It’s a curious job, being a family lawyer. Yes, you need to be a technical expert, meticulous drafter, font of legal knowledge, tenacious advocate. But the demands of the job go way beyond the legal. You’re also required to act as therapist, life coach, parent and best friend all rolled into one (and to think some say family law is just about adding everything up and dividing by two…)
It’s these (in the absence of a better word…) more ‘touchy feely’ elements that make the job so fascinating as well as frustrating. And emotional pressure comes with the territory when you work with clients who routinely become overly dependent on you, may act illogically and go against your advice.
Can therapists help?
Given that family lawyers often do become pseudo-counsellors for their clients, what’s the point of getting an actual therapist involved in the family law process?
Clients usually don’t want an array of people involved – they like having one person that they can trust and pour all their feelings into. That’s why they develop such an intense bond with their lawyer.
But there are some good reasons to involve therapists. And not necessarily the ones you might expect…
Lawyers need to spend time with people from professions with such a different culture.
People are porous. We’re massively affected by our environment. We pick up on others’ ways of doing things if we’re around them for long enough.
And working alongside therapists can really help lawyers temper the focus on logic and become more feelings-orientated.
Family lawyers are a pretty empathetic bunch generally. But the legal profession still fails to give feelings and emotions the credence it should. Emotions come into every case you work on. But they’re barely mentioned (if at all) in lawyers’ training. And it’s too often seen as good practice to squash your own feelings as a lawyer in order to appear ‘robust’ or as having ‘broad shoulders’ (whatever that means…).
Handing back responsibility
Lawyers are often Mr and Mrs Fix Its. It’s inbuilt in lawyers to want to solve problems for others. Therapists on the other hand tend to take a more reflective approach. That’s useful in cases with complicated and delicate psychological and practical issues (as family matters do). Sometimes there isn’t an immediate solution to a problem. Therapists find it easier to be OK with that than lawyers.
Lawyers are excellent at getting to the heart of issues while therapists tend to be a bit ponderous and not so quick to get to the point. Although this can be impractical, the therapeutic approach does demonstrate an appreciation that feelings are not a linear A to B matter. Emotions need space to breathe for us to have a hope of making sense of them. In contrast, the legal process doesn’t really do ‘space’. Hence why amicable divorces often turn nasty, casualties of a system that funnels them in and churns them out like the machine in the Pink Floyd video ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.
Horses to water…
When bumps in the road appear, lawyers tend to appeal to reason and logic to persuade their clients or counterparts to come round to their way of thinking. Contrast that with your typical therapist. Day 1 at therapy school teaches you that we all sometimes behave in self-defeating ways. it’s part of our make up as humans. So therapists understand that appealing to someone’s logic usually doesn’t work. Effortful or directive efforts to cajole or persuade clients that they should or should not do something often backfire. You can lead a horse to water and all that…
Therapists try to shine a light for clients on such self-defeating or destructive tendencies, rather than seeking to persuade them one way or another. There’s an element of trusting that the client will take the right road. This approach liberates therapists from the frustrations that lawyers get caught up in. Lawyers might benefit from picking up a little of the spirit of this approach.
‘Do Not Cross’
Boundaries run through therapeutic work like the words on a stick of Blackpool Rock. Like the implicit rule that clients should rarely contact you between sessions. This shows respect for the therapist’s time. Contrast that with the average lawyer who is expected to be available and responsive most of the time.
We therapists are also supported in managing our own feelings with clients, through clinical supervision and our own therapy, making sure that feelings of anger, frustration and annoyance with clients get discharged.
When can therapists help in family law matters?
Ideally well before the start of the legal process. Most couples benefit from attending therapy together, whether separating or not. Those who do so tend to be more communicative and more nuanced in their views about their relationship; less likely to indulge in the ‘blame game’.
There’s also no reason why a suitably experienced couples therapist can’t be involved with aspects of the legal process. Therapy can be a great setting for couples to start to disentangle thorny issues around, say, personal belongings, unreasonable behaviour particulars in a divorce petition, decisions around schooling, holidays, what’s in the best interests of the children.
This is not about taking the place of mediators or lawyers. It’s about the fact that many of these conversations are not actually legal, nor do they require legal knowledge.
The therapist can then encourage the clients to speak to their lawyers and can provide a written summary of discussions of the discussions to the lawyers, with the clients’ consent.
Therapists can also take a supporting role in mediations, collaborative meetings or negotiations. When I think back to round table meetings I attended as a lawyer which disintegrated into defensiveness and acrimony before breaking down and one person storming out, I wonder how many could have been ‘saved’ with some therapeutic support. Having a therapist present makes clients feel safer – they know they can take time out when needed. This makes them less likely to retreat into defensiveness or lash out and are more likely to stay in the process.
We all know the reality: that family law is a melange of psychology and law.
By therapists and lawyers working in a more integrated way we ensure that our practice fits with that reality. We two professions have complementary skills to share and learn from each other. We do clients a disservice if we fail to reflect that in the way we work.