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  • Helen Conway

Guest post: having a mental health issue does not exclude you from the Bar

This is a guest post by Helen Conway. Helen is a District Judge in Liverpool, a trained coach and an advocate for workplace wellness issues. She tweets @studioconway.

Trigger warning: suicidal ideation

If an individual has a mental health issue is the Bar the right career for them?

This is the nub of a social media debate which has been sparked off by Malvika’s post from last week where she discusses how honest one should be about mental health issues when applying for pupillage. Initially I found myself drawn to enter the debate, ready to cite my own experience as proof of my view. Until I stopped, thumb over the Write Tweet icon and thought, ‘Hang on! There are some significant problems with that question.’ Let me explain. And then I’ll tell you my story.

Let‘s take the question apart: first the phrase, 'If an individual has a mental health issue…'

The very fact that we talk about 'mental health' and 'physical health' is a hangover from the misunderstanding of how our bodies work that developed in the Cartesian era. Science now knows that our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. For years we have been talking about our ‘gut instinct’; and we now know that the enteric nervous system is our second brain. We know from the renowned Mindfulness Stress Reduction Education Programme founded by Jon Kabbat-Zinn at UMass (now available world-wide), that mindful meditation can help sufferers of chronic pain when the doctors in pain management clinics could not. It’s equally effective for anxiety. We know that when we eat better and physically move our bodies our mood changes.

In truth, no one has a mental health issue. They have a health issue.

Is that a pedant point? No, because it reminds us to view the conditions we like to label as ‘mental’ in exactly the same way as we would ‘physical’ ones. We should note and ponder why we label the ‘mental’ illnesses yet we don’t tend to say someone has a ‘physical health issue’ but to name the actual experience. To rule out the Bar to someone who has experienced depression and anxiety is like ruling out the Bar to someone who has limited sight or has had cancer. It’s not a binary ‘Yes, suitable’/ ‘No, not suitable’ question. You can’t tick a box and say you have a health issue and I don’t; you are suitable and I am not. We operate on a continuum of better and worse health and we all move up and down that line throughout our lives.

True, some of us will come to the law with experiences that others have not had. Those may be experiences of higher levels of anxiety, of depression, or conditions with acronymic labels like OCD or ADHD. However, it is not merely the existence of those experiences that is going to determine whether you succeed at the Bar. Those experiences do not exist in isolation. They come wrapped in differing circumstances: our support networks; our resilience; our ambitions; our self-awareness and acceptance of our needs; our expectations for our careers; the treatment we are having and so forth. They also come wrapped in (and arguably can create) qualities such as grit, determination, bravery and empathy which can enhance performance at the Bar.

Let’s go back to the question and look at next few words: 'is the Bar…'

Much of the debate I have seen describes what ‘the Bar’ is like and it falls into the trap of believing the Bar is a homogenous experience that is the same for everyone. I have seen tweets that say barristers are often flooded with adrenaline and which describe the stress of not having the money in the bank to pay the tax bill. That may well be true. But it does not follow that a health issue is the criterion that might make you unable to deal with such features of practice. It’s education and skills training that help you deal well with such aspects of practice. And health issues - unless of the most extreme nature - do not prevent you from accessing education and skills training.

For instance, I don't deny that there are moments at the Bar which are prone to trigger the ‘flight or fight’ response that causes the rush of adrenaline. But there are easy and teachable techniques to turn off that sympathetic nervous response system and turn on the parasympathetic response so that you are not living on constant adrenaline or the cortisol which follows the initial adrenaline rush. One tweet observed that many barristers get sick when they go on a holiday. That is in fact proof that many barristers fail to manage their stress responses when they are doing the day to day job and then take a holiday far too late. It’s a sad indictment of how badly in the legal profession we take care of ourselves.

As for income, I accept that cash flow at the self-employed Bar is not the same as having a salary. But the budgeting skills I was taught meant I always removed the tax and VAT from the payments I got and set it aside. It wasn’t my money. It was the government’s, which I collected on behalf of them. When the tax bill came in I was able to then deduct expenses. When the tax and VAT bills came in it would therefore turn out that I had set aside slightly too much. So every time I paid the government I paid myself a bonus. There’s no dread of tax day if you learn that skill.

There are many ways to practise at the Bar that may not be 'the norm' but they are possible, which is all that matters. For those with experience of health issues, it may well be that you choose to work part-time; to combine the Bar with another job to even out that cash flow issue; to take long holidays to allow proper recovery time; and to say 'No' to late briefs that give inadequate prep time or which require you to get up at crazy o’clock to travel to a far-flung court.

Counter-cultural? Yes, in some chambers. Resulting in lower income, maybe, but not at all necessarily. And anyway that’s not the be all and end all. Pure theory? No. I took all those steps during my eleven years at the Bar.

Speaking of which, let me slip my story in here. I have spoked openly and widely recently about my health experiences since 2017 but actually my first real problem with anxiety came when I was a student; I bolted in terror out of a public law exam in in my second year leaving a sadly empty answer booklet. I was allowed to resit at the start of the following year and got the highest marks in the year. It was not an ability question but one of unmanaged anxiety.

My experiences accumulated once I was in the profession, first as a solicitor then at the Bar. It manifested as debilitating digestive issues, as a bout of depression and physical symptoms like back pain from holding my muscles too tight from anxiety. I would spend the night in the bathroom throwing up before lectures. I would shake and cry getting onto planes and trains. Mine was not the pretty route into legal practice.

