By Legal Futures Associate Advanced
When the Bar Council conducted its regular research on barrister well-being last year, it discovered that while nearly two thirds of respondents (61%) were satisfied with their working lives, over one third (35%) felt they weren’t coping well with their workloads, and a similarly high proportion (37%) reported feeling down or in low spirits. In this blog, we discuss what technology can do to help.
Of course it’s not news that being a barrister is tough. Working hours are unpredictable: sometimes they’re scarce, at others, overwhelmingly long. Clients can be very demanding, as can peers and judges. Court backlogs and insufficient legal aid funding cause financial pressures. Self-employment can be isolating and young barristers in particular have missed out on important opportunities to observe, learn, and build professional networks in chambers. Add to these the fact that barristers are often dealing with upsetting cases and traumatised individuals.
Plus barristers are often their own biggest critics. They push themselves hard; exhibit an unusually high level of perfectionism – 68 per cent reported ‘very high’ levels in the latest Bar Council survey; and can feel huge pressure to perform, including to keep their clients out of jail. In all of this, they need to stay resilient and well. To help, chambers would do well to offer the right support – and some of the right tools.
With this in mind, the good news is that the stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health in the profession has more or less completely dissolved. A lot has changed in only a handful of years. The Bar Council’s first wellbeing survey in 2015 found that two-thirds of respondents felt that showing signs of stress equalled weakness, and that psychological wellbeing was rarely spoken about.
Seven years later, the Bar Council is hosting a dedicated wellbeing website, supporting a 24-hour Assistance Programme and promoting a scheme that recognises chambers that have committed to wellbeing policies, programmes or initiatives. There’s been a healthy change in attitudes to mental health. Chambers are creating wellbeing policies, designating wellbeing officers and creating wellbeing support networks – all of which are hugely valuable in creating a supportive culture and letting individuals know where they can turn for help. In addition, chambers can look at instituting some modern technology tools that can also alleviate the pressures barristers are under.
Working in a sustainable way
For example, today’s software applications can automate time-consuming, repetitive and unappetising tasks, like email filing and time recording. Barristers can also save really substantial amounts of time by using legal speech recognition transcription software. Users can dictate into any template on any platform, and documents can be produced with an extremely high level of accuracy at the speed of speech – which is three times faster than typing.
Likewise, the best modern document management systems (DMS) save time and stress by ensuring that every document is automatically filed and at the user’s fingertips when needed. In particular, these packages provide a sophisticated search capability which is hugely useful when you consider that a recent report found lawyers can be spending more than a fifth (22%) of their working hours just searching documents.
Modern case management systems, meanwhile, provide automated workflows that replace time-consuming and laborious paper processes to lighten the workload. Along with cloud based DMS, they also enable full mobility for barristers and clerks alike. It gives individuals the capacity to work remotely – which can be at home or in court – accessing the same functionality and files as if they were in chambers, with the same level of security. It also enables the flexibility to adopt the most efficient and cost effective work models, which could be particularly important for barristers in the criminal bar struggling with fees.
A final useful tool is an online, integrated chambers diary. It gives clerks clear visibility of each barrister’s workload and availability, and gives barristers the option to defend their time by blocking out some of their hours. These tools can underpin a supportive culture, helping ensure barristers are working in a sustainable way to remain healthy, resilient and in control – which is good news for them and for their chambers.