From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 14/03/2013.
Dealing with emotional clients means keeping your professional mask on – you’ll be a better solicitors for it says Marilyn Stowe
The Legal Ombudsman has produced a report showing that family law is the most complained about area of law in England and Wales. More than a fifth of the cases it deals with involve divorce and other family law-related matters. I am sure that few frontline family lawyers will have been surprised by this finding, for the simplest reasons: divorce is an event coloured by emotions, and nearly a quarter of a million people get divorced every year. Ninety-five per cent of the Legal Ombudsman’s complainants are members of the public; divorce is one of the few areas of law with which members of the public are most likely to come into direct contact, along with residential conveyancing, wills and probate. The Legal Ombudsman’s statistics reflect this: last year the most complained about areas of law were family law (1,332 complaints), closely followed by residential conveyancing (1,306) and wills and probate (1,024).
The report’s findings grabbed their share of headlines, but what caught my eye was a line in an editorial by Adam Sampson, the Chief Ombudsman, in the Guardian, concluding that the high number of family law-related complaints was the result of “tension between ethics and business”. He explained: “For a lawyer, a new divorce case is just another client, another day at the office; for the client – vulnerable, distressed and angry – this may be the worst thing that they have ever experienced.”
Now, I am sure that if you are a solicitor reading that line for the first time, you will be bristling at the relegation of your vocation to “just another client, another day at the office”. Law is a profession; a profession is not the same as a job. Me? I agree with Adam Sampson and I think he makes an excellent point here. Dare I say, however, the point I agree with is perhaps not the one he thinks he is making.
As those of us who have dedicated ourselves to family law, or who have experienced divorce at first hand know, emotions are very difficult to control during a turbulent relationship breakdown.Clients may find themselves unable to hide their feelings, or consumed by a desire for revenge. Alternatively, they may bottle up their wrath and distress, which can also be a mistake. I keep a regular supply of tissues in my office because it is quite normal for clients to become extremely upset at the beginning of a case. When a client first comes to see me, it is no surprise – indeed, it is almost expected – for the client to break down in tears. Emotions are at their rawest; the pain is at its most intense.
As a solicitor, however, I go to great efforts to keep my professional mask firmly in place and remind myself that this is just another client, no matter how upset for him or her I am feeling inside. Clients want wise counsel, but there is a world of difference between providing a firm shoulder to lean on and crossing the line to become something more. That line isn’t drawn because of any “tension between ethics and business”, but quite the opposite: it means we can do our best for our clients, and stay focused on the task at hand.
Here is one example. Recently our firm took on a complex child contact case. Our client had dispensed with the services of her previous lawyer, not because the lawyer wasn’t knowledgeable but because he had, in the client’s opinion, become too distressed and emotionally involved in the case. The client began to find their meetings and conversations wearing, rather than reassuring. It isn’t the first time I have known this to happen. In my experience, clients aren’t paying you to feel their pain. What they want is a business-like approach and a steely determination to fight their corner. As solicitors we do what we are expected to do – seek justice, on the client’s behalf – and we do this as briskly and as professionally as we can.
I tell all my clients to go home and take care of their health, their emotions, their children and all the day-to-day matters, and leave me to take care of everything else. Yes, Mr Sampson: it’s “just another day at the office” for me and, as busy and challenging as those days are, I wouldn’t have them any other way.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal, and is reproduced by kind permission
Photo by Chris Costes via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence