Attack. Destroy. Emotional baggage. War.
These are just a few of the descriptive words I heard uttered while attending sessions during the County of Carleton Law Association’s Annual Institute of Family Law in Montebello, Que. recently.
The room was filled with family practitioners comparing notes and listening to speakers discuss everything from the latest cases on custody and access to judges speaking on effective advocacy in Family Court. You simply don’t hear such colourful words uttered at corporate counsel, real estate or even criminal law conferences. I, in a previous life, practised as a family lawyer, and I found that absorbing all of these narratives was jarring. I came away reminded of how simultaneously rewarding and distressing family practice can be.
I write frequently in this space about the stresses of a legal career, and yet, it seems that family law holds a unique place in the conversation about lawyer stress. There are few family lawyers who, after having been asked what type of law they practise, tell the inquisitor that it’s family law, only to be told, “I don’t know how you do that, I could never do family law.”
And yet, for those who practise in the area, it can be the best kind of legal work. You can make a meaningful difference for individuals, protect children, preserve the legal rights of the vulnerable and help people rebuild tattered lives. The potential fulfilment is boundless.
So, why all the distress? Start with the subject matter. People who come to family lawyers are sorting through the wreckage of what was once the most important aspect of their lives. They are enduring the end of the dream of lifelong love, companionship and/or co-parenting and they are often hurt, scared and angry. It’s emotionally charged stuff.
Family lawyers must navigate not only legal rights and obligations but also emotional upheaval and psychological turmoil. And many family litigants want to adjudicate their pain through the litigation process, which is never a good strategy. This is especially problematic when the best interests of children are involved. It’s an emotional minefield and successful family practitioners must learn to deftly manage client demands — which are sometimes unreasonable or counterproductive — and professional and sometimes even moral obligations.
While working with these emotionally activated clients can be stressful, many family lawyers have taken on the unfortunate habit of adopting their clients’ grievances as their own. Not a day passes in family court without at least one pair of legal advocates arguing over children with a fervour suggestive of people desperately fighting for their very own progeny. If I, as a psychotherapist, assimilated all of the various painful emotions and stories I hear from clients on a daily basis, I’d burn out in a week. And yet, many lawyers in this field actually think stepping into the emotional shoes of their clients makes them more effective. It doesn’t.
In the same vein, these warring, uncivil lawyers also lose sight of their professional obligations to each other as colleagues. Many of the judges at the Montebello conference recounted their respective frustrations with lawyers attacking each other in court, in correspondence or in behaviour throughout the litigation process. These judges uniformly lamented how distressing and ineffective this approach is in advocating for client interests. In addition, to be a lawyer feeling like you are incessantly under personal attack by colleagues is unmanageable. It takes on a personal dimension one does not find in other areas of law, including civil litigation. If you have to argue a support motion on Monday morning against a particularly uncivil opposing counsel, your Sunday night sleep is unlikely to be restful and that’s simply unhealthy. Add to this the increasing prevalence of self-represented litigants in Family Court, with their personal animus and ethical flexibility, and you have a recipe for lawyer burnout.
These are just a few of the myriad challenges experienced by family practitioners. And yet, family law — when done right — can be the best of times. To carry this off, one needs to remain mindful of certain necessities. First, family lawyers must have personal and professional boundaries. From the first client meeting, expectations must be managed and delineated clearly.
Clients need to know when they can and cannot contact you. They must have a clear sense of cost and billing. They must be aware of reasonable expectations as to legal outcomes. And the clients must be advised that you are there to help resolve a legal dispute, not grind their former partner into a fine powder. Further, you have a choice as to which clients you take on and which you keep. If a client will not honour your boundaries, let them secure alternate counsel. It’s not worth it to your psyche and to your professional reputation.
Maintain a level of civility and professional decorum with everyone, from clients to opposing counsel to unrepresented litigants to court staff. And do this no matter how they treat you. This can be hard to do, but it pays dividends, both personally and professionally. It’s good for your mental health, but you’ll also realize that judges look favourably upon the lawyer that maintains ethics and respect.
Finally, lean on supportive colleagues, friends and family. Some of the subject matter dealt with in Family Court is painful and traumatic and even lawyers need space to debrief and process this emotional content. There is no shame in asking for help. It’s emotionally intelligent and ultimately ensures a healthy and satisfying practice. If you love family law, do it the right way and you’ll reap the benefits for years.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.