Therapeutic support for family law practices – a conversation between a lawyer and a therapist

Individual therapeutic support benefits family law professionals – which in turn helps clients.

Edward: You and I met on LinkedIn a couple of years ago, Tim. I had just set up my own specialist family law firm. I had been thinking for some time about wellbeing, as one tends to when making a major life decision like setting up a business. I had seen other firms, such as Family Law in Partnership, offer individual therapeutic support to their team members.

When we met, I said this was something that I felt was really important. As family law professionals we often have to deal with some of the most toxic, difficult issues that families face. I recognised this had affected me in the past. As humans, we also all face stresses outside work, not all of which we necessarily deal with as effectively as we could, and there is a risk that such stresses can “bleed” into our professional practices.

Tim: We had a number of conversations, didn’t we?

Edward: Yes, and you offered to work with us, giving “reflective support”. Within a few months of our first meeting, two more lawyers had joined me and so you offered to roll out a programme of regular, one-to-one support for all our lawyers in our team. I felt that giving my team members an individual, confidential, safe space to share any worries they had at work, or indeed at home, would be of real benefit to everyone – not just them but also our clients – if it meant that our lawyers were better supported.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division, has talked a great deal about wellbeing in recent months, Tim, particularly given the challenges of lockdown. In fact he had stressed the need to prioritise wellbeing in our lives well before Covid-19 emerged.

In a recent “View from the President’s Chambers” Sir Andrew urged us all to enter into an “open discussion on the current ways of working and their impact on each individual’s physical and emotional health”.

In light of this, what do you think the particular challenges are for family law professionals and how can therapeutic support help us?

Tim: As I see it, lawyers are skilled at problem-solving, at the tough, logical stuff that requires detailed knowledge. They can see what clients need to do and they advise them accordingly. And lawyers are often dealing with heavy workloads. They cope – or at least they expect to.

Yet sometimes, as you point out, the pressures for family lawyers are acute. There are many reasons for this but often it’s when they’re dealing with divorcing couples where emotions are running high. Conflictual cases, often involving children, can create emotional contagion. Things can get out of control – beyond rational argument and advice. Then there are the additional strains of lockdown, increases in domestic abuse cases, additional financial worries and juggling work, homeschooling… These are tough times.

And there’s the toll that the family law work itself takes on you and your colleagues.

Edward: Yes. Talking about the impact of work on us as lawyers and family justice professionals, there does seem to be a growing recognition of this in the profession. The need for us to “look after ourselves”. This has been magnified by the pandemic. Resolution recently ran a wellbeing survey. Nearly 1,000 family justice practitioners responded, of whom nearly 75% reported that work-related pressures have increased since the first national lockdown.

I know you want to talk more about how we can look at ourselves better, and how the work you are doing with us as a firm in terms of therapeutic support can really help, but in the meantime, I would like to talk about a couple of issues that arise in our work on a daily basis: transference and trauma. Can we talk about each of these areas?

Tim: Sure, go ahead. 

Edward: It strikes me that transference can be a real problem for us as family justice professionals and indeed for our clients if we are not alive to the risks. It’s a two-way process. On the one hand, we often experience transference of our client’s emotions being offloaded on us. This sometimes cannot be avoided – it is how we handle it that is key. On the other hand, if we are not careful, we can also risk transferring our own emotional baggage in terms of what is happening in our lives and our past life experiences to our clients and into our cases. Do you agree and what are your thoughts on transference and how therapeutic support can help with this?

Tim: I agree that emotions, both ours and the clients, can ambush us when we least expect them. What happens in transference is that a person experiencing difficult feelings during separation (perhaps rooted in childhood) can project them onto the therapist-as-parent – or in this case, the family lawyer. What may also happen, as you say, is that the clients simply feel they can offload their anger, frustration, anxiety or fear, on to the “safe” person, who is you.

Edward: Absolutely.

Tim: What’s hard for lawyers is that they may not be trained to deal with anger swirling around the room, especially if some of it seems to be directed at them personally. We therapists are used to this and to managing our own feelings under pressure.

This relates to your point about lawyers’ personal lives. My belief is that if you haven’t come to terms with certain difficult issues from your past, or even some of your current problems, the feelings around them can hit you unexpectedly when you’re discussing the client’s break-up. This can be upsetting and difficult to handle.

Where the therapist can help is in talking about how to manage these issues. Simply discussing them – shedding some daylight on them – can be hugely reassuring and helpful. This is very much a part of the reflective support we have put in place.

Edward: What about trauma, Tim? We often talk about the traumas that our clients may have experienced in the past, often in childhood, which may have impacted on their development, or about the trauma of divorce. But how can working with clients who are often traumatised or extremely distressed affect us as family law practitioners?

We are all familiar with clients who make huge demands on us and suck us into their “drama triangle”. Why does this happen and what impact does this have if we don’t manage this? How can reflective support with someone like you help us?

Tim: We have to be careful dealing with trauma. I remember a client from the past who was having to deal with issues of sexual abuse from decades earlier at the same time as navigating his way through a difficult divorce, with two children involved. Naturally he was finding it all highly stressful and would occasionally blurt things out to his wife that he later regretted. This in turn jeopardised the divorce process. This needed careful management in a therapeutic context.

It may well not be helpful for lawyers opening up conversations about past incidents of trauma much beyond acknowledging how painful and difficult they must be. It’s important to acknowledge the pressures the couple are under. Creating an atmosphere of kindness and empathy can only help.

Clients can feel lonely dealing with divorce – it’s perhaps the hardest thing they’ve ever done – and it’s not surprising that they, consciously or otherwise, want to lean on their solicitor and involve them in the emotional turmoil. We as therapists can help here, but for you I imagine you need a firm boundary between legal help and emotional support. Of course you’ll want to act kindly and sympathetically but there is a line you won’t want to step over. You need to protect yourself.

Edward: That’s really helpful Tim. Before we finish, I’d like to talk a bit about how your support has already helped me.

Your sessions have helped me be more aware of the dangers of transferring one’s own “baggage” into the day job and of the importance of having someone to unload to in terms of dealing with highly stressed clients and situations. Members of my team have also said this has really helped them.

Tim: I’m glad to hear that. It’s interesting how, in the few weeks between our sessions, lives can quickly change. Problems can arise unexpectedly from new issues at work or new family circumstances. Or both together.

Edward: For me the impact of our sessions has already been really deep. The first one highlighted to me that there was a situation outside work which I had been struggling with. Whilst I was apparently coping fine on a day-to-day basis at work (we are all conditioned as lawyers to cope, are we not?), the simple action of talking to you made me realise that I needed to talk about this with another professional (which I have). You flagging up that I might want to seek this further support was vital.

Tim: Yes. My role was to take an hour each with you and your colleagues and to make any suggestions of additional help if necessary. That extra help can’t be done by me as I need to keep the relationship as we initially agreed.

Edward: Exactly. Talking to you has also helped me to look at my work-life balance. Working as a family lawyer is stressful at the best of times, particularly during lockdown. I have taken practical steps to address this – building in time for my hobbies and a day off on a regular basis – this has been hugely impactful. Thank you!

Tim: I’m glad it has helped, Edward. I enjoy meeting you and your colleagues every few weeks. All sorts of things come up at our confidential sessions, as nothing is off limits. I really believe this kind of work is useful in helping lawyers take care of themselves and be clear about their boundaries.