Family Law Supervision – Why Now and Why Not?

By Chris Mills and Gillian Bishop

The Psychotherapist’s perspective.

At the recent Resolution annual conference in Manchester, three workshops had as their focus lawyer self-care. This is a remarkable shift from the accustomed emphasis on procedure or on clients – what is being done for them, how effectively, how strategically. From this new angle is at last the recognition that lawyers struggle too: that in succumbing to stress, fear, exhaustion and a sense of overwhelm they turn out to be remarkably similar to their clients. They are not, after all, a separate species behind an impenetrable steel wall.

Private awareness of this is of course nothing new. But for it to be seen as a subject for such public declaration, for serious debate and possibly decisive action is truly groundbreaking. Family lawyers in a critical mass appear to be saying ‘We don’t like it like this and we don’t believe it has to be like this.’ Such a movement in attitude may turn out to be an even bigger game-changer in family law practice than no-fault divorce.

As a psychotherapist who has been providing supervision for individual family lawyers since 2013, these are exciting times for me. Supervision is mandatory in my work. There is an accepted view that what I do is untenable without it. In the twelve years since I began working alongside family lawyers as a team member in collaborative divorces, I have become convinced that supervision is equally vital for them too, and for many of the same reasons.

When as professionals we embark on complex relationships with clients going through extreme transitions, we become part of a psychological system that it is almost impossible for us to see from the outside. It is a system that we contribute to and profoundly influence, as well as being deeply impacted by. At worst family law practice can be seen to operate on a punishingly narrow set of expectations – that by providing distressed and disturbed clients with the right advice, all will be well. This is as naive as proposing that by just saying ‘Do this, don’t do that’ to a child, successful child-rearing will be achieved. Our clients project on to us everything from ‘saviour’ to ‘overpaid slave.’ We project on to them everything from ‘lovely and cooperative’ to ‘mad and bad.’ There is nothing rational or objective about this often unconscious labelling. It is a stress response – a reaction to being too under pressure to allow for more spacious, reasoned reflecting.

The relational system we make with our clients is a minefield in which old meanings have collapsed and new ones need to be found. Our own personal histories play just as big a part in determining how resolutions are arrived at as those of the clients who are depending on us. But too often our thinking, in parallel to theirs, depends on old defaults. This might be about an anxious need to please, to be seen as tough and decisive or right and competent, to meet our billing targets, to do everything within our power to prevent a client from going elsewhere.

This system we enter can never be less than complex and challenging, but with supervision added – the third eye of a practitioner who sees it all from one stage further back – a far clearer picture of the unconscious as well as the more obvious dynamics at play can be explored and better understood. And this, of course, is the route to better outcomes. Good supervision also undercuts the feelings of shame and inadequacy that so often eat away at family lawyers in private. Its lens is on lawyer welfare, and its method is to enable lawyers to talk in a confidential and secure setting about whatever is troubling or puzzling them that in any way bears on their working life.

I like to preserve ‘supervision’ as its title, rather than employing less austere labels such as peer support, mentoring or professional coaching. Supervision will incorporate all of these as the need arises, but it holds as its central belief that the relationship between supervisor and supervisee is the key agent of change. The particular idiom of the unique relationship that arises between supervisor and supervisee determines how material is shared and what is made of it. And it is the continuity of the relationship that makes ‘supervision’ the right word for it. This relationship takes time to build, and the right conditions. It cannot happen if it becomes an extension of the firefighting culture that is probably already prevalent in the work setting it aims to support. It is a relationship which, paradoxically, embeds itself in the culture it serves by being necessarily somewhat apart from it, in the sense of the ‘third eye’ I earlier described. It looks back in at the whole, pondering the critical questions from the perspective of where they impact on the lawyer, so she can return to work solving her dilemmas in her own unique way.

My six years of supervising family lawyers have revealed certain key stress triggers that repeat in various forms. Very broadly I would describe these as arising from a lack and a misunderstanding.

The lack is of any initial training for family lawyers in the nature, structure and purposes of conflict, both interpsychic (between one person and another) and intrapsychic (within and in relation to ourselves). In the absence of this, the default for many family lawyers is to see conflict as a bad thing that it is for them to reason or advise out of existence. Too much of a sense of their own effectiveness can become predicated on this.

The misunderstanding partly arises from the lack. It is the belief that clients must be appeased and cajoled rather than firmly stood by, which at times means firmly stood up to, challenged, even refused. There is a fine line that is often hard to spot and act in accordance with – the line between satisfying clients’ demands and meeting their needs. This requires a strong grasp of boundaries – especially important where conflict is raw – and a sense of how a firm but loving authority is sometimes more effective than the more pressing impulse to please or offer immediate relief.

Words to describe supervision can quickly become esoteric, seemingly removed from the gritty reality of what supervision is designed to catch and contend with. All my supervision training events are aimed at demonstrating it in practice rather than describing it. My training partner Gillian Bishop, the founder of Family Law In Partnership in London and one of my earliest lawyer supervisees, has been willing to be supervised ‘live,’ to enable workshop attendees to participate in the unfolding dialogue of supervision and to witness first-hand its visceral power to stimulate new thinking, in themselves as well as in us. My book The Case That Really Got To Me had a similar intention. The session transcripts it presents are fictional, but founded as closely as possible on the real issues and dilemmas brought by real lawyers. Many have reported recognising their own struggles and those of their colleagues in the different chapters.

