Psychology of law: “Rescue me”

Welcome to column two in our Psychology of Family Practice series! This is where we think about family practice on a deeper level – about all the fascinating stuff that lies beneath the surface of what we do.

This month I wanted to talk about dependency dynamics. It’s an issue that particularly affects lawyers and other professionals in emotive areas like family law.

What am I on about? Those clients who call you 5, 6, 7 times a day (sometimes more). The clients you can’t get off the phone. Those relationships we develop with clients which seem to be positive at the start (and sometimes get almost a little too close) but which later take a nosedive when they feel things aren’t going their way.

I think there are two things going on here.

One – people feel vulnerable when they become involved in legal processes relating to family matters. Of course they do. We would in their shoes, wouldn’t we?

Whether people show that vulnerability through tears or whether it presents in the form of anger, that vulnerability is there.

And when they come into contact with family practice professionals, particularly lawyers, they experience what we therapists call “positive transferencetowards us. What I mean by transference here is where we have certain preconceived ideas about a person or category of people that we transfer onto that person (whether or not, in reality, that person justifies those feelings or not).

So our family law clients turn up to our meeting rooms or phone consultations believing we’re going to save the day. They may even have read those articles in the newspapers that depict family lawyers as rottweilers or alsations.

They believe we can do more for them than we can.

And the truth is that this positive transference is pretty intoxicating for us as well.

When I was a junior family solicitor for example, I loved those clients who thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. Why wouldn’t I, given that this was set against the backdrop of other clients who clearly weren’t so enamoured with me and what I could do about their situation.

Many family practitioners find themselves (completely inadvertently) cultivating and encouraging such dependency. Because there’s a fine and decidedly murky line between, on the one hand, dependency and, on the other, excellence of customer service, responsiveness, availability.

  • The client who expresses dark thoughts for example. Surely you should stay on the phone with them for hours each day?
  • The one who wants you to tell them how to raise issues with their ex about what they feed the children.
  • Or the client who wants to explain to you all the finer details of their ex’s narcissistic traits.

But then doesn’t want to pay your bill for the time you’ve spent doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, we should be there for our clients. But this should be to support, not rescue.

The best way to try to achieve this is to set out your stall at the outset. Make it clear that you will work in a different way to other professionals they may encounter. You see it as your role to walk alongside them – yes, to guide them, but not to make the decisions for them. That this will be a collaborative relationship in which they will be an equal partner.

Another key aspect is how you ask questions. Part of your job is to evoke their own resources – not always to provide solutions. When presented with an issue, ask them first: “what do you think your options might be here?”, “what are some possibilities for how you might handle that?”, “what have you tried previously?”. You may still find yourself giving them ideas and feedback later on. But it’s important to at least try to evoke some thoughts from them first.

As family practitioners, we work with the curious backdrop of a family court system which is actually much more limited than clients believe it is. So much so that I think we’d be better off calling them Family Guidance Courts than Family Courts. With all of this in mind, it makes it all the more important that we address these dependency dynamics and send the message to clients from day 1 that self-help is going to form a much larger part of the process than they might think.

Annmarie Carvalho is a therapist and former family solicitor and mediator at The Carvalho Consultancy –