems, strained personal relationships, and poor work performance (Pryce, Shackelford, & Pryce, 2007).
Tips to prevent this from happening
- Connect with your colleagues – they say a problem shared is a problem halved. Talking about some of the difficulties you may have experienced in your case (whilst maintaining your client’s confidentiality) with trusted colleagues who may have experienced a similar situation, or others who will listen, can really help you process your emotions.
- Maintain a work-life balance – it is important to book time off work and to balance your professional life with things you enjoy doing outside of work. This will prevent, and lessen the effects of, workplace stress. Like your work, your personal life should be case managed in the same way. Planning in what you do outside of work can help you refocus on the good things to look forward to. An honest conversation with your clerk can help you focus on areas to improve on in your work diary.
Arguing at work
The primary role of a barrister is to argue. This is a necessary and essential part of the job. But what happens when you have to do this five days a week? What impact does that have on your wellbeing or mental health? Exposure to emotionally stressful events, such as “argumentative” confrontations, can have a greater impact of your cardiovascular system than other non-emotional events, such as running, according to a study conducted at the University of California. Not surprisingly, lawyers also experience a higher risk of mental illness and addiction. Finding ways to manage this is vital for your physical health and overall wellbeing.
- Use relaxation techniques – practising grounding and mindfulness techniques can be extremely beneficial when you are either in or about to go into a very stressful situation in the court arena. YouTube has many short self-care videos that you can watch on your phone on your trip to court. Alternatively, spending 5 minutes in the morning listening to “Headspace” or “the buddify” app can have a really positive impact on your daily outlook. If you are in the midst of a stressful situation, taking a quick 2-minute break to practise breathing techniques can improve high blood pressure and provide mental clarity. “Breathe Ball” provides stress relief breathing exercises and is a free app for iOS and android users to download.
- Regular exercise – good physical health equals good mental health. Healthy mind, healthy body, “Mens sana in corpore sano”, is a well-known maxim for a reason. Ensuring that you take regular exercise whether that be for a 15-minute jog around the park or a brisk walk, can do wonders for your mental health. Physical activity greatly enhances our wellbeing. Setting yourself a goal, for example Couch to 5k or running the local half marathon, can help you work towards your physical health goals and give you a sense of purpose. It helps shift your focus away from your work life and onto what matters most of all, YOU.
Outside of the current lockdown, it is common for barristers to travel hundreds of miles across the UK to attend court hearings. This can be particularly stressful when one has to get up earlier than normal to avoid the morning rush hour, having spent a long evening and possibly night preparing a case. On top of this are the additional problems with: traffic, delays, vehicle breakdowns, long travel hours, making sure the google sat nav works etc, neck and back ache from carrying heavy briefcases around. All on top of trying to marshal your thoughts about the court battle on arrival.
Ways to ensure your travel is prepared for the week:
- Learn how to work and navigate your way around e-bundles and work digitally as much as possible – this saves the faff of carrying paper bundles around in addition to helping the environment by avoiding printing and disposing of paper. Double win! Criminal practitioners have already had the benefit of this with the Digital Case System.
- Prepare your journeys in advance the weekend before if you know where you are going to be – fill up your car on the Friday evening and book those train tickets and hotels in advance. This will give you more time to enjoy your weekend and save stressing about it on the Sunday evening when you are most likely to be preparing work for the following week. Set a reminder on your phone every Friday morning to ensure you do not forget this task to make your week ahead just that bit less hectic.
- Whilst on your car or train journey you may wish to practice stretching. You don’t have to be a yoga master to attempt this. Many of us have stiff necks when travelling in the car on long journeys or from constantly looking down at our phones or computers. This can be caused by muscles weakening over time from poor posture or misuse. Here are some stretches you can try at your desk or in the car that may help you to avoid a stiff neck:
- Roll your shoulders backwards and down 10 times.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together 10 times.
- Push your head backwards into your car head rest or hands and hold for 30 seconds.
- Bring your ear to your shoulder 10 times on each side.
- Downloading the following apps on your phone may give you greater piece of mind on your journey:
- Tickety Split– If you intend on getting the train to your court hearing, this app allows you to divide your train ticket into 2 separate tickets. This can save you hundreds of pounds a year. All it requires is for you to simply enter the journey you want to make, and the app will tell you if it is cheaper to split and at which locations.
- Trail Wallet app (£1.99)– although not free, this app is great for tracking your daily expenditure and sticking to your budget while travelling. In addition, it allows you to set a daily budget and then tracks your spending towards it.
- ViaMichelin– this app allows you to optimise your route based on travel conditions. The app gives you real time information about traffic jams, delays and much more.
- Tablepouncer– this is a great app for grabbing a restaurant bargain. The app offers large discounts at restaurants on the same or the following day.
Working outside 9-5 hours
Sorry Dolly, “working 9 to 5” simply does not cut it at the Bar, even if you are extremely organised. Most self-employed barristers will work outside the typical 9-5 hours, especially if you happen to have a late day in court with another hearing lined up the next day. This may also of course be the case for employed barristers depending on the nature of their work. On top of this, there are the additional tasks to complete such as attendance notes, drafting orders etc that normally must be done before preparation can start for your next case. If this is not possible, that work gets shifted to a quieter working day or, alternatively, the weekend, when you should be enjoying down time to catch up with family or refocus on other non-related work activities. One thing you are not taught at Bar School is how to embrace the case management skills of being your own personal assistant à la Devil Wears Prada! To some of us that skill comes naturally whereas for others it can take years to cultivate. Check out some of the tips below to help you organise your weekly routine.
Tips to help organise your work routine:
- List the number of tasks you have to complete for the week and tick them off as you go along.
- Schedule the time you need to accomplish your tasks. This will force you to focus on the task at hand and help you complete it quicker without being distracted.
- Set a date for when you intend to complete the tasks. This can be done on your phone calendar or on an app, such as Wunderlist.
- Use your chambers template or your own template for attendance notes. Have the template readily accessible on your computer home desktop to access during or after every hearing. This will save time and ensure you attendance notes remain looking tidy and professional as well as consistent.
- Reflect on what you enjoyed doing at the end of the day. What went well? This will help you practice the art of gratefulness and enable you live a more fulfilling life by focusing on the positives in each day. Check out thehappyadvocado.com blog for further inspiration and wellbeing tips.
There are many other stressors at the Bar that this article has not touched upon. The tips noted above are aimed at alleviating some of the most common stressors at the Bar and in the legal profession with some links and suggestions which the author (not on commission!) hopes you will find some inspiration from. If there are any more tips you can think of or that you already utilise in your practice, which you think others would benefit from, it would be great to hear from you, confidentiality guaranteed. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know.
Yasmine El-Nazer is a family law barrister at Albion Chambers and an active member of her Chambers’ Wellbeing committee, writing articles within Chambers and for the Western Circuit (where this blog was first published).