The people behind the bar

Although the details of how and why are yet to emerge, the news about Mark Saunders’ death is quite shocking for those of us at the family bar, which is a relatively small community. However, I don’t intend to speculate about what has happened – it is undoubtedly a very private tragedy for both Mark Saunders, his wife and his family. This post is not about Mark per se, but just about a train of thought it has prompted.


A friend and fellow family barrister remarked to me yesterday about the massive amounts of press coverage of this news today and about coverage of the bar in general (I paraphrase): You see: we DON’T all have it easy. We aren’t just very clever fat cats living it up with fast cars and easy lives. Her point was twofold: firstly that we are misunderstood by the general public and secondly that the reality is an extremely stressful and pressurised existence, and its not surprising if sometimes we crack under pressure. Of course, I don’t know if the death of Mark Saunders arose in any way from the stress of the job, but my friend is right about the general point: We may have a reputation for being intellectual whizzkids who can solve any problem, but many barristers are not so ‘genius’ when it comes to managing real life and relationships – even those of us who specialise in family work. Solicitors often joke about how socially inept many barristers are and I am sure there is some truth in it (although I like to think family lawyers tend to posess a few more social skills than those who specialise in some of the dryer, more black letter areas of law).


Family barristers and solicitors take on a huge responsibility for attempting to sort out the messes people have made of their lives, their finances, their children’s upbringing. Counsellors or therapists receive their own support or therapy (‘supervision’) to help them process the emotionally draining encounters they have day in day out – barristers in this field spend all day every day dealing with unhappy people with wrecked lives or damaged relationships and yet receive no emotional or psychological support. We just get on with it.


I’m quite sure that for many of us working in this field the general pressure of the job – coupled with first hand experience of just how awful relationship breakdown can be and just how extensive the consequences of both the breakdown and the litigation can potentially be – makes us highly likely to cope either extremely well or extraordinarily badly when it actually happens to us.



I’d guess most of us would EITHER

  • be able to take the benefit of experience, heed our own advice and avoid the expense and heartbreak of litigation,


  • would be completely unable to see the wood for the trees (like many clients).



I imagine barristers at this end of the spectrum could well be paralysed by the realisation that they were going to end up just as tortured and depressed as those unhappy clients – weary, penniless and washed up. They don’t all end up badly but we know how bad the worst case scenario can be. And being objective about other people’s crises is far easier than being objective about a relationship breakdown that you are mired in yourself. Most of us have worked and continue to work extremely hard to get to the bar and achieve a degree of financial stability if not prosperity – all of that is at risk – it must be galling that one’s own expertise is no protection. Going through the court process as litigant surrounded by your own colleagues and friends would of course be the final indignity.



AND what’s more, being a barrister is really a very antisocial occupation. Long and unpredictable hours, a tendency to attract or create people with either an excess of self confidence or a (well-hidden) complete lack of self belief, and a need to put the trial before that important anniversary, birthday party or school play. Perhaps thats why so many barristers marry other barristers. Who else would want to live with us?

5 thoughts on “The people behind the bar

  1. Familoo, I have to say you’re spot on. The only point I think I can usefully add is that in fact the number of barristers (not just in family but in all areas), who are on beta-blockers, various pills or must take regular holidays to avoid a ‘wobble’, is huge.

    We take the benefits of the job and we certainly aren’t poor (even under Family Grad Fees), but the media reporting of those earning £1 million a year from legal aid, simply doesn’t reflect the slog that most of us face!

    By the way, congratulations on your baby,


  2. […] was recently pointed out in Pink Tape, life at the family bar is not always as portrayed in the press and has certain pressures. I […]

  3. […] was recently pointed out in Pink Tape, life at the family bar is not always as portrayed in the press and has certain pressures. I […]

  4. As true today as it was in 2008.

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