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Let's get Fit for Law

 

LawCare champion, Gillian Bishop, asks what needs to happen to make lawyers better at managing their relationships with clients and colleagues.

 

 

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“It’s just not fair” I wailed to my boss 41 years ago. I was a trainee solicitor in the litigation department of a West End firm. Back then family law was part of litigation. I had just returned from court where the judge had adjourned the hearing which would have ensured my client would get the house from her soon to be ex-husband. She was distraught and so was I. “Do you want to be a family lawyer?” my boss asked “Do you want to be a good one?” I answered “yes” to both questions. “Well then, you need to set very clear boundaries and stick to them. The minute you stop being objective about your client’s story is the minute you stop serving them.” 

I have never forgotten that and I have told the story to many junior lawyers over the intervening years. I reminded myself of it frequently particularly if I was finding my clients’ stories touched a part of me that brought up my own history and my own issues.   

Learning essential skills 

The important message from this story is that lawyers need educating about boundaries - and about listening attentively, asking curious questions, dealing with conflict and so much more.  Generally, they are never taught theses skills unless, like me, they are lucky enough to have a boss who has them. They are rarely taught, either, to remember the one thing they have in common with their clients - that they are human beings. They are never taught that every client interaction - indeed every interaction with another human being -is about the relationship. This applies to all areas of law, to all aspects of life. 

So, what needs to happen to assist lawyers to be better lawyers? What needs to happen to make them better at managing their relationships with clients and colleagues? 

It will come as no surprise to hear that I think education is vital in what some people call ‘soft’ skills and I call ‘essential’ skills - which turn out to be quite hard to learn.   After hanging up my ‘client facing boots’ 2 years ago I turned my attention to ways of educating, primarily family, lawyers in essential skills. The result is a training programme called ReFLEX - Relationships, Family Law, Excellence - a joint venture with the Institute of Family Therapy.  This programme comprises 9 workshops leading to a Certificate in essential skills for family lawyers though some will be helpful for all lawyers.  

Reflective practice and supervision 

Another, and perhaps even more important, tool we can use to support lawyers is properly funded provision of reflective practice. In other words, not on an ad hoc/crisis management basis but regular and career long.  Reflective practice should, in my view, be mandatory for all lawyers. By reflective practice I mean the opportunity to reflect on client and other work relationships, see what they are doing to you, working out ways to improve them. There are many ways of having reflective practice. These include coaching, Balint groups, group supervision and 1-1 supervision. All are useful but, again in my view, 1-1 confidential supervision is the gold standard. It enables the supervisee to be free to discuss any work-related issue some of which may not be possible in group work.   

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I started having supervision over 10 years ago and I have had it monthly ever since. My firm pays as it does for all the lawyers there.  A few months into my supervision my supervisor said “You can’t keep going like this, you are on the verge of burnout.”  I was staggered. I knew I was feeling exhausted and jaded but I had no idea those feelings had a name, nor such a stark one.  32 years at the coal face without a career break other than a 3-month sabbatical 10 years earlier had left me on my knees. This affected everything. Over the 8 remaining years of my practice, supervision kept me sane but, more than that, it helped me to focus on what really mattered, it helped me learn so much more about my relationships with clients.  

 Many clients don’t like the advice we give, most take it but some don’t. I had a client who simply refused to take my advice. Pragmatism and compromise were not words she understood. She was adamant that she was right despite all the warnings. She made me ill because I was so determined to ‘save’ her from herself. Supervision helped me to understand that she reminded me of a family member with the same characteristics who I had been wanting to ‘save’ for most of my life. Supervision reinforced and deepened the advice I had received as a trainee solicitor. It made me whole.  

So how can we better manage the relationships we have with clients?  

We start with ourselves: by understanding what makes us tick, what we bring to the party, that we are humans too, that we don’t wear a protective carapace with LAWYER written on it, that all is about understanding relationships, about attentive listening, about asking curious questions, about knowing where our boundaries are.  Then we’ll be Fit for Law.  

To help legal professionals improve their relationships with others, LawCare and academics at the University of Sheffield and The Open University have just launched a new free online course called working with others.   

 ‘Working with others’ takes 2 to 4 hours in total to complete but is broken down into smaller sections and includes videos from legal professionals discussing the ways we work and communicate with others.  

The course includes: 

  • Working effectively with clients: identifying, understanding and managing client emotions, communicating with clients in person and online, and working with difficult or vulnerable clients.   
  • Working effectively with colleagues: team working and leadership, responding to conflict, and supporting colleagues.  
  • Collaborating with third parties.  

This new course is the second part of the Fit for Law series; an on-going project to promote psychologically and emotionally healthier ways of working within law that was developed based on evidence from focus groups with legal professionals across the UK. The courses upskill individuals and encourages positive organisational and cultural change in the legal workplace. 

For more information visit www.fitforlaw.org.uk. 

Gillian Bishop, Consultant at Family Law in Partnership Ltd, Family Law Supervisor and creator of ReFLEx Training. 

https://www.familylawsupervisors.co.uk 
https://www.reflextraining.co.uk/pages/reflex-skills-courses 

 

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Overall, Working with others hopes to encourage positive organisational and cultural change in the legal workplace through upskilling legal professionals and supporting them to develop their emotional competence and resilience. This course provides the foundations to support a broader change which is required across the legal sector, requiring buy-in from law firms, regulators, representative bodies and other key legal stakeholders to ensure the legal profession is healthy and fit for purpose.

For more information on Fit for Law generally, please visit www.lawcare.org.uk/fitforlaw