But it never once stopped me doing my job at the Bar. And one reason for that is that the self-employed Bar actually has features which make it well suited to those with health needs if - and only if - you take advantage of them. Those features are control and flexibility. Unfortunately not everyone at the Bar accesses them, but that does not mean that they cannot be available to anyone.

I gave up a good income to go into pupillage so I did a part-time pupillage because I knew that money instability would be a trigger for my anxiety. I earned money through law lecturing and writing to pay the mortgage. As I re-qualified, I continued to combine the Bar with those careers to even out the disadvantages of the legal aid work which I loved doing.

Success, however, often increase the stress. As you grow in reputation more people want you to work for them. As you grow in capacity and confidence you naturally want to reach out and add more kinds of work or more difficult work. If you have experience of health issues you need to take particular care to manage this.

When I began to get in so much demand I felt the pressure rising, I took action. I realised I had to make choices so I ditched the whole of my immigration practice overnight in favour of family law. I refused to take court work on a Monday because that meant I was never travelling or preparing over the weekend. I took long breaks off, simply blocking off the diary for weeks at a time to travel and to recuperate. If I was not available, a younger barrister got a return brief and it helped their career and did not damage mine one bit. When I was asked to take on something that involved three lever arch files at five o’clock and a drive to a court 200 miles away I smiled and said no.

You can do this at the self -employed Bar because you are your boss. You employ your clerks. You decide what personal and professional expenditure you are going to commit to and so what pressure is on you to earn enough to cover it.

Alongside this I used CBT to manage the thinking that was apt to cause my physical manifestations of anxiety and sometimes depression. Occasionally, if needed, I took medication. I went to counselling as needed. I made a lot of time for creative activities which are known to be therapeutic. I had a lot of massage when I was travelling a lot for work to ensure I physically relaxed. I found if I paid for first class tickets in a train so I was more comfortable and less worried about getting a seat, it made me less phobic. Logical? No. Effective? Yes. So I did. I took advantage of the social and collegiate nature of the Bar and the close community on the lecture circuit so I was not isolated. Basically I managed my health challenges by creating a practice at the Bar that was idiosyncratic and self-caring but it was mine and it worked for me both financially and emotionally.

Was I successful? Well, it was a constant balancing act. As my career changed I had to watch the effect on me and take new actions if need be and sometimes I was a little later in reacting than I might have been. That said, I was one of the youngest Judges ever appointed so, on an objective basis I don’t think we can say that the steps I took held me back in any way. In fact, I got the appointment letter when I was on a three-month holiday, so that might say it all! But more importantly I succeeded in creating a career that kept me happy.

However, this is not a self-congratulatory story of unbridled success. I loved being a Judge and in the early years when I was sitting in the smaller courts and I had a lot of control, I felt very well and very happy. However, by 2016, in the face of pending court closures, I had agreed against my true wishes, to be transferred into a large court which had a renowned cross-courting issue and where I felt I had much less control over my listings and my environment. Post-LASPO the workload for all of us increased and increased relentlessly and unlike at the Bar I had fixed holiday allowances which had to be booked well in advance. At the Bar if a trial collapsed I could just take the days off if I chose. On the bench a trial collapsing meant a last minute list of cases you had never seen before. Being on the bench also increased my sense of isolation.

By 2017 the anxiety and depression had returned and, because I was hamstrung in managing it, was worse than it had ever been. It was very bad indeed. I was sobbing in the car on the way to work, sobbing in the bathroom at work and sobbing on the way home. I considered driving my car at speed into a brick wall.

I started therapy again and used all the techniques I had had before. That is until three security incidents in my court in as many days tipped me over the edge and for the first time I went off sick. However, the salient point here is that until then, for all my suffering, no one knew a thing about my illness. It did not show up in the quality of my work and was a total surprise to everyone when I revealed it. ( I don’t recommend this secrecy by the way but that’s a different point for a different post.)

Health issues do not necessarily stop you being able to be a good lawyer whether a solicitor, barrister or Judge. However, I would say that having the control over your work you need to keep yourself healthy is key. I have done pretty much anything you can do in the legal field: solicitor, mediator, lecturer (commercial and university tutor), writer, barrister, and Judge. Hands down the place where I best thrived despite anxiety was the Bar. Because it’s where -if you choose to - you can take control.

But let’s not forget the end of the original question: 'Is it the right career for you?'

That’s a question for the individual applying for pupillage to answer. The Bar is fulfilling because it is full of challenges for sure. But not all the challenges experienced by some at the Bar are necessarily ones experienced by others. You create your career. It’s not a set thing you choose and which comes handed to you fully-formed and stays the same shape forever. It is something you craft and develop over the years. And when you face a difficulty or a sense of stagnation, you pivot and find the next place where you can thrive.

If you think that the Bar is the place to find a life that will give you meaning, joy, challenge, fulfilment and enough money to meet your basic needs at least, and you think you can achieve that whilst meeting your health needs, then it is the place for you.

Others may think it is not.

Others may believe you are predisposed to be unable to do it because you have a ‘mental health issue’.

The difference between those people, and you and I is: we know you can.

Hi - it's Malvika here! If you enjoyed reading this post, Helen and I have recorded a podcast for Women in Family Law on managing mental health in lockdown. Click here to find out more.

All views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and not necessarily those of Stiff Upper Lip.

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