A Healthy Practice

By: Mark Tottenham BL

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(This article was originally published in Decisis Law Ireland, in September 2020)

Life as a barrister is not always conducive to good mental health. In the first place, much of the work concerns conflict, which is always stressful. Although most barristers understand the rules of engagement, and try not to make matters personal, the fact of the underlying conflict is always present.

Secondly, like any occupation that involves an element of public performance, there are highs and lows. The famous psychologist Daniel Kahneman has said that the work of a performing artist is probably the path to least happiness. The work of barristers is comparable.

Thirdly, the Irish bar is unusual in that there are hundreds of self-employed people working in close association with each other. There is a level of competition with all other barristers. Gore Vidal famously said: “When a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” It is inevitably difficult for barristers to see some colleagues thrive at times when they are struggling.

Fourthly, the practice of law is of its nature cerebral. Lawyers must spend a lot of time going through documents in fine detail, and considering the applicable law. It can be difficult to switch off from this kind of work, and it can continue to dominate the mind even when out of the office.

Fifthly, some of the subject matter involved is challenging. The issue of 'vicarious trauma' has been addressed previously in this publication, but it should be remembered that dealing with issues of violent or sexual assault on a regular basis can have a lasting effect on practitioners.

Finally - and probably most importantly - barristers are responsible for matters of great consequence for their clients. The French president, Francois Mitterand once said that the most essential quality in a politician was ‘indifference’. It may be that, for busy barristers, the healthiest approach is to forget the troubles of their clients once they have gone home. This is not always possible. Where clients are in danger of losing access to a child, losing their businesses, losing possession of their homes, or being imprisoned for long periods, only the hardest-hearted counsel can avoid losing a little sleep.

The Bar of Ireland is increasingly recognising the mental health challenges facing the profession. Recently on the Bar of Ireland podcasts, Lindsay Bond interviewed Kevin Byrne BL, an experienced barrister who was compelled to face up to the physical and mental health issues involved in his work. In the interview, he outlines some of the changes he made. He moved to a vegan / plant-based diet and cut out caffeine altogether. He improved his sleep patterns by a number of measures, including reduced use of his smartphone and other screens before bedtime. He attended a therapist, and he started meditating. As he said in relation to almost all of these changes, they are unlikely to do you any harm, and they may do you some good.

Anybody who is concerned about their physical or mental health would do well to listen to the interview, which is just 30 minutes long, and available on the usual podcatcher applications.

Another useful work is Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life by the late Stephen Keeva, a former journal editor at the American Bar Association. The work describes a number of members of the legal profession who found deeper meaning in their practice by adopting more positive values, or by developing more creative outlets.

Despite the challenges facing barristers, it is possible to address the impact on mental health and maintain a healthy practice.

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