My reflections in this column on being a fledgling family lawyer in the 1980s reinforces my concern for young family lawyers potentially enduring their own problems in the covid-19 national lockdown.

They may be feeling isolated, lacking confidence, experience, training and camaraderie – while doing their best for clients who may not always show their gratitude. I went through it. 

I had good times, but often I was feeling isolated and had panic attacks. I saw myself as alone, holding up a heavy, inverted pyramid as my firm grew. But as I gained in experience, I learned to handle the tough job of being a family lawyer; and I hope that what I share here will help.

The harshest lesson is discovering your client is not your friend. Clients instruct you through one of the most emotional times of their lives. In a flash, they can turn into a client from hell. You are the focus of their fury, despite all you have done. Keep your distance; never get emotionally bogged down; and never make a judgement simply because of client pressure. 

You must always stay calm, professional and courteous. A client who can see you are vulnerable and asks you to bend the rules is not worth having. If this happens, immediately tell a partner in the firm and get rid of the case.  

It is more likely that problems will arise when you attempt to collect in costs, whether on account or in payment of the final bill. Clients may refuse to pay, prevaricate to delay and then start to blame you. It can be deeply distressing as you find yourself the subject of undeserved criticism, especially if you are alone. 

If this happens, don’t fret: it’s common. The buck never stops with you. There is someone higher up the pecking order and part of their job is to support you and take on what you can no longer deal with. Don’t feel you cannot cope.

It is sensible and not a failure to seek help. Those at the top of the food chain are financially responsible for the liabilities of the firm. They want costs collected. 

A firm approach, from higher up, to a tricky client will probably resolve the issue. or at the very least give you the support you deserve. 

Conversely, you may think that having good qualifications, you are the best family lawyer ever. 

Unfortunately, mistakes do happen. And if you make a mistake, tell a partner and, in future, stay modest. 

It is sensible to keep second-guessing your decisions. I recommend online learning, training, reading cases, familiarising yourself with new law and practice and keeping up to date with all the fast-moving developments in family law.

At home it’s easier: there are terrific lawyers and organisations on twitter, for instance, who provide regular updates. Follow the links they post and increase your learning.
 
Finally, don’t let your work get on top of you. Keep a diary and review your files monthly, preferably with a senior colleague capable of constructive suggestions.

If you need help earlier, ask the senior lawyers for it. It’s their firm, their reputation and ultimately their liability. You are not there yet, but you will impress them with your forward-thinking. 

This lockdown will end and you will emerge stronger for it. 

Marilyn Stowe is the retired founder of Stowe Family Law stowefamilylaw.co.uk

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