Highlights from our Leadership & Wellbeing Conference 2024

Highlights from our Leadership & Wellbeing Conference 2024

Now that the dust has settled around our inaugural Leadership Conference at the end of last month, we wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the day and share some of the highlights from the event.

We kicked off the day by a simple question from our founder and CEO, Orlagh Kelly – “Why focus on Wellbeing at all?”

Wellbeing as a term has developed a reputation for being a buzzword in recent times, making it difficult for a lot of people to take seriously in their personal and professional lives.

However, speaking from her 20 years of experience in the legal profession, Orlagh addressed the epidemic of mental and physical health problems experienced by barristers and their support teams as a direct consequence of their work. It was clear that there is a real need for a renewed focus on wellbeing within the profession, as it is an integral pillar of the success of chambers.

Yet, in a poll taken at the beginning of the day, 73% of attendees felt their chambers only took a ‘middle of the road’ approach to wellbeing, feeling their Chambers could be doing more.

With this in mind, we spent the day at Gray’s Inn, covering some of the most pressing issues that surround wellbeing in the legal industry. Here’s what we have taken from it:

1. Mental Health Awareness

Where lies the responsibility?

With resounding agreement from our Mental Health panel on the day, it was highlighted that both barristers and chambers must share the responsibility for wellbeing - it is a collective concern that affects the individual lives of barristers and the broader life of chambers.

The main issues addressed by the panel were decision fatigue and how it has become a common issue among barristers. They also highlighted the importance of balancing work and personal life; managing this balance effectively can help regulate the mental strain put upon barristers, clerks and chambers staff.

Understanding Wellbeing

Wellbeing in the context of the Bar includes such things as having appropriate support from chambers, not feeling anxious about court appearances and managing decisions well.

Fear of failure has also become a significant factor impacting barristers’ mental health and addressing these is vital for them to become more emotionally literate - we need to learn when to seek help before reaching a crisis point.

Our panel also discussed how wellbeing is now key to attracting new talent as prospective pupils are increasingly asking about what support frameworks chambers have in place, and they’re not afraid to go elsewhere if they feel chambers aren’t a supportive environment.

On a practical level, Chambers should:

  • Encourage a renewed focus on community and the collegiality of Bar, which might look like organising more socialising events in this post-covid world.
  • Promote barristers to be more open with their clerks so they’re more alive to burnout and factor this into case allocation.

James Pereira’s Experience

James Pereira KC of Francis Taylor Building emphasised the sudden tipping point that led to his crisis situation, where he collapsed on a train as a result of prolonged stress exposure.

He delved into highlighting that education is needed to be present in the moment and how personal and professional relationships are vital to the Bar, as most, if not all, have tons of technical skills already. This might look like effectively managing client relationships to avoid being overwhelmed or how we can show up for our colleagues and create a positive energy and environment.

Recognising the non-monetary aspects of legal work can help with barrister fulfilment, in turn, help battle against mental health problems. He states we must change this legal culture to allow people to forge their own path and find working practices which work for them, to find their place of strength.

In essence, James stated we should all be opening ourselves up to receiving and listening to positive feedback, not just zoning in on the negative and genuinely being there when colleagues ask for help.

On a practical level, it’s important to fulfil personal needs outside of work, take on hobbies and be less embarrassed to try things outside our comfort zone.

“Yoga really does work”, he states.

The more of our wellbeing we hang on to the client relationship, the more devastating this is for us when things go wrong. He also talks about incorporating individual Practice Management Meetings as it can really help open up these conversations.

2. Men’s Mental Health

Men in the legal industry still face significant stigma around discussing mental health issues, largely due to the demands for perfectionism and a culture that views vulnerability as a weakness.

However, there is a clear generational shift, with younger men being much more open to discussing their struggles with mental health and leading the way in changing the conversation.

Our speaker on this topic, Nicholas O’Neill, who is the Chambers Director at Oriel Chambers stated:

“You don’t have to be an expert; just be prepared to listen.” “Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing – often you don’t need to say much at all, just be there and hear them out.”

In his talk, Nick mentioned his previous experiences of reaching out were discouraging, often simply being told to talk to his Senior Partner, and it was these experiences which inspired Nick to start his own initiatives; he saw a gap in the current support.

He went on to explain that female lawyers have been very proactive in establishing support groups and leading the conversation, but male engagement has been muted – especially in England. Taking the lead from other industries and jurisdictions, Nick has headed a number of initiatives to get men talking on diverse issues.

On a practical level, Nick promotes the introduction of appraisal systems which focus on coaching and mentoring in chambers and give training to staff so they can recognise their own limits, triggers and tipping points.

3. Coping with Grief at Work

Keeley Lengthorn focused on her advocacy for legal leave entitlement for parents who suffer pregnancy loss before 21 weeks. Drawing from her experience of enduring three miscarriages, Keeley highlighted disparities in legal protections between the UK and other countries, notably New Zealand, which provides three days of paid leave for such losses.

The campaign, known as George’s Law, aims to align UK policies with that of New Zealand and so far, the campaign has received backing from Carolyn Harris MP, with expectations for the bill to become law by the end of 2024.

Keeley stresses three key things that law firms and chambers can do to get behind the campaign:

  1. Nominate fully-trained Fertility Officers – Each workplace should have a central point of contact for all those affected by fertility and pregnancy-related issues to speak to in confidence and have their concerns recognised and addressed. Appointing one also sends a clear message to staff that Chambers and Law Firms take the issue seriously and encourage openness.
  2. All staff should take training in how to approach and support colleagues going through a pregnancy loss and Keeley has worked closely with Briefed to develop free training on this – our Workplace Pregnancy Loss Modules.
  3. Implement pregnancy loss policies and be vocal about it. This encourages other firms and sets to follow suit and changes the culture of the profession as a whole.

