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Why should the Bar care about remote working?

LegalWhy should the Bar care about remote working?

By Serena K. Sekhon, barrister, No5 Chambers

  In some ways, the self-employed Bar was the original remote working profession. Well before the days of CVP hearings and Zoom meetings, many barristers were able to work on their papers, pleadings and trial prep wherever they wished (within reason). It was not uncommon for practitioners to conduct their practice from a mix of home and chambers. Indeed, this was – and remains – a draw to the profession: the flexibility inherent in self-employed practice allows people to work in a way which best suits them and their personal circumstances.

Now, things have gone further. Having adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions, the legal world can enable almost complete remote working for those who want it. It is entirely possible to conduct one’s practice wholly from home, only attending court in person when required. What might have previously been a trend where people did most of their work in Chambers and some of it at home has seen a move towards the inverse – some practitioners now do most of their work at home, and some of it in Chambers.

But why should the Bar at large care about these changes to working practices?

Firstly, it is a wellbeing issue.

There are, of course, many positive aspects to remote working that must not go unnoticed, like greater flexibility for those with caring commitments, facilities for hybrid hearings which better enable the making of reasonable adjustments, reduced expenditure on travel for short hearings (particularly positive for those doing publicly funded work), and less time spent away from home and loved ones.

However, we must also remain vigilant to the risks to wellbeing that come along with greater remote working. Isolation and loneliness can be a danger in a largely self-employed profession where work is frequently conducted independently. Bad days can be made harder without colleagues to lean on. The swapping of stories is often a much-needed tonic after a difficult hearing or meeting, but is harder to achieve if colleagues are not present in Chambers. In other words, the importance of camaraderie cannot be understated, particularly in a profession where one is otherwise working alone.

Worryingly, isolation can lead to anxiety, stress, burnout and/or depression. The legal wellbeing charity LawCare reported a 24% increase in the number of people making contact for support in the first eight months of 2023, compared to the same period in 2022.[1] Whilst we don’t know how much of this is linked directly to the effects of remote working, it is clear that mental health and wellbeing are important challenges facing the legal profession at large. It is therefore essential that we identify and implement ways to support and improve the wellbeing of practitioners.

Secondly, it affects the future of the profession.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the change in working practices is the effect that it has on very junior barristers. The opportunities for learning, and therefore development and progression, are limited significantly when there are reduced numbers of experienced barristers in chambers and (in the case of London) around the Inns of Court. Learning by osmosis is key for junior people in any profession: at the Bar, one might overhear experienced counsel dealing with clients or discussing tricky points of law or procedure with one another. These conversations are both instructive and enriching for those who are starting out in the profession.

A 2021 report from the Bar Council expressed similar concerns:

“There are also challenges for the training of pupils and support for junior barristers with fewer opportunities for direct contact with colleagues and the supportive environment created by working in physical proximity to them. This is evidenced by 73% of barristers that took part in the recent Bar Council Barristers’ Working Lives survey reporting that working relationships with colleagues was the area most affected negatively. In a recent Bar Council survey of pupils, when asked about the biggest challenges they faced 82% mentioned a lack of networking opportunities and 51% cited a lack of contact with their pupil supervisor.”[2]

In court, too, there might be fewer opportunities for junior practitioners to experience different styles of advocacy, as the infamous CVP waiting room gives rise to a rather different experience to sitting at the back of court waiting to be called on. This is likely to affect those in some practice areas more than others, with different approaches taken to remote hearings in different courts.

Furthermore, junior barristers may be missing out on opportunities to make important connections with more senior members of their chambers, which could in turn limit opportunities for work as well as the number of people they can turn to for help and advice.  For more experienced barristers with established links to one another, it may be feel as though the camaraderie of days gone by has not been lost. However, for those just starting out in self-employed practice, seeking connections and mentorship can be more difficult without regular face to face contact.

The effects of these issues on the Bar’s future are broadly twofold: quality and retention. Junior barristers simply will not learn as much without the informal support of their more senior peers. Whilst the majority of barristers appreciate this and are always very happy to pick up the phone to their more junior colleagues, this necessarily limits help to specific questions rather than a more general, rounded atmosphere of collegiality and passing on of learning. Junior barristers might also feel that a number of their queries are not significant enough to warrant disturbing their senior contacts.

Some may even end up leaving the profession as a result of the issues highlighted above. Whilst this may seem extreme at first blush, when viewed in tandem with issues such as remuneration in the publicly-funded Bar, overwork and vicarious trauma, it is certainly a possibility that retention may suffer if junior barristers feel isolated, or like they are struggling to learn and progress well.

It is therefore in everyone’s interest to remain aware of these issues and take steps to reduce them.

Of course, it would not be appropriate to suggest that practitioners should work from Chambers at all times. As set out above, the onset of remote working has myriad advantages for all barristers and may have specific benefits for those who would otherwise experience difficulty accessing certain elements of work as a barrister.

However, it is essential that sets and practitioners remain cognisant of the benefits to the profession at large of barristers spending time in chambers, and in different ways. For example, social events are important for camaraderie, wellbeing and networking, whereas informal days of working on papers in Chambers can provide learning opportunities for junior practitioners.

Ultimately, the self-employed Bar will never and should never be a profession where individuals are pressured or forced to conform to particular models of working. This is a wonderful benefit of self-employment and one that attracted many of us to the Bar. However, we must not lose sight of the other things that make the Bar great: collegiality, camaraderie, constant learning and the informal passing on of experience and knowledge to pupils and juniors.

In my view, it’s not that the Bar should care about the effects of remote working on those aspects of our profession, but that we must care. The long-term implications of increasing remote working will affect us all, and we must all find ways to monitor and tackle them.

Serena K. Sekhon, barrister, No5 Chambers

 

[1] https://www.lawcare.org.uk/latest-news/world-mental-health-day-10-october-2023/

[2] Bar Council response to the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) “Our proposed strategy

for the next three years” consultation paper, 10 December 2021, https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/static/3c089cec-83ca-41bc-b9c698da835f5bda/Bar-Council-response-to-BSB-consultation-Our-proposed-strategy-for-the-next-three-years-2022-23-to-2025-26.pdf#:~:text=Many%20barristers%20have%20adapted%20well,5%205%20as%20an%20issue.

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