Talking to your clerks about your work life balance

Michael Jones, from the Young Barristers’ Committee, says:


Stress in Pupillage

As a pupil, it is not always easy to confront your clerks and tell them to ease off. I would always advise that as a first port of call, you go to your pupil supervisor (if, like me, your pupil supervisor was very supportive) or another member of chambers that you feel confident in talking to (perhaps another junior around your age and year of call). If your clerks are good at their job, the prospect of “burn out” should never rear its head. This is because your clerks should ensure that you are comfortable with the level and volume of work that they are providing to you. My clerks were always very approachable. If you feel confident talking to your clerks about such issues, I would encourage this, perhaps after having talked things over with your supervisor.

In the event (and I hope this will never be the case) that there is no one person in chambers who you feel you can speak to about this issue, then your Inn of Court may be of assistance; I always found the education department at Gray’s really supportive in respect of any problems I had as a pupil.

Post-pupillage – building a practice: the self-employed barrister

Once you have gained a tenancy, it is crucial that you begin to build your practice and gain a regular base of instructing solicitors. The early years will, in my view, almost always require some sacrifice on your part; building a practice is a priority and you will often need to work over weekends, missing out on nights out with friends. However, if you feel overwhelmed, you need to make this clear.

As a tenant, you are self-employed and there is no reason that you cannot tell your clerks you need a break. Sometimes I will ask my clerks to give me a “light week” after I have finished a substantial case and they almost always oblige.

As a tenant you have security and have no reason to feel any apprehension in telling your clerk when the workload becomes too much. If your clerking is of a decent standard, you should not have a problem. If your clerks are not receptive, why not consider speaking to your head of chambers or another senior member of chambers about the issue?

Sarah Knight, Pupil Supervisor at 1 High Pavement Chambers in Nottingham says:

“Life at the independent Bar is unpredictable when it comes to caseload. At times you will feel like a hamster on a wheel. When this happens, maintain your stamina and try to keep going. We all need to stretch ourselves at times and the satisfaction that comes from achieving this is well worth it. Learn to recognise in yourself when you are genuinely struggling to cope and address it with your supervisor straight away. He or she is there to guide and help you. Learn to be self-disciplined so that you build up an efficient way of working to suit the strains and stresses of your own life. That’s the beauty of the independent Bar: you tailor the work outside court hours to suit you. No brief fee can compare with the sense of pride in a job you have done well.”

Preparing to speak to your clerk

Many people are afraid of the possible repercussions of talking to their clerks about the volume or complexity of the work they’re being asked to do. Common fears are that there will be adverse repercussions, or that they will be seen as lazy or “light-weight”. In most clerks’ rooms this could not be further from the truth.

Most clerks value communication with their juniors and want to be aware of any issues they have, especially where these relate to the work they’re being given. It is not in your clerks’ interests for you to burn out or make a mistake and upset your instructing solicitors.

Always remember that you need to work together with your clerks. You cannot rely on them completely to manage your workload without effective communication – it is a two way process.

When you are distressed it is all too easy to forget to prepare thoughtfully for a meeting, to ensure you get the outcome you want.

  • Write a list of the issues and your concerns. If it’s the workload that’s bothering you, is the work too complex, or is there just too much of it?
  • Consider speaking to your pupil supervisor or a senior member of chambers about how to approach speaking to your clerks if you’re unsure.
  • Think through different ways in which your problems might be resolved, so that you come to the discussion with possible solutions, rather than what might just seem like complaints.
  • It will probably be advisable to speak to your clerks on an informal basis first; tell them that you have some concerns/worries and would like to speak to them about this. Thereafter, it will probably be helpful to make the meeting official, a type of practice review, and either book a room or go off site. Do not be afraid to make sure that you set up the kind of meeting that’s best for you.
  • Explain your concerns and what you’d like done to address them. Make sure that you make your clerks aware of the impact your current workload is having on you.
  • Be open to discussing different ways of dealing with the problem. Some clerks, for example, suggest that pupils read any incoming instructions for work in order to make sure they are happy that it is within their level and area of expertise before accepting the brief.
  • Remember that clerks are human too: they have crises in their working and personal lives.
  • And always remember that the clerks have a real desire – as well as a vested interest – in helping you.

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