Being a ‘receptionist… administrator… social worker… priest’: wellbeing and the Northern Ireland Bar
Neil Graffin and Emma Jones
In conducting research as part of our book, ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Legal Profession’, we spent an afternoon in Belfast speaking to members of the legal profession, including several barristers from the Bar of Northern Ireland. It struck us as researchers that barristers in the jurisdiction have substantially different working arrangements to their counterparts in England & Wales, and Scotland. We wanted to investigate further how these arrangements might impact on the wellbeing of practitioners of the Bar.
In the wider legal profession, wellbeing is an issue of increasing concern, which has led to a proliferation of reports and publications in recent years, all of which point to a substantial issue. Academic literature has also proliferated with a renewed interest in not only wellbeing in the legal profession, but in the law school, as well as amongst legal academics. In this research, we conducted a small-scale qualitative study of 10 barristers, interviewing them on their perceptions of wellbeing at the Northern Ireland Bar, the results of which were published in our article in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly. What we found was that there are substantial issues facing barristers in Northern Ireland in terms of their wellbeing. This is both at the beginning of their careers, which leads to a high number of junior barristers leaving the Bar, and later when they become better established.
Participants discussed a lack of preparedness for practising at the Bar, finding themselves initially shocked at the reality of being a barrister. Issues centred on knowing how to perform as an advocate, but being unprepared for administrative duties, chasing fees, and obtaining legal aid. Participants spoke of having to perform multiple roles, which the title of this blog attests to, some of which would normally be undertaken by clerks, for example, in England and Wales. They also discussed being underprepared in managing their own wellbeing.
Another key issue to emerge was the difficulties in sustaining a financially viable practice in the early years at the Bar. This is partly due to the number of other practising barristers in Northern Ireland. Particularly for junior barristers, this was very difficult and directly had an impact on their perceptions of wellbeing. One participant remarked that they had to take on any work that came their way, whereas another said that they spent a lot of time watching TV on their laptop because they had no work. Participants also discussed having to take on a lot of pro bono work, to try to establish themselves – some of which led to work, and some that did not. Others discussed the difficulties barristers faced when contemplating leaving the Bar, questioning if they would be a failure for quitting, given the sacrifices they had made to become barristers.
For those who remain at the Bar, progression can then be uncertain. There was a consensus that, at some point, if a barrister managed to stay in their role, they could create a financially viable practice. However, as one participant commented, the impact on individuals trying to make a financially viable practice even when established means that barristers tend to take on too much work. In their words, ‘people do tend to kill themselves’. Working long hours, into the evening, and during holidays then becomes commonplace for barristers, impacting upon their wellbeing.
We also found inequalities at the Bar, in particular, caused by gender. This included the pigeon-holing of female barristers into areas of work like family law. Participants also spoke of a sometimes negative or patronising attitude of senior members of the profession towards female barristers, as well as a masculine, hyper-competitive culture of the Bar, where barristers are unable to show signs of weaknesses for fear that they might not be instructed by solicitors. Admitting to mental health difficulties in this setting can be very difficult.
Participants talked about the adversarial nature of legal practice creating hostility between colleagues, ranging from discourteousness to bullying. It was made clear that this could impact on their wellbeing. In our research, we looked deeper into structures of support within the Bar in Northern Ireland that can help alleviate some of the pressures that barristers are under. More positively, participants discussed good examples of collegiality in the Bar, where many colleagues could be very supportive.
The interviews were conducted in 2019, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which undoubtedly has had a significant impact on societal wellbeing. Overall, we found that being a barrister in Northern Ireland can be a very rewarding experience, but one which comes with significant risks to wellbeing. These risks may now have increased due to the pandemic. Other research demonstrates that the financial impacts of the pandemic have been devastating for barristers, with significant issues of uncertainty within and outside of the profession. Had our research been conducted a year later, we suspect this may have been a key issue to arise.
In our paper, we made several recommendations to enhance structures to better support the wellbeing of practitioners. These include:
- the Bar Library investigating ways to alleviate the administrative burden of barristers;
- a review of the education and training system to assist with working practices;
- ongoing dialogue within the Bar and judiciary around the development of inter-personal skills; and
- further consideration by the Bar of ways to help those within their early years of practice.
We hope that our research might help to continue the dialogue around wellbeing at the Northern Ireland Bar, that it helps to initiate discussions of change, and that barristers may not have to feel quite so much that they are having to be ‘receptionist… administrator… social worker… priest’.
 For example, in the UK, LawCare conducted the Life in the Law Survey in 2020/21 in which 1700 legal professionals participated, and the Junior Lawyer’s Division of the Law Society Resilience and wellbeing survey report was completed in 2019 which received 1803 responses. The International Bar Association also conducted a report in 2021 entitled Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study 2021– 3256 responses were received from the survey from across 124 jurisdictions.