The problem is… how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life;
how to remain balanced no matter what centrifugal forces pull one off centre;
how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel
(Gift from the Sea (Morrow & Lindeberg) quoted in Reflective Practice in Social Work 2nd by Knott & Scragg)
What is reflective practice?
How do you stay sane when you are dealing with the emotions and frustrations of clients, opponents, and colleagues each day? When you are fighting with unreasonable opponents and your own clients, trying to give the right advice, navigate relationships with colleagues, and ultimately get the bills paid?
The fact is that most of us are affected by other people’s emotions. We are social animals and we are built with nervous systems that are sensitive to other people and porous to their feelings. And when we are working in areas relating to private wealth, we’re inevitably dealing with highly emotional issues – family, money, relationships and relationship breakdown, death.
It’s interesting that the therapeutic professions recognise that if you are dealing with other people’s emotions in this way, then you need a ‘space’ where you can explore the way that you feel about the work, open up about your frustrations, worries and disappointments and talk about your hopes and successes.
There is an increasing recognition that lawyers are not, in fact, cyborgs and do need something similar. We have been providing reflective support for family and private wealth lawyers for some time and it can be very beneficial for the lawyers involved.
How does this work for lawyers?
In practice, this means sitting down with someone independent and removed from the situation and talking about cases. It needs to be someone independent because usually there is a reluctance to open up completely with colleagues; there is usually a desire to appear competent and in control which means being unguarded is challenging.
Sessions tend to cover cases that are causing some worry or unease to the lawyer involved. What is it about the case which is really upsetting them and getting under their skin? Often there is a mixture of issues related to particular clients or cases plus events outside the office.
Jenna is a senior associate working on a mixture of matrimonial finance, contentious probate, and financial provision cases. She’s been married for a few years and has elderly parents. Jenna is highly competent and proud of her growing case load. At the same time, she’s been rattled by a couple of cases. A client turned nasty, complained, and fought her over bills, and she made a mistake on another file which she can’t work out how to resolve. On top of this, her mum is getting increasingly ill and she is spending more time caring for her.
Jenna does what most highly performing professionals do – she knuckles down, works harder, starts pouring herself a big glass of wine in the evenings to decompress and just feels that life is tough. There’s nothing much to be done. But as time goes on she notices that this is taking a toll; her efficiency is taking a knock, her relationships are starting to suffer, she isn’t sleeping well.
Reflective practice is about exploring these issues – the impact of the complaint on Jenna, her feelings around the mistake and the effect of caring for an elderly parent and navigating the losses involved in parents aging and getting ill. The first step is understanding what is going on so that it is dealt with in a safe space instead of spilling out in other places.
Ultimately, a person like Laura will have loads of resources and strengths that have been developed in her career – and, likely, goodwill from her firm. Reflective support is a way to work towards recognising these, and feeling empowered to make the right changes. What can be done to resolve the mistake instead of stewing on it; what can be learnt from the client complaint and what strengths and skills have been gained by going through this unpleasant experience?
Reflective practice can be a very valuable support for lawyers – especially those who are helping clients who are navigating grief, loss, anger, and frustration. This type of practice can help prevent burnout, attrition, and stress-related absence, but it can also help lawyers to gain in confidence and competence and enjoy their work by having the space and time to process issues and to reflect upon and celebrate the successes.
Author Adam Carvalho