BLESSING AT THE BAR

The blog for aspiring barristers

Burn-out is something that impacts everyone working in a demanding work environment and Law is a stressful and demanding industry to navigate.

Let’s talk about Mental Burn-out

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Since the UK went into “lockdown” in March of this year in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the majority of us working as or studying to become a legal professional have been working from home. This new change to our work routine has brought its upsides – I now wear pajama bottoms as a default during the workday and as a Millenial, the embracement of workplace technology such as Zoom, Google Meet and collaborative working online has been very welcomed! 

However, it has also been challenging and myself and many others within my personal and professional network have expressed feeling “burned out” during recent months. This post seeks to examine the meaning and impact of burn-out through the lens of my own personal experience over the past 12 months since completing the Bar Course (BPTC) and starting full-time work as a paralegal. 

We are all susceptible to burn-out, even before we start practising Law 

Burn-out is something that impacts everyone working in a demanding work environment and Law is a stressful and demanding industry to navigate. Before even practising Law formally, you are required to undergo long and difficult academic and vocational training which can give you all the pressure of working in Law without the reward of a practising certificate until many years later. Even after the academic stage has been completed, the practising stage can only begin after what can be years of applications that only open once in the year. An aspiring lawyer may have to stay resilient through rejections that can reach anywhere over a hundred before they achieve their goal. 

There is a possibility for someone to be burned out by Law before they even start practising it, and in my case that is exactly what happened. It took me a long time to realise that burn-out was my problem and that the combination of the GDL, Bar Course (BPTC) and two unsuccessful rounds of pupillage applications were contributory factors. 

Defining and appreciating the reality of burn-out 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines “burnout” as

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

World Health Organisation, ‘Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases’ (2019)

Writing about the WHO’s definition of burnout, Healthline said the following:

One of the largest problems when it comes to burnout is that many people feel ashamed for needing help, often because their work environments don’t support slowing down. Frequently, people equate it to having a cold. They believe that one day of rest should make everything better. People with symptoms of burnout may fear that taking time away from work or investing in self-care makes them “weak,” and that burnout is best overcome by working harder. Neither of these is true. Left untreated, burnout can cause folks to become depressed, anxious, and distracted, which can impact not only their work relationships, but their personal interactions, too. When stress reaches an all-time high, it’s harder to regulate emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt, which may result in panic attacks, anger outbursts, and substance use.

Healthline, ‘Why the WHO’s Decision to Redefine Burnout Is Important’ (2019)

Future Barristers experience Professional Stress

As a Future Barrister I consider myself to have two legal “workplaces”: the work I complete as a Paralegal and my work as a Future Barrister trying to get my pupillage and cross the final hurdle before I start practising law. The reason I consider the Bar Course and Pupillage search to be a “workplace” is because of the unusual position that aspirant barristers occupy once they begin their academic requirements to practise. In my view, the journey applies similar pressure to that of a full time job and when left unmanaged, the stress it can cause is emblematic of the symptoms of workplace “burn-out” as defined by the WHO. 

The Bar Course has a workload similar to a typical 9-5 job at around 40 hours a week including independent study, drafting statements of case for classes and preparing advocacy performances. Alongside and following the course sits the search for pupillage. This is a commitment requiring daily and weekly commitment to stay on top of legal and political developments, research Chambers, network and engage with mentors, seek out support and feedback and gain experience to improve your professional profile. 

The reality I have come to terms with is that without properly managing the stress I had experienced in both forms of “workplace” I have been suffering form and neglecting to properly deal with burn-out for over 12 months. The rest of this post discusses how the three main symptoms of burn-out have affected me and how I was able to start taking steps to work my way out of it. 

Burn-out symptom 1 – Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

After I finished my Bar Course exams, I had a Legal internship in Cape Town, South Africa. It was an amazing opportunity, and exposed me to profound new experiences (read my blog post from the internship here following a visit to a Youth Prison). However, during the entire trip I felt completely exhausted and like I had very little energy. I wasn’t up late and was really enjoying being there but it didn’t change the way I felt each day. With hindsight I now see that the Bar course and applying for pupillage had taken a lot out of me, more than I had anticipated. Particularly towards the Easter exam period, every week on the course had been difficult and I had downplayed to myself just how much pressure I had been under. Compounded with a death in the family, I had not realised that I was in desperate need of switching off. Instead, I pushed myself to work even harder. 

