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A barrister and a clerk in conversation about wellbeing …

This blog is partly a tribute to one of my clerks, Nancy, who has been a real champion of wellbeing in chambers. It also contains some musings from the two of us about how to have conversations in chambers about wellbeing.

At the beginning of last year, I felt completely overwhelmed by events in in my personal life. I was struggling to focus and I realised that, if I didn’t stop to take a breath, I was going to go over the edge. Nancy was the second person whom I contacted to talk things through – after my mum! Nancy responded with compassion and action. She told me not to worry and took charge of my diary, ensuring that cover was arranged for my cases so that I could take time off. She checked in on me from time to time whilst I was away from chambers and she encouraged me to come back gradually once I felt able. I greatly appreciated her help and support.

Plucking up the courage to start a conversation about your own wellbeing is scary. Nancy’s sympathetic demeanour gave me the confidence, but it also helped to know that she was committed to the cause (she has been an active member of our wellbeing committee from the start) and she had the authority to take charge of my diary. My experience underlined two things that make it easier to have conversations about wellbeing in chambers. First, it is important to have senior representation from the clerks’ room on the committee. This ensures that concrete steps to help can be taken more easily. Second, it is good for the wellbeing committee to be visible in chambers so people know where to turn in a moment of crisis.

Starting a conversation with someone because you are concerned for their wellbeing can be tricky too. I do not always find this easy as I want to respect my colleagues’ privacy. Nancy has lots of wisdom and experience to offer on this subject. So I recently sat down with her to discuss how she navigates wellbeing conversations in chambers.

Nancy told me that she approaches wellbeing conversations from two different angles: her aim is to protect and help. I thought that was a good way of putting it! In other words, talking about wellbeing can both prevent issues from developing in the first place and help us deal with them if/when they do. Nancy also shared some of her top tips with me. These are set out below.

  • Be positive. This can really help to lift people’s spirits. Do not be gloomy or add your own/others experiences into the conversation as this will diminish the value of the conversation. Remain upbeat so that we can work through matters.
  • Be available. Create opportunities for conversations by walking round chambers or arranging Zoom calls. Check in more regularly on anyone who is showing signs of struggling. Arrange a variety of different chambers events to try and capture everyone so that no-one feels left out. Create an environment of inclusion and openness in which people can feel part of a team and not feel so isolated in a physical and mental capacity.
  • Be (gently) persistent. It may take time for people to open up. Pick up on the very subtle signals that people put out and never take the easy/lazy route of thinking they will tell you if there is a problem. It has got to register with the individual concerned that you are genuinely interested in their mental health and keen to listen/assist.
  • Be aware of pressure points/triggers. These will differ from person to person. But if you know in advance what is likely to cause upset or stress for a member of chambers, then you can find ways to relieve pressure and protect them in advance. This is why it is essential to have a relationship with your clerk(s) and likewise vice versa clerks with members of chambers so they too are not unduly pressured.
  • Encourage people to be realistic about how much time off they need. Barristers in crisis often want to return to work before they are ready. It is also important to encourage them to take an adequate amount of holiday in the first place as a way of preventing burn out. Other members of chambers must also be alive to the fact that clerks sometimes have to juggle diaries without being able to provide a reason for doing so – often the clerks themselves are not aware why they are doing it but being directed by a more senior clerk. Please pause and give thought to whether you have ever needed help before saying no to a request for assistance.
  • Know who is friends with whom. That way, you can encourage them to check in on one another. It helps to have more than one person who “has your back” and on whom you are able to call upon if/when the need arises. Nancy has found this of great assistance in the past when she herself was experiencing a period of depression and did not feel mentally in the right place to assist another person with their own personal situation.  Thankfully she had another person in the loop on the problem and asked if they would mind assisting on that occasion until she felt better placed to pick it up again.
  • Be respectful. Maintain confidentiality and accept if people do not want help.

Talking to Nancy got me thinking: whilst Nancy has a clear strategy for how to check up on members of chambers, how many barristers take the time to ask their clerks and members of staff how they are doing? I would like to be better at doing this! Perhaps it can be hard to know where to start. Well, can I suggest that, whilst many of Nancy’s tips come from the perspective of a clerk talking to barristers, it seems to me that they also are helpful for all conversations in chambers about wellbeing.

We hope that more barristers, their clerks and members of staff will feel able to start a conversation!

Elizabeth Gallagher, Barrister

Nancy Rice, Joint First Junior Clerk