Why family lawyers need to treat themselves with compassion, too

The past thirty years has seen a huge upsurge of interest in the so-called ‘talking cures,’ counselling and psychotherapy.  As a result, the term ‘transaction’ has developed a much broader meaning across the whole spectrum of social welfare professions.  What we now understand is that transactions are not just about the passing on of expert information or practical advice; they are not just about one well informed and well resourced body of people doing something to or for another group who are less able or less fortunate.  Transactions are more subtle than that.  They are the primitive building blocks of all relationships, and as such carry far more than just factual disembodied information.

Family law is playing catchup.  While many older-style lawyers still use the law as a kind of protective edifice to keep their clients at a manageable distance, other younger ones, having grown up in a more emotionally literate environment, understand that when distressed or traumatised clients come for our help, they are not primarily needing a to-do list, a factsheet or someone to represent them in battle.  They are needing an empathic other who can sit alongside them, hear their story at a symbolic as well as an actual level, understand and sympathise with their chaotic feeling states, and so gradually help them move from scared reactivity to a more settled space where a vision for a new and workable future can begin to take form.

These skills that we need to acquire - often bizarrely referred to as ‘soft’ - are hard to learn and take a great deal of effort and energy to sustain.  To actively listen to other people’s distress on a daily basis, and to support them in transforming it, could hardly be more rewarding or worthwhile.  But because we are essentially the same as our clients - not, after all, some different impervious armour-plated species, but human beings who like them also suffer and struggle - it is essential that we learn to look after ourselves in order to fulfil our role successfully.  Indeed, one of the other great shifts of awareness that psychology has given us is the realisation that we can’t look after anyone else if we can’t look after ourselves.  Disidentifying  with our own needs means we can’t hope to identify with someone else’s.  That is why supervision is mandatory for psychotherapists.  Their consistent need for psychological support in order to do their job properly is not seen as a weakness, but a necessity.

Levels of stress and burnout in the family law profession are their own testament to the need for change: change in the form of a better understanding of what we’re really doing, and how to preserve and protect ourselves in the face of what our jobs demand of us.  In the absence of that awareness, the profession of family law endangers itself by reacting in the self-punishing ways that stress always gives rise to: overwork, impossible deadlines, crazy achievement targets.  While pretending to show empathy and compassion for our clients, we treat ourselves with less and less of both.

For family law practice to grow to its full potential, it has to develop and wholly embrace a supervision culture, like the other social welfare professions that form part of its wider network.  This is what will transform family law and give it its proper identity for the twenty-first century.  The German philosopher Martin Buber said that we can never be fully responsible until we are fully responsive.  In order to care responsibly for our clients we need to recognise and respond to our own needs as well, and so learn to distinguish self-care from its much more dangerous shadow, self-sacrifice.           
Brighter Future