4. Grey Area Drinking

Can you Clerk if you don’t drink?

Clerking through the decades has been associated with a drinking culture, as it often plays a key role in networking and socialising with clients. However, it has become more apparent that drinking routinely can lead to many problems. For example, reliance on alcohol to manage stress can significantly increase the risk of harming your health and relationships.

Andrew Love, Senior Clerk at 5RB, addressed the question,

“Can you be a successful clerk without drinking?”

The profession now enjoys greater diversity than ever before, and the "boozy days" of meetings are rapidly declining in favour of a cleaner and more professional ethos. It is crucial to empower staff with the understanding that alcohol consumption is not mandatory for success in clerking.

On a practical level, Andy also promotes the idea of offering non-alcoholic options, like mocktails, that are a far reach from the standard orange juice or water offered currently at events. And for chambers, consideration should be given as to how can they help clerks initiate ways to meet with clients that aren’t centred around drinking alcohol

Achieving Optimal Performance in Business and Life

Elite performance coachAndy Ramage shared his views on the effects of alcohol on general life and professional performance after hindering his performance in business for years on end.

He believes that due to alcohol being deeply ingrained in our culture, it's challenging to have open conversations about its impact. According to Andy, alcohol affects all parts of the body, including the brain, body, and sleep, leading to a potential 60% reduction in overall performance. He emphasised that individuals who develop drinking problems often start as moderate drinkers, and he urges employers to pay attention to this.

"A couple of drinks during the week, a few more at the weekend, the occasional binge."

Andy questions the message employers send when they organise alcohol-centred events and believes that it's the responsibility of employers to set an example that prioritises both performance and health improvement.

5. Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma is a new concept that has only recently been recognised as a prominent issue in the legal sector, especially in relation to family and criminal practices.

Similar to the TV and Film industry, barristers often find themselves dealing frequently with traumatic material, seemingly without the research, understanding and infrastructure needed to deal with an issue like vicarious trauma effectively.

Our Vicarious Trauma speakers delved into their own personal experiences associated with reading harrowing content from their cases – such as nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, low mood, irritability and general anxiety in their private lives.

Former barrister-turned-vicarious trauma coach Camilla Wells recognised the legal sector's flawed regard of working beyond capacity, referencing that 30% of legal professionals struggle with low mood and depression.

There is a clear need for further focus on the area within the profession, with Camilla referencing three key steps to reduce the effects of vicarious trauma at the Bar:

  1. Acknowledge the problem
  2. Foster open discussions
  3. Provide adequate support, training and resources

The post-COVID era has had a huge effect on how barristers deal with the traumatic materials they endure daily, with the loss of collegiality and community Support systems on the decline, as evidenced by one of the barristers who said it took weeks for someone to get back to her when she called a professional support line.

Although the advice to many is to take a break and avoid burnout or overexposure, not everyone can afford to, especially at the beginning of their career at the Bar. Which is why it’s important for Chambers and the Bar as a whole to ensure they have better resources for the barristers and chambers staff.

Criminal and Family Sets  

With criminal and family practices most affected by Vicarious Trauma, we had criminal barrister, Farrhat Arshad KC from Doughty Street Chambers discuss how her long experience in criminal law led to this type of trauma, starting incrementally and building up over time – the more successful she was, the more traumatic work she got briefed in.

She eloquently compares it to the “frog in boiling water” analogy,

“You don’t realise how badly you are affected until you're at tipping point.“

For Farrhat, she dealt with the pressure by taking of time off to raise kids which allowed her to reflect and she urges barristers and clerks to implement the following:

  • Use the Run & Recover method – take short breaks instead of waiting for time to take a long-extended break.
  • For clerks, look out for your barristers joking about stress and burnout as this might be an underlying issue and be aware of the cases you’re giving barristers time after time – switch up the case type, if possible.

6. Completing the Stress Cycle

Natalie Connor delivered this part of the conference, touching on her experience of 8 years at the Bar before forging her own path in legal tech and wellness.

It is widely known that the Bar is one of the most stressful professions due to its unpredictability, long working hours, lack of days off and ruthless deadlines. Naturally, stress will build up within individuals exposed to these feelings and situations regularly.

Therefore, the need for physical activity becomes evidently essential when addressing stress. Mental actions and emotional processing are simply not enough.

Completing the Stress cycle dates back to our very first ancestors, where they would have a much clearer catharsis after the stress of hunting or being hunted. This is not the case today, given the evolution of mankind, however the element of physical catharsis is still essential in addressing stress in our lives.

Addressing the stressor on its own does not remove the stress itself and you cannot talk yourself out of a stress cycle.

Natalie touched on very simple exercises that can help us do this including:

  • Getting in 20-60 minutes of daily physical activity
  • Deep breathing and Box Breathing exercises,
  • Adopting the ‘Tense & Release’ Method
  • Physical affection (20-second hugs and 6-second kisses)
  • Using crying as a stress release
  • Belly laughing
  • Socialising (small social interactions can really benefit)

7. Changing Chambers’ Culture

Even after all of this fantastic information, what really stands in the way of Health & Wellbeing is the culture created within individual chambers and at the Bar as an entire entity.

Years of a toxic culture surrounding vulnerability have sparked an urgent need for change, as almost one in six are considering leaving the profession. These figures are even higher at the publicly funded Bar.

So, what are the solutions? The driving force behind this must be building a supportive culture and psychological safety within chambers.

Michael Harwood, a barrister from 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, advocated for bringing an end to anachronistic mindsets, where juniors are seen almost as minions and take on the worst cases that nobody else will.

Arguably, one of the most important solutions mentioned was breaking down the “Us and Them” divide between clerks and counsel. The reality is that the relationship is symbiotic and the wellbeing of each is essential to the other.

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