Following the internship, I returned to the UK and started my first job after Law School as a Paralegal. Again, with hindsight I can now see that it would have been a good idea for me to take that gap year I had always wanted to take after the Bar Course. The workplace itself was challenging to navigate and on top of that, I had pupillage round 2 to content with. I felt like I was fighting a battle on two fronts and there was no middle ground for me to rest. After a full day’s work I would complete a full night’s work on my applications. Again, I pushed myself to work harder.  

Burn-out symptom 2 – Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

I was working in a new role by the start of lockdown and I loved the workplace environment and my colleagues. Despite being an extremely effective and efficient person when I am on top form, I struggled with motivating myself to work on many days. Lockdown exacerbated the problem because I had no rest from work – my office was my bedroom and I could see my desk from my bed. 

I had almost no energy to attend to my other “workplace” – the Bar and getting pupillage. I shuddered at the thought of another round of applications and pushed as much of it to the back of my mind as I could. I began to feel deeply cynical and negative towards ever gaining pupillage, considering whether I had made a mistake by trying to get into a profession so tough. This was so unlike me that I felt almost unrecognisable – after all, I am the girl that taught herself how to speak with an English accent as a four year old immigrant from Botswana so that I could fit in at school. The idea of pushing myself even harder to get pupillage seemed foreign and I felt almost completely alienated from my journey to the Bar. 

Burn-out symptom 3 – Reduced professional efficacy

For the established followers of this blog, you may have noticed that my last post before this once was written in March – at the start of lockdown. Burn-out had me on the ropes and I struggled with creating content and working on my personal projects. I had always worked on Blessing at the Bar and its sister platforms Legal Tea with B and The Chic Legal Geek after Bar School without a problem, but at this stage I could barely finish a post. My professional efficacy as a creator was almost completely gone and I felt very despondent about it.  There were many times where completing tasks felt like drawing blood from a stone and everything felt like the ‘Impossible Task’

Finding light after the dark: How I am pulling myself out of burn-out 

I was able to write a blog post and get back to creating content after I took time to understand burnout and three symptoms above. Once I accepted it and understood how it had impacted me, I started taking steps to address it. 

I took the month of August off work and tried my best to relax and switch off. I moved to a new apartment in London and was able to see my friends and become inspired by a new environment. I am lucky to have many passions outside of Law that centre around music and creative art such as poetry, singing and dancing. My creative energy is the only thing that has been free flowing since lockdown began and I found myself naturally getting excited about creating content and music, my side passion since I was a child. 

As I started to sing again, write songs and attend to my shopaholism I found myself re-gaining interest in getting pupillage, reaching out to my personal and professional network for feedback on my applications and asking for support to achieve my professional goals. 

Being honest about burn-out took the weight off my shoulders. As soon as I started to talk about it with those around me I was able to clearly communicate my needs and ask for some flexibility until I got back to myself. I worried over asking for some compassion and understanding but now I see that taking control of my burn-out situation and asking directly for what I needed was necessary. I am now taking care of myself in a much more effective way instead of doubling down and forcing myself to work harder on an empty tank. 

To manage burn-out: re-prioritise self care

The key lesson I want to share from my experience is that self-love and self-care includes compassion for yourself and understanding that you are not infallible. 

I have learned a lot about capacity and you do yourself no favours by being dishonest with yourself when you need a break, all in the name of “working hard”. It is said often, but working smart can yield more results than forcing yourself to keep going when you need to rest, recuperate and reset. Just three months off after the Bar Course until I was at 100% would have made a transformative difference and I deserved to give myself that after five consecutive years of exams, applications and late nights. 

I hope that reading my post has helped you to understand and appreciate how burn-out can impact us working within and around the legal space. Check the blog and my Instagram in the future for more advice and resources to tackle and manage burn-out. 

Until next time,