Young barristers report lower levels of overall wellbeing

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By Legal Cheek on

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Crime and family worst by practice area


Young barristers have reported experiencing “lower levels of overall wellbeing” compared to their more senior colleagues.

The Bar Council’s research found that overall, barristers reported higher levels of work satisfaction and wellbeing in 2023 when compared to 2021.

However, women, barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, and those who are younger and more junior demonstrated poorer levels of overall wellbeing.

While 60% of respondents agreed they tended to have a good mood, a little over third said they tended to feel down or in low spirits. Of these, nearly a quarter reported low psychological wellbeing.

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The report further found that, generally, as barristers age, they report higher levels of wellbeing. Specifically, those aged 65 and over reported significantly higher wellbeing compared to all younger age groups.

Elsewhere, nearly three quarters of respondents agreed they had supportive colleagues and/or work environment, a 6% uptick compared the Bar Council’s 2021 report. Sixty-one percent said they felt satisfied with their job.

Breaking the findings down by practice area, family barristers had significantly lower overall wellbeing compared to all other areas, with the exception of those at the criminal bar. Those working in commercial law — one of the top paying practice areas at the bar — reported the highest average overall wellbeing.

Chair of the Bar Council, Sam Townend KC, said:

“The latest data reflects an improvement in some aspects of wellbeing at the bar. This deserves recognition. Notwithstanding the challenges of pay and conditions for parts of the bar, in particular, in publicly funded work, it is good to see these improvements being made. The publication of this report offers an opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work on wellbeing carried out by some at the bar, clerks and staff.”

He continued: “Concerningly, younger, more junior barristers, women and barristers from an ethnic minority background reported lower levels of overall wellbeing as did barristers working in criminal and family law. These are the areas we will continue to focus on in terms of personal wellbeing and working conditions.”

13 Comments

10+ years call

The reasons have changed.

It used to be anxiety over income.

Now there’s no shortage of work and the pay is great but as a result juniors are being worked so hard that there is no downtime.

Al

I do a bit of advocacy training. In previous years about half of the pupils or new practitioners would be aiming for, or have, a practice in crime or family. Now in a group of 40, we will often have fewer than half a dozen people thinking of those areas. People are realising that they’re just not viable areas of practice when one considers income.

Also, during the criminal bar ‘strike’, a lot of people took up work in other areas; and they’re just not returning.

The knock on effect is a lack of counsel now to prosecute and defend in criminal cases. Trials are having to be listed years in the future, and listed trials are so often having to be adjourned because of lack of counsel.

Wellbeing is also a part of this. It’s not just the lack of adequate renumeration, it’s the workload now.

A colleague is very involved in wellbeing at the bar. She invited us to a seminar. At the seminar a very senior practitioner stated that every day he just hoped to be hit by a car. “Not anything serious, just enough to put me in hospital for a bit so I can have an excuse for a break”. We responded that we all felt like that. But of course I guess that was the point of the seminar.

I don’t blame people for abandoning crime and family, I sold my soul years ago and moved into civil work. But we are heading to, if we have not already reached, a stage where there just won’t be a functioning criminal justice system or family law bar.

Civil Junior

If the clerks decided to treat the diary a bit less like a game of Tetris, then that would help.

“I’m certain something is going to come out, Sir / Miss” is all well and good when you, the clerk, are not staring down the barrel of 3 multi-day hearings back to back and working through 4 weekeneds on the bounce on top of 14-16 hour court days during the week.

The pressure to be busy is considerable, but one can be busy with adequate preparation time. That often yields better results and more repeat business in any event. I had my most successful financial year to date last year and I feel like I worked less – this was down to procuring quality repeat instructions from well-paying clients.

Also, from a civil perspective at least, the money is more than good enough to let those occasional hearings go in order to have sufficient time to prepare during the week and manage to have a life outside of work at the weekend.

It makes organising one’s personal life extremely difficult when you look at the blocked up diary for the next year thinking “well I can’t commit to plans that weekend as I start a trial on the Monday so will likely be working” etc. That also takes an existential toll too.

I know these are very different pressures from those faced by my colleagues at the criminal and family Bar – frankly, I would no longer be doing the job if I had to put up with what they do, and the issues faced by practitioners in those areas make my concerns look far less significant.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any pupil or starter tenant is: learn to say “no” to the clerks, and then (something I am now struggling with) learn to say “no” to yourself.

Anon

Then your clerk gets pulled up by Senior/Junior Members for turning work away or because Chambers earnings are low.

Not the original poster

Apologies – as a consequence of what, specifically?

