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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Supervision, but not as you know as it

Supervision, but not as you know as it


Supervision of lawyers is a vital tool in their resource kit which would fundamentally change how they deal with relationships, and should be compulsory for family law firms, argues Gillian Bishop

The buzzword of 2019 is ‘wellbeing’, with an increased awareness of the rise in mental health issues resulting, at least in part, from a rapidly changing, faster flowing world.

When I began my career nearly four decades ago, faxes – let alone emails – were the stuff of a fantasy future.

Now, everything is instant and the demands of legal practice are greater than ever. While practice and procedure have generally kept pace with the speed of change, the attitudes of law firms and barristers’ chambers towards the wellbeing of their members is only now catching up.

Most firms have, or are developing, wellbeing policies – whether that is the provision of breakout space and gym membership, or more profound initiatives, such as therapeutic support.

Wellbeing needs are heightened

Family law is an area of practice where the need for wellbeing is heightened by the very nature of the job.

I asked an audience of family lawyers how much of their work involved actual law or procedure.

The highest percentage suggested was 10 per cent, so what is the other 90 per cent of our work? It is, I suggest, all about relationships: understanding them, being in them, negotiating them, surviving them.

As family lawyers, relationships are central to our work; our relationships with our clients, with our colleagues, with the lawyers for the other party, with other professionals, with the other party, and with the court staff.

The better the relationships, the better managed and worked at, the better the outcome for everyone – clients and lawyers alike. Yet there are very few resources other than our own life skills to help us deal effectively with this 90 per cent of our work.

My firm has provided independent confidential supervision with a psychotherapist for its professional staff for almost five years. Gradually, other firms are following suit with the provision of internal and external schemes.

Let us reflect for a moment about the job we do. As family lawyers, we are walking alongside people at their most vulnerable, irrational, uncertain and indecisive. Many other professionals may come across this at some period of their lives – social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, mediators and even clergy.

They are required to have a form of supervision as part of their continuing practice development. Many of the people they deal with project, offload, blame, weep, get angry, become irrational, become attached; and all are vulnerable.

Given that fact, isn’t it incredible that family lawyers, who are often at the front of the queue of professionals when couples separate, have no compulsory supervision; and the numbers who do have supervision can still be counted in the very low hundreds rather than the thousands?

I think that the reason for this is pretty self-evident – it’s just not what lawyers do. My generation of lawyers grew up in a world in which family law was just another type of civil litigation. And my generation are now the heads of departments training the next generation.

It is perhaps a trite thing to say (but no less true) that if we don’t look after ourselves we cannot possibly look after others. It is also true that if we do not reflect on how we do our job and what we bring to the party we will never fulfil our potential to be outstanding family lawyers.

The job requires us to relate not just to clients but to other lawyers, other professionals, our colleagues. Then, at the end of the day we take that all home to those with whom we have our most important relationships – our families.

I used to give a talk to students at the University of Law about being a family lawyer and I asked them what they thought lawyers had in common with all their clients.

After a period of bemused silence someone would answer: “We are all humans?” Yes! And being human we have vulnerabilities, prejudices, preferences, relationships and stories just – like our clients do; and, like our clients those things influence the way we look at life, the way we relate to others and the way we do our jobs.

Snow White and the devil

All of you reading this will have clients you liked and clients you really hated. You will have had clients who shouted and demanded and blamed others (including you). You will have had clients who appear to be such clear-cut victims that you cannot help but believe everything they say.

You will at least have seen correspondence from family lawyers which simply replicate the relationships between the separating couple.

“My client is Snow White and it is perfectly obvious to me that your client is the Devil...” (or words to that effect).

A real example of this is a letter I received from an opposing solicitor. She said (and I quote verbatim – emphasis mine): “My client may have left the marriage but this was no doubt because of your client’s unreasonable behaviour.”

How could she possibly know? Why did she write this? Because she had – and I’m giving her the benefit here – unwittingly over-identified with her client’s version of events so that they  had become her ‘truth’ as well as his.

This solicitor could do with some supervision, but so can we all. None of us get it right all of the time

I have written my fair share of crass emails too. However, over many years of practice, I have begun to reflect on myself and my role and I have done workshops that help me better understand the soup of emotions and feelings in which our clients swim.

All of this helped me think carefully about the correspondence I wrote and the words I spoke; but the thing that made the biggest difference for me was hearing about, and trying out, supervision.

A safe place

So, what is supervision? It is first and foremost confidential between the supervisor and supervisee. This is why an external supervisor is preferable to an internal one.

It is ongoing – ideally for the duration of the lawyer’s career. It provides a safe space to reflect on and start to deal with the stresses and burdens of legal practice; to work out why a client or colleague is driving you mad, making you feel sick, causing you sleepless nights – and even, sometimes, making you feel very happy, alive, in love.

What we do and the way we do it has a lasting effect on the lives of our clients and their families. Learning to reflect and listen to ourselves and our bodies is a good start to finding the work less burdensome and stressful and to becoming better at what we do.

In April 2019, the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) released its annual Resilience and Wellbeing Survey Report.

The survey found:

  • around half (48 per cent) of the respondents reported mental ill-health (whether or not formally diagnosed) in the month prior to the survey;
  • 93.5 per cent of respondents had experienced stress in their role in the last month with almost a quarter experiencing severe or extreme levels of stress;
  • the most frequently mentioned consequences of work-related stress were disrupted sleep (66 per cent) and negative impact on mental health (anxiety, emotional upset, fatigue, negative and depressed thoughts, self-harm) (60 per cent); and
  • 34.5 per cent of respondents said work-related stress also had a negative impact on their physical health (physically sick and chest pains).

Furthermore, the majority of respondents thought their employer could do more to provide help, guidance and support in relation to stress at work (77 per cent) and mental ill-health at work (78 per cent).

There’s no doubt that the profession needs to take the mental health and wellbeing of its practitioners seriously. I believe the provision of supervision for its staff should be compulsory for firms providing family law services, even if not all practitioners avail themselves of the opportunities.

It is my firm belief that supervision for family lawyers is a concept whose time has well and truly come.

It’s a vital tool in the resource kit for practitioners which will fundamentally change the way lawyers deal with the daily variety of relationships that are the bread and butter of their work.

The experience of clients in dealing with their lawyers would then be fundamentally improved; and that has got to be a good thing in anyone’s book.

Gillian Bishop is a consultant solicitor at Family Law in Partnership

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