Guest blog: Keeping it sane at the Employment Bar

1 June 2017

Rachel Crasnow QC

                                 Rachel Crasnow QC

In mid-May the Employment Law Bar Association (ELBA) held its first Well-being event. Entitled "Keeping each other sane: tips for leading a happy legal life" it was billed as being a humorous yet introspective look at how to reduce the stressful parts of everyday working at the employment bar.

We devised a panel comprising the key roles which surround ELBA practitioners (barrister, solicitor, judge and clerk) and asked them to identify one thing about the other 3 roles on the panel they appreciated, and one thing which drove them mad!

We were lucky enough to have the wisdom and wit of Employment Judge James Tayler - former barrister at Devereux who could contrast both roles with the benefit of experience, Partner Lucy McLynn from who had also started legal life as a barrister, equal pay silk Daphne Romney QC from Cloisters and Senior Practice Manager Richard Powell from Tanfield Chambers.

The compliments and grumbles articulated by the panel provoked much discussion. Points most pertinent for barristers to consider included:

  • "Barristers have no real concept or experience of the solicitor's work which goes into putting a bundle together".

  • "Barristers who thoughtlessly criticise their solicitor in front of clients cause untold damage - it would be so much more constructive to have a quite word over the phone before or after a conference".

  • "Barristers who go quiet during a trial, leave the solicitor back in the office unable to respond properly when the client calls up for an update or feedback of that day in court".

  • When clerks push barristers too much - they may think they're acting in your best interests - but can actually push you into the "danger zone" regarding work load. 

We went on to consider the audience's concerns. As they had had arrived they had filled in anonymous "stress strips" - writing a few words about their perceptions of the most stressful parts of the job, which they slipped into a box, ballot style. The panel pulled out strips one by one and the whole room debated them.

Examples of such 1-line worries were:

-Spending time at home with my children but thinking about my work

-Late papers

-Unpredictable workload

-Unpleasant opponents!

-Uncertainty about when income will be received (if at all!)

Several themes emerged.

-How to trulynotwork when you're not supposed to be working

-How to decide whether to keep on preparing or get some precious sleep?

-How immediately do emails need answering?

We talked over the need to understand one another's perspectives, rather than being caught up in our own bubbles; this applied particularly to barristers and solicitors.

Clerks noted that juniors more usually said "no" to work now, than they did once upon a time. Most of us thought being assertive in this way was actually a more honest way of working.

A valuable perception from a starting practitioner was that whilst there are lots of support and protection in place for pupils, "you're on your own in the early years" and that the start of being a tenant could be a startling change, as there was no set bench mark for behaviour or work patterns.

We discussed at length what expectations existed about communications. Was there any concept of "office hours"? Several people said we should take a stand against the "immediacy" culture. Frequently an immediate reply was simply unnecessary. We all agreed that early and calm communication solved many of the anxieties we had raised. Sometimes a phone call was much more useful than yet another email: taking the tension out of a situation.

Sharing these strains was illuminating. A junior barrister remarked she couldn't believe silks had the same kind of worries as her. Someone else said it was like free therapy. Others commented on the sense of fellowship the event created. Whilst we had started by remarking how rare it was to own up to weaknesses in our profession, we found it easy to discussoverworking, but participants were more reticent about sharing fears aboutinsufficientwork.  We agreed that it would be useful to continue to share our perspectives annually.

Overall even voicing the problems was refreshing- quite apart from articulating a solution.

I would recommend this informal and interactive type of Wellbeing event to all SBAs and particular across the generations. If you are interested in running this kind of event do contact me at rc@cloisters.com or Sam Mercer at the Bar Council smercer@BarCouncil.org.uk

Rachel Crasnow QC, Cloisters Chambers, is renowned as an employment and equality law specialist appearing in complex, high-value claims involving all types of discrimination as well as TUPE, equal pay, regulatory work and whistleblowing cases. She sits as a part-time judge and has recently lectured on segregation on campus, dress codes and barring tenants on benefits. Rachel is Chair of the Bar Council's Legislation and Guidance Panel, a subcommittee of the Equality & Diversity & Special Mobility Committee and has just chaired a Bar Council seminar on Fair allocation of Work.

Follow her on Twitter @RachelCrasnowQC