Mental health – is the Bar doing enough to protect barristers?

Mental health – is the Bar doing enough to protect barristers?

Grania Langdon-Down looks at how the Bar is seeking to support the psychological wellbeing of the profession and speaks to those who are driving change and those who have been directly affected by the pressures barristers are under.

With the launch this month of a new cross-profession taskforce to support mental health and wellbeing in the legal community, is the Bar doing enough to help protect barristers?

One of the key aims of the taskforce is to tackle the stigma that can surround mental health and be a barrier to accessing support.

In the driven world of barristers where colleagues can also be competitors and so much is about winning and losing, the Bar is keen to take a lead in raising awareness of the importance of psychological wellbeing in the workplace.

In April last year, the Bar Council published “Wellbeing at the Bar”, the first ever survey into the wellbeing of the profession. More than 2,500 barristers responded and the survey flagged up a worrying picture, not just of the pressures barristers feel under but also their fears that admitting they are suffering from depression, anxiety or stress might be seen as a sign of failure.

The survey found:
• one in three find it difficult to control/stop worrying
• two in three feel showing signs of stress equals weakness
• one in six feel in low spirits most of the time
• 59% demonstrate unhealthy levels of perfectionism
• psychological wellbeing within the profession is rarely spoken about

So what is being done practically to help barristers?

Barrister and academic Rachel Spearing has been driving change at the Bar. Her experience as a circuit junior where a leader in a case took his own life made her determined to press for better support and guidance.

“By its nature, working as a self-employed barrister can be a very lonely place,” she says.

A member of the Bar’s equality & diversity committee, she commissioned the wellbeing survey and led the research. “This is about staying well and functioning at your best,” she says. “You can’t craft an argument if you are exhausted and you can’t be in court back-to-back because you aren’t super human.”

Spearing, a criminal law barrister at Pump Court, is now chairing the Wellbeing at the Bar programme which aims to change the Bar’s perception, attitude and approach towards health and wellbeing and make it normal for barristers to invest in their own wellbeing.

The first step has been to set up a working group of representatives from the specialist bar associations, Inns of Court, circuits and clerks to create an online bank of resources which it plans to launch this summer.

“This is a baby step,” acknowledges Sam Mercer, the Bar Council’s head of equality & diversity and CSR, “but everybody recognises we are in this for the long haul. So let’s start to understand what wellbeing means for those at the Bar.

“How do you build and maintain resilience? How do you navigate interventions and support? How do you have those conversations in chambers? How do you provide support for those 20% of barristers who are employed?”

One of those resources is LawCare. The charity was set up in 1997 initially to help solicitors with alcohol problems. But it now supports all parts of the legal profession, including students and those in training, support staff and families in the UK, Isle of Man and Eire.

It has an extensive website, which is currently being refreshed, and a helpline run by trained staff and 20 volunteers who help callers access the right support.

One volunteer is Henry, (not his real name), a barrister with personal experience of how much has changed over the last 20 years – and how much still needs to change.

He had a drink problem for the first five years of practice. “I was turning up for court stinking of booze,” he recalls. “As the complaints grew, my chambers asked my former pupil master to have a word. He did – in a pub.”

At the time, support from the Bar was non-existent, so he sought help through his GP and, now in his 40s, he has been teetotal for 20 years. However, he has continued to suffer intermittent difficulties with depression, which he has kept from his chambers.

“I have looked into what the Bar is doing but it has yet to filter though to all chambers – mine is still struggling to embrace the notion of wellbeing,” he says.

The way he has learnt to cope has been to “live better, to exercise and eat healthily,” he says. “About three years ago, I came to a point in my life when I felt I wanted to give something back. A friend who had been helped enormously by LawCare told me about it. I sense I may have made a small difference, if only by providing a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear.”

The charity is driving the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce, launched to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. Initiated by the Law Society, it brings together 15 partners including the Bar Council, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, CILEx, the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, the University of Law, BPP and Newcastle University.

The aim is to identify areas for collaboration and mechanisms for establishing and sharing best practice as there has been no evaluative research done on the effectiveness of existing wellbeing programmes.

Awareness of what support is available is low in the legal profession. Only about 500 individuals called LawCare’s helpline last year, including 53 barristers – 18 about stress, 11 suffering from depression, five from alcohol and four each with financial problems, disciplinary issues or bereavement.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, the charity’s chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer believes. “It may be the helpline is perceived as a crisis line or like the Samaritans,” she says, “but we want people to come to us earlier before their lives are spiralling.”

More calls are coming from students and trainees feeling overwhelmed. Both the taskforce and the Bar’s working group want law schools and the Inns to develop teaching components on mental health and wellbeing so those coming into the legal profession learn how to build resilience.

At the same time, the specialist bar associations, the Inns, chambers and junior bar groups are developing initiatives.

The Chancery Bar Association is holding a wellbeing seminar on 15 June 2016 at the Royal College of Surgeons with input from LawCare, a clinical psychologist and a professional performance coach.

Middle Temple’s key initiative is its Survive and Thrive programme for members of the Inn and the Bar, as well as those who work closely with them, such as clerks and chambers directors. Alongside macro business-level matters, it investigates different ways of thinking, behaving and working.

The Inn also offers space for drop-in mindfulness sessions, a Lean In Circle, and yoga. Bar students, who are offered a sponsor when they join Middle Temple the Inn, also have access to a counselling service.

Natalie Hearn, project manager at Matrix Chambers, says barristers can feel isolated because of different work schedules and practices so they offer several social events a month to maintain a sense of community.

The chambers’ annual Health Week this year focused on wellbeing and mental health initiatives, such as stress awareness.

“We are starting to address mental health concerns as a specific issue, rather than under the umbrella of wellbeing,” Hearn explains. “We are drafting our action plan under the Time to Change initiative, in which organisations pledge to help reduce mental health stigma.”

One of the most powerful ways to raise awareness is through personal testimonies. By speaking openly of his struggle to find a better balance between his work and personal life, James Pereira QC is helping barristers at all stages of their careers realise that showing signs of stress doesn’t equal weakness.

For Pereira, work became all consuming, taking up evenings and weekends and, eventually, taking its toll on his home life.

“One of the delights of the Bar is we are our own masters,” he says, “but you have to manage that properly.”

Deeply unhappy, he started to question the assumptions that “you must never turn work away, that you must take on last minute briefs, that everything has to be done to the standard of perfection,” he says.

He started to say no to work and diarise his planning and preparation time which made a “huge difference”, though he acknowledges: “It isn’t easy to buck the trend because part of you feels you aren’t really a proper barrister.”

But, says Pereira, what barristers need to realise is their reputation is built on the excellence of their work, not whether they are working all hours because those kinds of work habits can be destructive.

“The message needs to get out there that having a proper work/life balance is a step towards enhancing performance and not a step back from it and it is a choice that barristers should be able to make.”

Useful contacts:

LawCare: helpline 0800 279 6888;


The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.


Related Articles:
Latest Articles:
About the author: