It’s important to maintain your physical and emotional wellness throughout your career at the Bar
Barristers face challenges and opportunities throughout their careers at the Bar. The Bar can be an incredibly rewarding career path – but it can also throw up challenges that are specific to particular generational groups. Of course, everyone’s experience is different. But there are some common issues that barristers face at different stages in their careers.
Several years ago, the Bar’s Health & Wellbeing Committee collated a document about the pressures facing barristers at different stages in their careers, mapped to personal stages of life. Since that document was published, the demography of the Bar has shifted – the average age of barristers joining the Bar in 2020 is thirty-four.
Joining the Bar straight after qualifying is no longer the norm, and many barristers come to the Bar following successful careers in private practice, as in-house counsel, in government, or in academia. Many already have strong work-referral networks and established client relationships. Many already have families. And of course, there are more women and more from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds.
It is not possible to neatly ascribe barristers to some pre-determined generational boxes, but there are some experiences that many members in specific generational groups share.
This page aims to show you what each stage of your career at the Bar could look like, including the unique pressures you may face, and gives practical tips on how to prepare for and manage these pressures so you can thrive at the Bar.
Surviving your first five years at the Bar
Coming to the Bar is an exciting step in your career. You’ve done the hard yards to get to the Bar – you passed the Bar Exam and completed the six-month Reading period. Following the Bar Roll signing ceremony, you’ll be warmly welcomed by all – new and senior barristers alike. Your clerk and mentors will be there to guide you along and you’ll be reassured by the bonds you have with your fellow Readers.
As you settle into Bar life, you’ll come to see that being at the Bar is akin to being self-employed. Your reputation, networks, work ethic and chosen niches will determine how quickly you can grow your practice. Cultivating your connections, particularly with more senior barristers, will be important as they can be a reliable source of devilling opportunities or opportunities for junior briefs. This, in turn, grows your experience and, of course, helps increase your income. You may also rely on referrals from your previous employment. Maintaining a good relationship with your clerk, and regularly communicating with them, is also very important to maximise your work opportunities.
In addition to growing your practice, you’ll start to get to know your peers at the Bar. Chambers is a close-knit community, and like any established group, it has its own traditions, customs and conventions – many of them unwritten. Fitting into a new group can be challenging, but new barristers often learn the ropes by socialising and networking in Chambers and by attending social and professional development activities. Of course, the pandemic has impacted how barristers interact on a professional and personal level, and it is important that everyone at the Bar makes an effort to be welcoming and inclusive of their colleagues.
Many barristers report that it takes about six to twelve months to settle into Bar life, although this may take a little longer for some.
- relief at being self-employed and able to make your own destiny
- independence and flexibility
- new networking and socialising opportunities
- new educational opportunities
- gaining a foothold on your practice
- starting again in a new role after establishing a successful career and many years of hard work
- financial pressures caused by cash flow problems, as your regular outgoings may not be matched by regular fee income
- adapting to a new financial and regulatory environment – tax and GST issues, PC renewals
- concern or anxiety about a lack of briefs, or believing that your peers are briefed more often than you
- learning how to market yourself and become known to clients
- adjusting to the freedom of being self-employed
- balancing the need for hard work against maintaining time off for non-legal pursuits
- understanding the culture of the Bar
Six to ten – Coming into your stride
Barristers in mid-career are generally well-entrenched in their practices and have built networks across the Bar. Your reputation, both relational and professional, will be known among your peers. You will have established relationships with your clerk and your clients.
Many barristers in this phase join Associations and Committees and play a vital role in spearheading and progressing initiatives to enhance the Bar’s culture, position in the legal marketplace and barristers’ wellbeing. During this stage, many barristers put their burgeoning knowledge and expertise to good use through teaching and publications.
Your reputation may lend itself to becoming a mentor - informally or as part of the Bar’s Mentoring Program - and you will have the opportunity to shape the Bar’s culture by providing professional and personal guidance to more junior barristers.