Most exciting for us is the modular training we are running through FLiP Faculty (, now recruiting its third cohort of trainees. To date these have been family lawyers who wish to become supervisors for their own profession, but others with differing backgrounds in the health and social welfare professions are also now coming forward.

I foresee that one of the greatest challenges to overcome as the idea of supervision for lawyers takes root will be to combat the magnet-pull of it becoming a check list, an alternative driver of targets or performance indicators, a tick-box administrative exercise. At the simplest level, what supervision of family lawyers has shown me, in an age where the processes of appraisal are increasingly digitised, is the core human need we all have to be able to tell it the way it really is, privately and in our own time and style, to another human being. Where the work we do is based so fundamentally in the complexity of human relating, nothing less as a source of support for doing it properly will do.

The Family Lawyer’s perspective.

Chris Mills has been my supervisor for over 4 years. Does that sound strange? I have been a family law solicitor now for nearly 37 years what can Chris be teaching me that I didn’t already know?

Well, quite a lot as it turns out.

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 of the other professionals they may come across at this period of their lives – social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, mediators, even clergy are required to have a form of supervision as part of their continuing practice requirement. That this is required in other professions makes huge sense because the work is not easy, it can be burdensome. Many of the people they deal with project, offload, blame, weep, get angry, become irrational, become attached, and all are vulnerable.

Given that, 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 that the numbers who do have supervision can 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. But now maybe the times are changing. Mental health and discussions about it are centre stage. Most employers know that something needs to be done. A recent survey by the Junior Lawyers Association showed that a staggering 82% of young lawyers reported to feel stress at work on a regular basis. What are we doing to our young lawyers, to the next generation? What “worked” for us can no longer be taken as “working” now.

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. It is my firmly held view that the law counts for only about 10% of our work and the rest is all about relationships – ours and our clients. I was pleased to hear Sir Andrew McFarlane, President, say much the same thing in his key note speech at the recent Resolution conference in Manchester. The job requires us to relate not just to clients but to other lawyers, other professionals, our colleagues and, 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.

All of you reading this will have clients you liked and clients you really hated. All will have had clients who shouted and demanded and blamed others including you. All will have had clients who appear to be such clear cut victims that you cannot help but believe everything they say. All of 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 was a letter I recently received from an opposing solicitor. She said, and I quote verbatim, “My client may have left the marriage but this was no doubt because of your client’s unreasonable behaviour.” (my emphasis) How could she possibly know? Why did she write this? Because she had probably, (I’m giving her the benefit) unwittingly, over identified with her client’s version of events so that they had become her “truth” as well as his. That 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. Over my many years of practice though 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 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.

My firm has been one of the first to make supervision available to all of its professional staff. Most of the directors and all of the associates receive regular one to one, 100% confidential, supervision with Chris Mills on a broadly 6 week cycle. The supervision is paid for by the firm. The cost in our view is minimal compared to the potential time lost by our staff taking time off through stress related illnesses. Our lawyers love it because they can be completely themselves and know with certainty that nothing they say will ever be reported back to any of the directors or shared with anyone else in the firm. Here are some of what they shared with me when I asked why they chose to have supervision and what they get out of it:

A very senior solicitor: Never realized how much I needed it!

A junior director: I have found it extremely useful to have a forum to discuss the effect the emotional side of our work has on me day to day and why, and also explore potentially different ways of dealing with such situations.  It has been really helpful to explore the effect what I “bring to the table” has on how I interact with clients and why some may push my buttons more than others.

A senior associate: I find it a really useful forum for some sanity checking! I also find it useful for discussing and coming up with strategies for dealing with difficult or overly needy clients both to make my life easier but also to help them help themselves. I find it helpful to be able to talk through a scenario with my supervisor before I have to make a difficult call, which may involve giving bad news, for example. If there is a particular case that is keeping me awake at night, it really helps to take the time to talk through ways of approaching the client, which you might never do otherwise in a busy day.

A junior associate: At a junior level it is often hard to know how to deal with clients, not from a legal point of view but the management of a case load of individuals all going through a really tough time.  Supervision provides an opportunity to discuss and work on what can be put in place to manage those relationships in a way that preserves the client relationship but puts the necessary boundaries in place which a junior solicitor can often blur. I chose to have supervision because the idea of having a space to reflect on cases really appealed to me. So much of the day is spent ‘firefighting’ and jumping between files that there never seems to be time to think about what has happened or how it has made us feel. Also, I think what often happens in our world if we are not super aware of ourselves emotionally is that we take on our clients’ stresses/dysfunction which can then spill out onto our colleagues in a way that is really counterproductive and damaging. I have also always been really interested in the therapeutic side of family law so I was very open to the idea from the start and suspected it was something I would get a lot out of. I have got so much out of the sessions, probably more than I imagined. The feeling of support – from my supervisor and also the directors– and the fact that the firm provides and pays for the supervision makes me feel like the firm genuinely invests in and cares about our wellbeing and recognises the benefit to everyone in its employees feeling happy and centred at work. Just knowing that the supervisor is there to speak to about difficult clients or interactions is invaluable. He so often gives me a new perspective on clients and on myself. I think it will ultimately make me a better colleague and lawyer (hopefully already has).

Through the firm’s training arm, FLiP Faculty we are putting on trainings that go to the heart of what we do as family lawyers but which rarely get taught at law school. One of the trainings we are running is a course to train family lawyers to be supervisors. We are also about to start to train those who are already supervisors to be supervisors to family lawyers.

The time is Now and there is no reason Why Not!

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