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St John’s Buildings

This case study may be useful if you are looking for examples of increasing awareness of wellbeing, developing resilience training schemes and/or promoting wellbeing initiatives.

St John’s Buildings aims to provide a supportive environment for its members, while recognising that a career at the Bar can bring many pressures which might at times become overwhelming. Their size, experience and diversity mean that members have access to a wide pool of people who can help.

 Chambers’ “Members’ Welfare” initiative aims to raise awareness, destigmatise the issue and encourage members to connect and seek support from any of a range of internal and external sources, including each other, at an early stage.

Chambers has long provided a supportive environment for members and staff, and has been building its strength in supporting people over the last decade with provisions for private healthcare, occupational health and improved people management and support capability.   Chambers also has a good sporting history, entering teams into sporting events, such as the Great Manchester Run, Liverpool Santa Dash and regular sessions at the Velodrome, to encourage team spirit and support, with a healthy lifestyle. However, with people spread over four sites, and increasing levels of remote working they became conscious that not all members were accessing the support available in Chambers and wanted to highlight and build capability here.

What was the business (other case) for action?

The problem they are addressing:

  1. Chambers recognised the many and varied pressures members face, and the importance of mutual support in the profession.
  2. They are acutely aware of the perceived stigma associated with asking for help in a highly competitive professional arena.
  3. With over 240 members spread across the North of England and increasing levels of digital working, they are conscious of the risk that members may become isolated and not access sources of support or feel close enough to other colleagues in Chambers to ask for help and guidance.
  4. The expectation of junior barristers and members of staff has increased. They expect (or at least are more attracted to) their employer to provide support and a nurturing environment. St John’s Buildings want to stay ahead of the competition by ensuring they provide the best environment for their barristers and staff to flourish.

The business case has several aspects.

1.They have experienced stress in their membership, including members leaving the profession altogether – despite being very successful. This has a financial impact on Chambers’ income and cannot be planned for in advance due to the normally sudden and isolated nature of such a decision. This could also cause reputational damage if clients are let down at short notice or receive a poor service as a consequence.

 

2. They want to ensure they provided strong support to members returning from career breaks, limiting the loss of talent and of their investment in that talent and enhancing the wealth of real experience available across our membership.

3. They want to attract those who value a strong support network and a supportive Chambers as a factor when making decisions about which Chambers to join. This will assist SJB in attracting the best candidates, upon which they can improve their reputation for excellence. This is particularly relevant in attracting millennials, whom expect more from their employer and chambers than simply a busy diary and a pay cheque.

4. They recognise that the very best barristers can often be a victim of their own success. They want to support their barristers when they are at their busiest to enable them to deliver excellent quality when under the most pressure.

The Opportunity identified:

They considered what support could be made available for all, to de-stigmatise asking for help, improve the variety, quality and uptake of support available and ensure that all members are aware of where they can turn and do so at an early stage.

SJB intend to openly publicise that recognition and the steps they have taken to address the issue and create a supportive environment.

What did the Chambers do?

They have a history of providing a supportive network through Senior Clerks, Group Heads and barrister colleagues. However, this was not clearly recorded anywhere or recommunicated in any uniform way after members first join Chambers.

In 2015 a senior member of Chambers was asked what system was in place for someone facing ‘welfare at the Bar’ issues in Chambers. Beyond SJB’s internal support network, if a member had not signed up to the private healthcare scheme then the answer was none.

In response, the Human Resources Team drew up a short, eye-catching document entitled “Members’ Welfare” setting out St Johns Buildings’ aim “to provide a support environment for its members to enable them to thrive in their careers”. The document signposts key people in Chambers who offer support as part of their role, including: Senior Clerks, Pupillage Supervisor, Heads of Group, Equality & Diversity Officers, and members of the Senior Management Team.

