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Research: sleep-starved barristers are court zombies

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The profession is stressed out and depressed, according to the Bar Council’s own survey, with a fifth saying they would never recommend legal practice as a career

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More than half of barristers are likely to be cat-napping in court, researchers revealed yesterday with a report showing the majority of the profession claims to suffer some form of insomnia.

A survey into the physical and psychological health of barristers at all levels of call also revealed widespread despair for the profession’s future. Nearly one barrister in five would never recommend a career at the bar.

And a quarter of barristers reported debilitating work-related stress levels, saying they were nervous, anxious or on edge most or all the time. Commenting on anxiety at the bar, the researchers said:

“Stigma around stress in the workplace has a profound impact on individuals who not only feel unable to speak up but are then more likely to get stressed about being stressed. This cumulative effect represents risk to health, performance and reputation.”

The research — conducted by the Bar Council in conjunction with all four Inns of Court — provided stark evidence of professional ennui, arguably the result of increased competition from solicitor-advocates and government cuts to legal aid.

Respondents said a direct manifestation of increasing levels of stress at the bar was poor sleep. Some 55% said they did not have good quality shut-eye more than “sometimes”.

Likewise, 15% of barristers said they were in low spirits either most or all of the time. When the category “sometimes” was factored into that equation, the figure rocketed to 83%.

And 62% said they experienced “little interest or pleasure” in life generally — presumably because they were so naffed-off with their jobs.

Leadership worries

Barristers were also unimpressed with the quality of leadership in their chambers and the wider profession. Some 63% answered “not at all” or only “sometimes” when asked if they saw “role models amongst those in a leadership capacity at the bar”.

Responding to the findings, Bar Council chairman Alistair MacDonald QC, said:

“While some degree of stress is inevitable when working at the bar, when it becomes unmanageable and impacts on a person’s wellbeing and health, as well as their work, it tips over into being a problem.”

MacDonald, who is based at Leeds and Newcastle set New Park Court Chambers, continued:

“For too long, stress, mental health and wellbeing have been taboo subjects of discussion at the bar and the wider legal sector.”

He claimed the Bar Council would react to the findings by kick-starting initiatives “aimed at tackling this issue head on and enabling barristers and those who work with them to maintain a balanced working life. The survey showed that those barristers who had experienced some level of mentoring were more resilient to the stress levels encountered in the profession”.

MacDonald said the council would expand its current mentoring service beyond its current focus on silk and judicial appointments “to ensure suitable mentoring — social support — is available to barristers whatever their life stage or need …”

The council is also expected to join forces with the inns, circuits and specialist bar associations “to identify existing good practice across the bar and to design and deliver a long term education programme to bring about culture change in relation to wellbeing”.

Commented the chairman:

“This is a bar-wide challenge and, as well as the self-employed bar, we are also looking at how the junior end of the profession as well as the employed bar can be supported to help manage the pressures they face in their careers at the bar.”

Read the report in full below:

Wellbeing at the Bar Report