- an established practice, but you may struggle to meet work demand
- your practice may not have taken off, and you may struggle to find work
- increasing responsibilities may mean cash flow is tight
- increasing demands because of participation in Bar activities
- sense of disappointment of your practice not living up to expectations
- financial pressures caused by cash flow problems
- saving superannuation
- demands between your work and personal responsibilities
- health issues
- abuse of alcohol and/or other drugs
Ten to twenty – Established in practice
In this phase, barristers attain senior junior status at the Bar. For many, their careers are established and they enjoy a thriving, lucrative practice. You could be quite busy and will cherry-pick your preferred matters. Your referral networks are likely to be well-established and regular. To take on extra caseload, you may increase devilling, which also assists new barristers to gain experience.
Many barristers are well-known in the media and broader legal profession — as they may have appeared in high profile cases, may be sought by media outlets for commentary, or have established themselves as a valuable member of Bar Council.
As their prominence and reputation grows, barristers start to consider their future prospects at the Bar and taking leadership positions.
You may be sought-after as mentors, particularly for junior barristers and Readers who value your expertise, experience and reputation. Your level of influence will be quite high, and this will provide you with an important responsibility to ensure the collective success and reputation of the Bar by leading by example.
- attainment of senior junior status
- most likely very busy
- taking on Readers
- involvement on Bar committees or on other professional bodies
- keeping an eye to silk
- looking at taking extended leave and wondering how to do that
- striking equilibrium between work and home
- possibility of relationship issues caused by over-working
- meeting ongoing financial outgoings and tax issues
- concern that your practice has not developed as you hoped, and you are less busy than you expected
- saving superannuation
- alcohol or substance dependency
- having no time for hobbies
- having issues about relating to family members
- the time available for non-Bar activities being even more scarce
Silks and senior juniors – Tackling success
The achievement of becoming senior counsel is sought-after by barristers as it is a public recognition of their standing and achievements and justifies an expectation that they can provide outstanding services as advocates and advisers in the administration of justice. The transition from senior junior to junior silk can be hard to navigate. Once appointed to senior counsel, barristers may feel overwhelmed, may question their decision to apply and wonder what their practice will look like. There is an expectation from the judiciary, from instructing solicitors and from clients that barristers at this level will provide excellent and outstanding advice and appearances each and every time they are briefed as silk. This can come as a heavy weight.
Likewise, those who do not take silk also enjoy lucrative careers at the Bar, and often enjoy a strong reputation as commercially successful and/or strong contributors to the legal community through their participation in Bar activities and external organisations.
But for those who have had unsuccessful (sometimes repeated unsuccessful) applications for silk there can be feelings of despondency and disappointment. This can have an effect on the barrister’s self-confidence and self-belief.
- career pinnacle
- difficulties if the transition to silk has not been successful and work is not plentiful and finding that work is being allocated to younger barristers
- aspirations for judicial appointment
- spending more time serving on boards, professional organisations, Bar Committees or Associations
- suffering disillusionment – “is that all there is?”
- disappointment at being overlooked for silk
- fear of reputational failure
- inadequate or insufficient support from juniors
- difficulties in the transition from junior to senior counsel
- inadequate financial resources
- health issues
- uncontrollable substance abuse problem
- feeling underutilised
- concern at having no interests outside the law
Looking at retiring?
Planning for retirement involves many considerations that extend beyond just financial planning, such as the living arrangements a barrister expects (including downsizing or relocation), travel plans, family commitments, access to superannuation and recreational activities.
- practice winding down or, conversely, not wishing to wind down
- being able to be more choosy about the work that you do
- being sought out for advice from barristers more junior to you
- finding it difficult to take advice from those more junior to you
- struggling meeting expectations of seniority and reputation
- coming into Chambers more for social than work purposes
- how do you know when it’s time?
- financial planning and who to trust to give you advice?
- do you have enough super?
- fear of losing connection with the Bar
- how to remain active, socially engaged and fulfilled during retirement
- understanding home care and health plans
How pressures at the Bar may affect you
Everyone deals with the pressures of work and home life differently, and the pressures impact individuals in different ways. The following are some common issues that barristers face through their career, of which you should be mindful:
- at a financial level, the stress of falling behind with tax obligations, suffering financial over-commitment, or not regularly putting away super
- loss of confidence in not meeting your own practice or work expectations
- experiencing burnout as you work hard to be successful in your career
- neglecting your health
- regularly eating unhealthy foods
- abuse of alcohol and/or other drugs
- family and relationship stress