External sources of support were also highlighted including: LawCare, the Wellbeing at the Bar website, charity and advice service helplines and stress management resources, such as mindfulness. This was widely circulated with a request for volunteers amongst the membership who would be happy to be “SJB Barrister Mentors” open to approaches for advice and guidance in relation to any specific welfare issues. They currently have 9 members who are named in their document as happy to be approached for support on issues including: dealing with distressing cases, overcoming anxiety, work/life balance, returning from a career break and even spiritual/pastoral support from a member who is also an ordained priest. Members are also able to volunteer anonymously for referral through the HR team when a case is suitable. Confidentiality is assured.

 

The first version of this document was published throughout Chambers in January 2016 and is regularly updated and recirculated.  It is also included as part of the induction process for new Pupils and Tenants.

To further support the skills of the Barrister Mentors, Chambers worked with the Bar Council to bring the Successful Mentoring Training event on site in Manchester in Summer 2017.

SJB dramatically increased their member wellbeing activities in 2016 and throughout 2017. In 2016, they held events including a comedy night (members doing stand-up and raising money for a mental health charity), a seminar on mindfulness, charity cycling events, dress down days etc.

In September 2017, they had the first rehearsal of their Chambers’ Choir, a new initiative being led by one of their barrister mentors, which already has 20 singers. In October 2017, they will be implementing a new “Member Assistance Programme” providing members with access to a 24/7 helpline and referral for 6 paid for counselling sessions, as well as various wellbeing resources available online.

They continue to look at items such as in-house Yoga, art classes and organised walks.

“St John’s Buildings has taken a considered approach to wellbeing, taking the time to develop initiatives that reflect the challenges its members face and that suit its culture, size, complexity and ways of working. We were impressed by an approach to mentoring that in addition to training, also encourages mentors to document their experience of issues like anxiety to help tackle stigma and enable mentees to more easily identify someone who can help them with any wellbeing concerns. Delighted to see initiatives utilising the skills of members.”

Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group

What were the results?

There was a positive response amongst the membership to the initiatives as a demonstration of Chambers’ supportive approach to its membership.  SJB ask the Barrister Mentors at yearly intervals if they have been approached. While not all had been approached in the first year, some had helped multiple colleagues with issues of stress management.  It is this collegiate support at an early stage that they hope will prevent difficulties becoming completely overwhelming for any of their members.

There is increased awareness of the issue of welfare at the Bar, with members highlighting and taking part in initiatives and showing their willingness to support each other.

Chambers has a member on the Bar Council’s Wellbeing Working Group who feeds back ideas to Chambers on initiatives to promote and raise awareness of wellbeing issues.

As mentioned above, in response to a suggestion from one of their Barrister Mentors following discussions with her practice group colleagues, on 1st October 2017, Chambers implemented a new “Member Assistance Programme” providing members with access to a 24/7 helpline and referral for 6 paid for counselling sessions, as well as various wellbeing resources available online.

Their members continue to offer ways to build relationships across Chambers through leading healthy activities such as yoga and a choir.

Tips

  • Providing multiple sources of support is important in a large, diverse set. It helps if someone can pull the strands together and share the information in an easily accessible format.
  • Don’t underestimate the willingness of members to support each other and consider investing in some training to support them.
  • Ensure the initiative is kept live through regular re-communication, monitoring and embedding in relevant processes, such as induction, return to work and practice development review meetings.
  • Be open to activities such as a choir and yoga. It can be surprising how small changes and the right messaging can improve a feeling of wellbeing with relatively little effort.
  • Use the skills of your membership – SJB have a barrister who is also a yoga teacher, they have a barrister who is also a pastor, a barrister who is a choir mistress and a barrister who plays piano to a very high grade. Every chambers has unexpected skills that others can benefit from.

The information and resource packs on this website are designed to help you and your colleagues to work as a community for better wellbeing and professional resilience. If you want to provide feedback on these resources, or to get involved in promoting wellbeing please get in touch.


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It can be difficult to make a living from law and it can be pressurised and demanding. Competition and an adversarial approach to everything can make collegiate relationships difficult. This website aims to provide you with the knowledge to manage these stressors, make emotionally informed, wise professional decisions and thrive in your chosen profession.

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Psychological wellbeing within the profession is rarely spoken about