Why supervision of family lawyers is also good for our clients

Necessary Oxygen:  Why supervision of family lawyers is also good for our clients

“Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

You are probably all familiar with the above safety announcement though maybe not as recently as you would have liked in these new Covid times. Maybe you are so familiar with the announcement that the very words ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please may we have your attention…’ has you reaching for your holiday reading – I know it does me, or at least it did.

I would invite you today to stop what you are doing and take notice of this safety announcement because it is all about BREATHING. Breathing is a popular subject in the news these days and not just in connection with the current pandemic. To live, we need to breathe. To live well we need to breathe deeply and often. We need to have a flow of oxygen to our brains and our bodies in order to function at all on any level. And we need, as the safety announcement reminds us, to have enough oxygen for ourselves before we can help others. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

But is it that obvious to lawyers? It was drilled into me as a young lawyer (decades ago) that my job was to be accurate and clear in my advice, efficient and exacting in my work and above all to show no signs of weakness. Reading the legal press over the time of lockdown I am not sure how much has really changed although there are growing signs that some firms know they have to do something to support the wellbeing and mental health of their employees. That’s good because the employees are the greatest and most valuable asset of any firm.

Yet the statistics are alarming – actually they are more than alarming, they are scandalous. The 2019 survey by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society reported the following:

In summary, the survey found that 93.5% of respondents had experienced stress in their role in the last month with almost a quarter (24.8%) of those respondents experiencing severe/extreme levels of stress. It is concerning (albeit understandable given the connection between mental and physical ill-health) that 34.5% of respondents stated that work-related stress also had a negative impact on their physical health (physically sick and chest pains). It is extremely concerning that 1 in 15 junior lawyers (6.4%) have experienced suicidal thoughts, in the month leading up to taking the survey.

In relation to mental ill-health, around half (48%) of respondents stated that they had experienced mental ill-health (whether formally diagnosed or not) in the last month. This is a substantial increase on the 38% reported in the 2018 survey. Only around one-fifth (19.3%) of those respondents experiencing mental ill-heath indicated their employer was aware. (Source – Resilience and well-being survey – Junior Lawyers Division – April 2019)

Workloads, client demands and lack of support were the biggest causes of stress. The impact and result of stress is obvious – poor performance, time off work through ill-health (physical and mental), poor billing, targets missed and, ultimately, client dissatisfaction. One thing leads to another.
Our junior lawyers are not able to breathe! And, I would venture having started working in the legal profession 40 years ago, that many of their bosses are unable to breathe either.

The good news is that there are many firms, large and small, who are doing something about it. Some have in-house mentoring, others have group supervision with an outside professional for their junior professional staff, some make short-term crisis-management counselling available at the firm’s expense. This is brilliant.
It is my belief that every firm with a family law department should make something like this available to their family law team. (As an aside I think something like this is important for all lawyers particularly those working in fields that expose them to human suffering of any kind – crime, personal injury, employment law etc. but this article is aimed at you family lawyers.)

Let me tell you about what my firm, Family Law in Partnership, offers in this area. All our professional staff have access to monthly or bi-monthly one-to-one confidential supervision paid for by the firm. Several points about that sentence need exploring:

All professional staff – This is such an important point. There is no better case of leading by example than the senior lawyers also taking part in the scheme (this applies to whatever model of support is offered). The message it gives to the rest of the firm is that wellbeing and mental health issues are recognised as serious and from which no one is immune however long in the tooth. I was the first person in my firm to have supervision (nearly 6-years ago now). It was no surprise therefore that our junior solicitors (and some of the other oldies) were keen to have it too. I would add here that junior lawyers really get this stuff. They are much more willing to have a go, they really understand the need for this work which not only helps them ‘breathe’ but helps them develop ways to handle the more difficult clients because they begin to understand deeply what is going on in the client/lawyer relationship. I know of some firms who offer support to their junior team only but I think it is essential that at least some of the senior people do this too. And why not? It is so incredibly valuable.

One to one – there is nothing wrong at all with group supervision but, I believe, there is nothing like individual supervision for giving the supervisee the space to really open up about what is bothering them – including, for example, difficult relationships with other members of the team. Supervision is able to provide a space for reflection on all work-related issues.

Confidential – again this is crucial. The firm may be paying for this but unless the sessions between the supervisor and supervisee is 100% confidential they are unlikely to be as beneficial as they could be. The supervisee will always feel they have to hold back on some things. That said if there are themes coming up amongst several of the supervisees in one firm, the supervisor may choose to raise the themes with the partners on a no-name basis.

Paid for by the firm – This is important too because it gives the message strongly that the firm really values its most valuable asset.

Supervision is potentially a career long process. It is not simply for dealing with crises but affords a place for reflection on one’s career, practice and professional relationships. It provides a space to celebrate and reflect on the triumphs as well as to unpack the disasters. It could be, and in my view should be, a compulsory part of our continuing professional development. It has always seemed strange to me that the other professionals operating in the family justice field have compulsory supervision – e.g the mental health professionals and social workers – and yet the lawyers, who are often in the front line and the first port of call for many clients, do not.

Surely now is the greatest opportunity to change that? When the need to ‘breathe’, the need to attend to mental health issues, has never been so pressing. The enforced lockdown required by the pandemic has brought this need to the forefront with the number of people reporting mental health issues on the increase. Some of them no doubt are family lawyers as we are as susceptible to stress as anyone else. We are human beings first and foremost. I think that sometimes gets forgotten in the drive to excel and achieve.

Where are the clients in all this? Well I go back to the quotation at the beginning of this article – ‘if you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first and then assist the other person’. It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? If we can’t ‘breathe’ how can we help anyone else to? If we are stressed beyond a reasonable level how can we give rational advice, how can we expect our clients to make rational and life-affecting decisions, how can we negotiate soundly, how can we do our jobs?

It’s not just about stress though. If we have no resource or opportunity to reflect on what is going on in our clients’ world, what is going on in the professional relationships we have, it is very difficult to learn to make those relationships better, to get to the real issues that face our clients and deal with them effectively.

The need for this reflection is evident from much of the solicitor communication that one sees daily in practice – the lawyers who have so bought into their client’s narrative that it becomes their own and is reflected in the hostile correspondence they write; the lawyers who will never speak to the other lawyer (or litigant in person) on the phone; the lawyers who make allegations and statements about the other client with no thought of the effect on the other person and thus the family as a whole; the lawyers who will not consider dispute resolution options because they will not make as much money that way. And one sees the need for a place for reflection in the lawyers who get defensive when a client complains and wonder why they can’t get their bills paid; the lawyers who put the blame for something going wrong on anyone but themselves; the lawyers who set themselves up to fail by overpromising and under delivering; the lawyers who think it is their job to be available to clients 24/7 whatever the circumstances. These lawyers and many like them have forgotten that they need to ‘breathe’.

My firm’s training arm, FLiP Faculty, has set up a training course to train people in the art of family law supervision so that we can build a network of people capable of providing the resource. The pandemic has held up getting new courses underway but we have already trained over 15 people (some of whom are supervisors in other areas) and have another 20 plus in the pipeline. The training is run by Chris Mills (author of ‘The case that really got to me’ which brilliantly describes the supervision process – you can buy it via www.chrismills.uk.com) and others.

If you would like to know more about how to find a supervisor and or how to do the training please contact me at gb@flip.co.uk.

This article appeared in Family Law journal October 2020 Volume 50

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