In any event:

1. Barrister colleagues in Chambers have no authority over the working hours I choose to keep – that is one of the benefits of self-employment;

2. I value my quality of life and personal relationships with friends and family above the greed of my colleagues;

3. Effective clerking is not simply a question of filling the diary – effective clerking is also about ensuring that their members have sufficient time to prepare their cases so that repeat instructions may be secured, resulting in higher-quality and better paid briefs, while also ensuring that their members remain healthy and motivated. It does a clerk no favours if their members take the view that the balance isn’t right from them and either a) leave the Bar, or b) even worse, leave Chambers for a competitor.

Civil Even More Junior

Interesting. I feel like my practice is going that way. I’m 3 years post-tenancy and find it impossible to say no. Out of interest what is your monthly income? Feel like I very much miss out financially by turning away hearings when I can get away with not preparing as much as I would like. But I’m not sure if it is damaging my practice in the long run.

Civil Junior

In line with what I’d expect to receive at the likes of A&O, Freshfields or Linklaters at the same level of qualification, and I practise in an area which is not commercial.

From my perspective, I think that is a good deal given the flexibility that I have as counsel, and this is in the context of working on average less hard than someone in one of those firms in a transactional team (even if the occasional weekend gets sacrificed because of a trial starting on Monday).

I estimate that I could have billed around another 30-35k for the calendar year had I taken less holiday / put myself under more pressure.

In terms of getting away with not preparing as much as you would like, my view is that each barrister needs to decide for themselves what their appetite for risk is and how comfortable they are winging it to an extent.

Personally, my appetite for risk is low – going into court is significantly more stressful when you’re under-prepared. I find that stress has a knock-on impact on other parts of life. Additionally, there is a greater risk that you will make a mistake and, in those circumstances, a solicitor is unlikely to use you again. You also risk looking poor in front of a judge who you might go on to appear in front of on a regular basis. Reputation means a lot at the Bar.

I prefer to ensure that my cases are fully prepared, to the extent that I am able to (not always possible), and that I am available to field queries from my solicitors on an ad hoc basis, which I think is good client care and makes them more likely to use you again. Also, you’re more likely to win if you’re more prepared, again leading hopefully to repeat instructions and moreover to a positive reputation with the court. The other benefits are principally: a) it better protects your personal life (while acknowleding that the Bar is not a 9-5, long hours are part of the job, as is weekend working, but this serves to mitigate the worst effects), and b) it means you are more likely to have capacity when that really high quality set of instructions comes in. If you’re just churning your day-to-day then you may not be around to take in that lovely brief for a bank or an interesting case on appeal.

I’ve found that building trust with the clerks is important – show them the results of your approach and they will support you, though never forget that they have a job to do too and you should help them out when they really need it (and recognising when they genuinely need help is a skill in itself). It’s a relationship of compromise but ultimately you’re there to help each other.

a

Very good comment. Saying “no” is very hard to do.

Out of interest, what area do you practise in?

Civil Even More Junior

Great advice! Thank you

Long Suffering Clerk

In recent years a huge amount has been done to improve the wellbeing of barristers at the bar. There are countless new chambers policies in place, travelling has reduced significantly and digital working prevents the need to carry heavy paper files. When I first started you were lucky to get £12K for a pupilage award, these have significantly increased with the top sets offering close to £100K.

However I can’t say that this has been reflected in staff policies or in the way that some barristers treat their staff!

Being self employed means you can work a little or as much as you like, whatever your clerk may say. The Bar is a hard job with lots of pressures and long working hours, it’s certainly not for everyone. That said, I have seen a positive shift in the diversity of pupils coming through in recent years, also a lot more from state schools.

The appetite for work and travel has dropped off a cliff amongst new barristers since COVID. Junior barristers have a much higher expectation of the level of work they’re prepared to do, often turning their noses up at the prospect of attending a Small Claim.

Such attitudes can come across negatively to clerking teams, who will be working very hard to keep the wheels of chambers turning. The Clerk/Barrister relationship is symbiotic, a good relationship is essential to each other’s success. Not all barristers are the same, what might be easy for one may be difficult for another. Your clerks should help and support you if you communicate your needs.

Just remember that you get out of this job what you put in.

Chambers is a team and they need you to play your part in order for it to be successful for everyone.

Very junior

I love a good PPI small claim, some of the motor finance ones coming through are pretty fun as well

Junior Counsel

Well said that Clerk!

I suspect you might be my clerk.

Does your Chambers start with a “2”?

Long Suffering Clerk

Haha, I am not your clerk, but I could be if you were interested in growing your civil practice……

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