Wellbeing in Chambers

C hambers at the New South Wales Bar tend to comprise around 40 floor members together with a clerk, one or more members of support staff and readers or licensees. Many barristers and judges have a life-long loyalty to their set of chambers. This model has been described by some external observers of the Bar as anachronistic, however, such criticisms overlook the important role of chambers in promoting collegiality and wellbeing at the Bar.

The unique series of stresses associated with being a barrister is well-documented. Analysis of Barrister Wellbeing and Quality of Working Life surveys shows that many barristers report high levels of stress, perfectionism and self-criticism. Many barristers also experience symptoms of vicarious trauma, particularly those practising in criminal or family law.

Chambers are well-placed to offer a community of support to barristers, in particular because current and former members have an insight into the unique stresses of being a barrister.

An informal survey of chambers shows that the importance of fostering a sense of collegiality between current members of chambers is strongly ingrained. Breakfasts, lunches, birthday cakes and evening drinks with canap├ęs are organised regularly in chambers. A number of chambers also hold regular events with former members of chambers.

Barristers eating lunch together at a long table

Equally, the need to mentor junior floor members and licensees is recognised in many sets of chambers. Some clerks organise breakfasts or lunches to enable members of Senior Counsel or former floor members to mentor junior floor members and licensees. Some members of Senior Counsel provide direct mentoring to licensees by working permanently or temporarily from the annexe of their set of chambers. During the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, senior members of junior counsel mentored specific members of junior counsel on their floor.

A number of chambers promote collegiality and wellbeing among current and former floor members by organising activities outside chambers, including a biennial retreat in regional New South Wales, a quarterly cycling event followed by breakfast, a chambers band, annual cricket matches and an annual golf day.

Most chambers rely upon the Bar Association to organise activities directed specifically to wellbeing, such as yoga, sporting events and wellbeing information sessions, however, some chambers hold regular yoga sessions and wellbeing information sessions in chambers.

While practising as a barrister is uniquely stressful, an informal survey shows that many chambers take active steps to promote collegiality and wellbeing among their barristers.