You’re a barrister and you want to make some positive changes? Read on.

Career Progression
September 2023
Catherine Brown practised as a barrister for nearly 15 years at Kings Chambers in Manchester and brings all of that experience with her into her coaching and training business, Skilful Conversation Limited,

Has your “New term, fresh start” feeling made it this far through the month?

Did it even make it out of the holiday period?

One recurring theme for the coaching clients I work with is the belief that they will somehow end up in a better place due to mysterious external forces, whilst themselves behaving in the same way they always have.

It’s not completely impossible, but it’s unlikely. For real change to happen, it is probable that you will be required to act, and perhaps even to change.

This is particularly the case if the change you are trying to make relates to your practice at the bar.  If you want to achieve more, improve your practice, develop a new specialism or create better work-life balance, it is likely that you will need to make a conscious effort to make a positive change.

Dispelling a myth

But if you didn’t have a miraculous fresh start in January this year, or when schools re-opened in the first week of September, that does not mean you have failed.

Sometimes the pressure, both from peers and the media (social or otherwise) means that it is harder to have a fresh start when everybody else is talking about doing so.

Maybe you’ve tried at those times before and seen resolutions disappear before the end of January.  Or you resent the headlines screaming “fresh start” in September when you’re much more concerned with mourning the end of summer.

Plus, January and early September – the return from the holiday period, if there has been one – can be exceptionally busy times at the bar.  Suddenly all that work that didn’t get done in August, or over Christmas is piled up on your desk.  And needs doing yesterday.  Sound familiar?

So, here is the good news – you don’t have to make your positive changes according to someone else’s calendar.

You can choose the right time for you.  But do choose a time.  Don’t expect that a goodtime will miraculously appear.  And then commit to that time.  Mark the diary.  Make it real.

Creating time to change

I am not doubting you are busy.  

You may even think it isn’t possible to work any harder.  And creating positive change of whatever kind does take time.

So you need to work smarter rather than harder.

Even for those of you not looking for dramatic change at the moment, you could probably benefit from being more productive and gaining some headspace.

Some of the following tips may be in your toolkit already but see if there are any you could usefully adopt.  


  1. Take breaks. You will not be productive if you’re exhausted.  Set a timer (See Tip 2) and, when the timer goes off, get up and move around.


  1. Work in focused blocks. The Pomodoro technique, for example, would suggest that you set a timer and work for a 25 minute block, then have a 5 minute break.  After every 4 x 25 minute blocks, you should have a longer break.  Find the timings that work for you.


  1. Have a system for emails – almost any system is better than none.  If you mindlessly check emails at whatever frequency you like then you will be radically reducing the time you spend on focused, productive work.  Perhaps set a specific time when you check emails or make better use of automatic replies to buy yourself some time.


  1. Work out what your own particular foible is and then take targeted action against it. Do you scroll around from Twitter to WhatsApp to your favourite news site? Or     constantly check your phone?  Tune into your self-awareness and then take action to minimise distraction.  A great starting point is to put your phone onto airplane mode. Or leave it in a different room.


  1. Think about the environment you are in, and how you can make it work better for you. I know people who swear by their standing desk, or their ear defenders, the     power of plants, or daylight or alpha waves.  Think back to a time and place when you have worked really well and then do what you can to re-create it.

  1. Pick one or two of these techniques and make a small start on becoming more focused.     Don’t put it off until you can achieve perfection.  Start now.


Using that time wisely

You then need to ensure that any increase in productivity leads to the freed up time being beneficial, used for you or used to make change so that you can work on what really matters.  If it is balance that matters to you, then ensuring that you have time for you is crucial. But equally, any change you want to make will need you to devote some time to it.

Here, the main strategy which works for me and for my clients is: Saying “no” more.

You can say no in your professional life

Speaking as a former barrister, I know how hard it can be to say no.  The self-employment aspect feeds a myth that saying no somehow means we will never work again.  

But – pay attention – this is important: That simply isn’t true.  If you do good work, meet deadlines and build relationships you will always find clients.

Or, at least, stop saying “yes”

Some of us are programmed to say yes by default.  It can be a hard habit to break.

Therefore, it might be that saying “no” is too big a shift in your behaviour, too much of a leap to achieve in one go.  The easy first step is simply pausing before your default “yes”.

Pause, take a breath and, preferably, say you’ll come back to them with your answer by a given point.  Depending on the question, you might also want to ask for further information (why do they need it in 24 hours, for example).

Gradually, this will become your natural response instead of a yes that you immediately regret.

People will still instruct you.  I promise.


Using that time to achieve your goals


A lot has been written by the great, the good and the opportunistic about how to achieve your goals.

So far, we have focused on freeing up some time and space which might be a sufficient and important goal for you in itself.

But if you want to use that time to increase your income by 10 per cent, or boost your CV so that you can apply for a judicial position, the sagest wisdom I have gained both from gurus and clients is:

1.       Make your goal as specific as possible.  Then make it a bit more specific.  Having a clear direction really helps.

2.       Aim high, but bring in some healthy realism.  The realism might come from being generous with any time-based targets or from breaking the bigger goal down into smaller achievable steps.

3.       Tell other people what you are attempting to achieve so that you have some accountability built in.  Perhaps even agree to report back to them at specific intervals.


A process not a switch

Unfortunately, none of these strategies promise a quick, easy fix.  There isn’t a switch you can flick to ensure that your productivity and your work-life balance remain perfect forever and that you miraculously achieve all of your goals.  Or, if there is, I have not found it.

This is an ongoing process, which requires effort, awareness and, possibly, some external accountability.

All I can promise (apart from that people will still instruct you!) is that the effort is worth it.

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