Focus on wellbeing

In the first of a series of perspectives on lawyer (and client) wellbeing, Louisa Whitney of LKW Family Mediation reflects on the rise of the concept and how it works in practice

I was really excited to hear that there will be a regular wellbeing piece in The Review. This is a terrific sign of how far wellbeing has moved up the agenda in our corner of the world in divorce and separation. I was even more chuffed to be asked to write this first one. Wellbeing is an issue that I’m really passionate about because of my journey of having had a breakdown in my first ever “proper” job as a paralegal back in 2003. It has been a 20-year journey for me (which is still ongoing) to work out my own limits, coping mechanisms and where boundaries are needed.

In my role as the boss of a mediation practice and as a PPC to 20+ consultees, wellbeing is at the forefront of this work because if we are not OK we are not able to do our jobs. It’s as simple as that. It sounds black and white but lots of us live in grey areas where we’re not quite OK but we are still functioning and we keep on going, telling ourselves that the break, the boundaries and the better care will start tomorrow or next week.

I remember attending the family practice conference (the DR conference as it was) around 10 years ago and a conversation in the bar told me that more than 80% of the people round the table felt they were on the edge of burnout. It was a very private conversation amongst people who felt they had a rapport and who had, perhaps, let their guards down being out of the office and in the social setting.

Those conversations are now happening on committees and in workplaces and not in whispers in a corner away from the office. This is undoubtedly progress. Supervision is now understood and is being taken up by more and more firms. Team meetings include a focus on wellbeing as an opener to conversations about how everyone is coping and managing. It’s a focus in training and at conferences and these, again, are all things to feel proud of. A few people have tirelessly and passionately pushed this agenda and other people have joined the cause. This has enabled the messages to spread and, crucially, has made conversations about wellbeing more normal and commonplace.

One of the things that I have been really heartened to see has been the conversation about diversity because this also relates to wellbeing. Again we should all be indebted to the passionate people who have pushed this forward and given this the much more prominent place it deserves. The fact there is a Resolution EDI committee shows the emphasis on this issue. I particularly enjoyed the focus on neurodiversity at last year’s Family Practice conference and learnt a great deal. It was lovely to see Ravi Kaur Mahey win the community champion at the Resolution awards on 13 September. The simple truth is that it is far harder to achieve a sense of wellbeing at work if your workplace is not set up to accommodate your needs, or you do not feel accepted in who you are as a person.

My eldest child is now 16 and I can remember how unusual it was to work part time when he was small and how looking for jobs part time was so unusual that recruitment consultants encouraged me not to mention I was looking for this. Supervision was largely non-existent and really dependent on the culture of the place you worked in, and the people you had around you. When I set up my family mediation practice in 2013 the thing I missed the most was being able to get up and plonk myself down in a colleague’s office and just offload or pick their brains. I was fortunate to have the support of my PPC and other mediators I had met along the way, and I think community has always made up a big part of that support for me. In a job when I was the only person working in family law, I had a great network of local family lawyers and one in particular gave me enormous support.

I worry that support is still dependent on such things in some places. There are progressive firms doing brilliant things but if you do not work for one of those then it is the openness and availability of your colleagues and the community around you that may govern how supported you feel, along with how willing you feel to open up about things. Law has often been a career where dark humour has been deployed to manage the difficult things we deal with and this has also elicited an unfortunate and unhelpful culture of people being told to “get on with it” or “not to be so sensitive”. Such views and comments are outdated, unhelpful and, frankly, dangerous. They are also not unique to law or family law.

Fees targets have also been mentioned by a number of people as being potentially harmful in terms of the pressure that they put on people and in terms of encouraging an approach that is not always as friendly to the divorces and separations our clients deal with as they might be. I’ve experienced pressure to refer matters to the court to generate fees in my career and it was a pressure I was profoundly uncomfortable. I was in the fortunate position of being able and confident enough to say so. I’m painfully aware that many junior practitioners are not in the position where they feel able to speak up against this. This, combined with a more superficial commitment to wellbeing (“we have a yoga class in the office at lunch time but you will need to make up the time spent on your billing target by working later”) means significant numbers of those working in family law are considering leaving their roles.

There are firms who are doing targets differently and firms who are not using targets at all. This has enabled a conversation to open up about how things could be different. It’s an easier discussion to have where you can point to examples of people doing things differently. I would love to see this conversation open up more in the coming months and years. Family law is changing and the way services are offered is changing fast. Those who say things have to be done in the traditional way are being shown up by those who are offering services in non-traditional ways. We can’t, however, assume that because different exists it makes everything different. There are practices still operating in the same way they did 20 years ago – both in terms of structure, culture and sometimes technology!

I am fascinated to see what providing support to those who are separating will look like in five years’ time. I am excited to see how barriers have broken down between professionals who support those going through a separation. Having closer working relationships between lawyers, mediators, counsellors, coaches, Chartered Financial Planners and other practitioners can only benefit both clients and us as professionals alike. Clients find that they don’t have to go from one professional to another repeating things over and over again; they can be supported by a joined-up team of professionals with each one serving a different need. We as professionals learn from those around us who play different roles, about aspects where we may not have felt so confident.

We see lawyers who are also qualified therapists and various other dualisms. One of the pacts I made with myself when I set up my own business was that I would never again do boring training where I fought the urge to snooze after lunch. I wanted to create my own training plan to join the dots between the things I understood to make those which I didn’t understand clearer. I wanted to know more about brain functioning and how humans interact. I am fascinated by conflict and how it is created and plays out. I also did two levels of reiki training because I was drawn to it and I wanted to understand more about energy and to better understand things I picked up on in the mediation room but couldn’t explain. I don’t give clients reiki (it would be awkward putting your hands on people in the mediation room) but it informs my practice and helps to nourish and nurture me as a mediator.

The net of what makes us good family practitioners is now wider and far more colourful. I find hearing about what training someone has done one of the most fascinating parts of my supervision practice and I’m excited to see what else we will all be learning about in the next few years. Ultimately anything that benefits our sense of wellbeing as practitioners informs how we can help our clients. For this reason alone I think developing a superb sense (and I mean this in the sense of it being properly embodied within us) should be a sound and realisable priority for all of us regardless of your current role and level of experience. It is on this (and I don’t think this alone) where more senior and qualified practitioners can potentially learn a lot from more junior and less qualified practitioners. A sense of wellbeing is a great equaliser in the sense that we all need it, but some of us have spent more time cultivating it than others.

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