So, what is Therapeutic Supervision? We are talking about a supported forum to discuss cases and work-related issues and the impact that these issues may have on us as individuals. It is about reflection and seeking to understand the impact a client or a case is having on you. The sessions may be one-to-one or group sessions.
The sessions are not about finding solutions to legal problems or reviewing how cases are being run. We would say that it is important that the sessions are led by someone outside the team, so that everyone can feel safe to talk about what it is on their mind without fear of judgement or repercussion.
Why is it important for family lawyers?
Other “caring” professions, such as social workers, counsellor and psychologists, have mandatory supervision. So, is family law a “caring profession”? It hasn’t always been considered to be so. In the past family law was considered a subset of civil litigation and perhaps there was an assumption that distance was maintained between lawyers and clients.
You could question whether there was (or is?) a general bravado amongst lawyers, a feeling that they would perhaps be viewed as weak if they acknowledged that they need support with their wellbeing. This is an issue that has really come to the forefront in recent years, with a number of solicitors, often junior, being struck off for dishonesty offences, linked to intolerable working conditions and not feeling able to talk about mistakes or unmanageable workloads.
All lawyers work under pressure: time recording, financial targets and regulatory pressure to name just a few. On top of this, family lawyers are often supporting the very same people with the very same issues that the other caring professionals are dealing with. Our role may be different, but our clients are still offloading much the same information on us as they are to a social worker and their therapist. Are we any better placed to manage this in a healthy way without support than the other caring professions?
It seems fair to say that our role as family lawyers has evolved over time. Most of us are no longer litigators, instead we tend to take a holistic approach to our clients’ situations. There is more emphasis on the emotional side of separation, especially within a mediation, the collaborative process and other DR approaches.
There is no doubt that family lawyers will experience some level of transference and projection in their relationships with clients, opposing lawyers and even their own colleagues. Transference is the process by which emotions and desires originally associated with one person are unconsciously shifted to another person. This could be client to lawyer, when we feel ourselves taking on our client’s stresses and emotions. If we identify too closely, it can result in us facilitating unhealthy behaviours in our clients and adopting positional stances. It can also be lawyer to client, when our own personal life experience may influence how we relate to a client or approach their case. Our relationships with other lawyers and how we interact with particular individuals can also impact on how we approach a case, not to mention the dynamics within our own workplaces, which can have a huge impact on our personal wellbeing.
What are the different approaches to Reflective Practice and Therapeutic Supervision?
Mills & Reeve – a model for a large national firm (Tim)
Mills & Reeve are a full-service national firm with offices in London, Norwich, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester. There are family law teams in all of the offices. Reflective practice has been running formally across the family teams in all offices for over a year.
The case consultations are run quarterly by an external facilitator who is a trained counsellor. The consultation groups rotate between local office groups and national peer groups. This is to allow fee earners the opportunity to share their experience with other team members at a similar level. The sessions also alternate between face-to-face and via video conference.
Initially (and pre COVID-19) there were concerns about the effectiveness of the video sessions but these have proved a real success. The benefit of allowing team members across the offices to share experiences far outweigh any detriment of not being in the same place. There is then the opportunity to have one-to-one sessions on an ad hoc basis should they be required. We are invited to provide feedback after each session, which allows the programme to adapt as time passes.
The principles of the case consultation are to allow time for reflection and restorative work. The reflection allows us all the opportunity to step back and consider the work we do with clients and the challenges that brings. The restorative aspect is to acknowledge the emotional aspects of our work and the impact client pain and stress can have on others.
The content of sessions vary but we are always asked to prepare before the sessions. This preparation time forms an important part of the process. Even if you do not share anything in a group session the preparation allows you time to reflect on your cases and clients. The consultation sessions then follow a reflective cycle. We are encouraged to talk about what we think, how we feel and what sense can we make of the situation now rather than focus on the outcome or legal advice.
Over time we have found that the local office sessions tend to focus more on clients whilst the cross-office peer group sessions favour broader concerns such as boundaries, work life balance or interaction with colleagues.
The sessions have become even more important following the lockdown measures and our absence from the office. They have been complimented by a number of other firm wellbeing initiatives that recognise the importance of having meaningful contact with colleagues whilst working from home.
