Our study of 50 sets of Chambers revealed the reality of working in a self-employed, fee-earning environment and explored how one-to-one coaching might help with well-being and career development.

We sought opinions from a mix of Chambers Directors, Chief Executives, Senior Clerks and other management, as well as a number of Barristers. They worked in Commercial and General Common Law sets, mainly in London, and provided their views via a questionnaire and, in some cases, took part in face-to-face interviews.

What is coaching?

Coaching comes in many guises, but, in essence, it is a series of one-to-one sessions where a coach will help an individual work through specific issues affecting their working life such as:

  • Stress and well-being
  • Career development
  • Building relationships, both internally, and with clients

10% of those who took part in our survey were already employing a coach in Chambers.

Pressures of the Chambers environment

The self-employed status of Barristers, reliance on their Clerks for work and the pressures of building a successful practice are just some of the stressful issues of the modern-day Chambers.

It’s a competitive environment with a huge premium placed on intellectual prowess, but with no guarantee that members are mentally equipped for the role.

90% of respondents felt that their Chambers was collegiate, although 40% felt that behavioral issues needed addressing.

75% reported that due to the self-employed status of Barristers, they did not tend to be team players.

“The system does work and often works well, but it was never intended to operate in Chambers of large numbers as is often seen today.  In a small set, it operates very well.”

Dealing with well-being

Our investigation revealed that 80% of respondents felt their Chambers could deal effectively with well-being issues, with many mechanisms to assist them.

However, around half agreed that the lifestyle can make it a vulnerable environment in which to work. ‘Survival of the fittest’ applies not just to Barristers, but to the clerking community, as well as Chambers Directors and CEOs.

Many felt that university does not prepare graduates for life at the Bar.

“It attracts people who are driven perfectionists.”

Self-employed pressures

Early life as a Barrister is tough, teamwork rare and pressure is immense. Loneliness and over-reliance on alcohol is prevalent.

“Barristers often don’t possess the natural skills of a self-employed person.”

60% felt that there were times when Barristers could get things out of perspective and there was “a sense that as a self-employed person you are responsible for your own well-being.”

Chambers often does not have the support mechanisms in place which would ordinarily be provided by an HR department.

Who is likely to benefit from coaching?

Out of those questioned, no-one disagreed that Barristers would benefit from having a coach at certain points in their career.

80% believed that clerks and other management would also reap rewards from an individual coach.

The areas in which respondents felt barristers needed upskilling were:

  • Better client relationship management
  • Business development and commercial acumen
  • Emotional intelligence around client care issues
  • Work/life balance and time management
  • Financial planning
  • Barristers considering applying for silk

A further issue identified was the need for Barristers and Clerks to be effective self-starters.

Other specific groups who would benefit from coaching were identified as follows:

  • CEOs and Chambers Directors coming from a non-Chambers environment, requiring “onboarding” coaching to familiarise themselves with the unique pressures of the Bar
  • Junior Barristers for 1-5 years since being called
  • Women juggling family and work commitments
  • Clerks/Senior Clerks, as part of their development
  • Anyone holding management responsibility for a busy set of Chambers to “keep them grounded” and able to deal with stress
  • Barristers struggling with self-employed life or suffering a career crisis

Reservations

Not surprisingly for a new idea, there were reservations about who would pay, confidentiality, and whether the coach would understand the unique nature of the Chambers’ environment.

Whilst Barristers had specific reservations, like coaching potentially being seen as “an admission of failure”, or “too fluffy”, Clerks largely embraced coaching as an opportunity to develop and improve management skills.

“As I have had coaching, I would recommend it without reservation,” said one.

CEOs and Chambers Directors expressed few reservations, as they largely come from an environment where to have a coach is “normal”. 

Summing up

The challenges of the Bar and the self-employed status of barristers may result in issues which can affect individual performance as well as that of Chambers as a whole.

Coaching is a tool that could help individuals to be better at seeing the overall picture particularly in relation to clients and business development.

Career development for Clerks could be enhanced by coaching.

Stress and well-being are issues which affect performance and coaching could reduce instances of both.

The success of coaching would be reliant on having a coach who understands the unique environment of the Bar. The coach must understand how Chambers works and have experience of working within the Bar. 

To be successful, coaching needs to be regarded in a positive light by all.

In the words of one respondent: “There is the possibility of improvement in us all.”

Anna Ponton

With over 30 years’ experience, Anna advises lawyers and other professional fee earners at all stages of their careers. She draws on a breadth of knowledge and deep understanding of the environment...

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