Family Law Partners – a model for a boutique family firm (Lauren)
Family Law Partners are a specialist family law firm with offices in Brighton, London, Horsham and Hampshire. Reflective Practice has been running in our head office in Brighton, with eight fee earners, for around two years and has now been rolled out to our other offices.
We have group Reflective Practice, by office, led by a Resolution-accredited family consultant. Our group consists of all fee earners but no equity directors, which was considered important if it was to be considered a safe space to share how we really feel. We hold our sessions in the morning and ideally everyone would come to the session with a clear mind before being absorbed in client work, although we acknowledge that this isn’t always possible.
We are all encouraged to prepare for Reflective Practice by thinking about what we might like to share. This is an opportunity for us to reflect, ourselves, on our practice – what we are finding difficult and how we are feeling.
The family consultant leads the session, asking each person in turn to share something that may have been on their mind. Initially, it was expected that discussion would centre around a particular case that may be weighing particularly heavy, but over time it has progressed to general work worries. On occasion it has also served as a supportive forum to share personal information that an individual may want their colleagues to be aware of.
Family Law Partners implemented a work-from-home policy ahead of the lockdown in March, so it has been some time since we have all been able to meet face to face. It was recognised in the firm that we are all going be experiencing new, competing and often different pressures during this time, so sessions were increased from monthly to fortnightly, by Zoom. Discussion has branched out to encompass how we are all coping with the “new normal” and the stresses and pressures that may be particular to us.
Is it viable for sole practitioners or small firms?
There is no doubt that, for sole practitioners, setting up Therapeutic Supervision might require more thought. One-to-one sessions would of course be fantastic, but may be financially unviable for some. Sole practitioners and small firms could think about getting together with other local practitioners to organise group sessions. These could be run face to face, rotating round the firms or via video link depending on geography.
What are the benefits of Therapeutic Supervision?
By taking a step back and considering how we interact with clients and other lawyers, we hope that we are able to take a more objective assessment of the situation and avoid cementing unhealthy or positional stances in our clients. The time to reflect allows us to appreciate our experience, learn from observations and make changes that have a positive impact.
We have also been able to consider why we might have found a particular client hard to leave in the office and how we can try to let go to achieve a healthier work/life balance. It is fair to say that one thing most family lawyers have in common is that they care and feel a great sense of responsibility towards their clients. It can be hard to let go and accept that some things are simply beyond our control. The value of sharing experience cannot be underestimated, it can be very reassuring to hear that others are feeling the same way as you!
The improved understanding of clients has frequently led to a better solicitor-client relationship. The reflective action will often result in small changes that make a significant difference. This could be telephoning a certain client rather than emailing them or adapting your natural style/tone when communicating with another.
We have also found that we have a better understanding of the individual members of our team and consideration for how they may be managing at any one time. We have learnt to look out for our individual indicators that might suggest that someone is struggling, which means that we are able to offer quicker and more effective support where appropriate. This could be anything from freeing up some extra administrative support or offering an ear. This has been especially valuable during the recent pandemic.
It seems that more and more firms are realising that they have an ethical obligation to their staff when it comes to wellbeing. The tide is turning and there is a gradual move away from acceptance of unreasonable demands, long hours and unrealistic workloads. Therapeutic Supervision can play a major role in improving wellbeing in family law whilst having a positive impact on client experience. Higher morale often leads to increased productivity, so it benefits both individuals and employers.
Risks and ethical issues
It is important to set clear ground rules when you embark on any model of Therapeutic Supervision. Often the supervisor is funded by the firm, so their role and allegiances must be made absolutely clear. In our case, we have a duty of confidentiality unless a disclosure is made that relates to the safety of an individual or a child or that is so serious that it could open the firm up to a malpractice suit. It is our intention that, in the unlikely event this ever happened, we would agree as a group how the issue can best be managed.
If your group consists of more than one firm, or perhaps for barristers in chambers, thought must be given to confidentiality. There is generally no need to identify a case or client by name. It may be important to agree not to discuss cases that involve another member of the group, but if a member is particularly struggling as a result of one of their cases you could set aside a short amount of time for that member to speak to the supervisor about the case one to one.
We have both found Therapeutic Supervision invaluable, both to develop and improve our practice and on a personal level. We appreciate that each firm will need to consider how to develop a model that meets their particular needs, but we hope that this article might inspire others to take the first steps.
We would both be happy to share more of our experiences (and mistakes) with others looking to set up supervision sessions – just send us an email.