A Dual Role: Psychotherapist and Solicitor
DAVID JOCKELSON, Consultant, Miles and Partners
At the award ceremony for winning Legal Aid Family Lawyer of the Year the fact that I am a practising psychotherapist and parenting coach was referred to. In reply to a question and without time to think, I said that I like to ‘work therapeutically with clients’. That sounds rather grand now and I have wondered what it means exactly; how realistic is that for me and for other solicitors? What benefit has there been to my practice from having qualified in both roles and is there is anything I can suggest for others?
I trained with Spectrum in North London as a counsellor in 1994 and as a psychotherapist from 2000 to 2003. I currently have a small practice of five clients who I see in the mornings and evenings. I trained as a parenting workshop facilitator with Parentlineplus in 2000. I run occasional workshops at schools, solicitors’ offices and, on one memorable occasion, at the conference of the Association of Lawyers for Children.
In our office, the training I give consists of 12 pages of notes and a 90 minute workshop. At least some important and powerful skills with clients can be learnt intellectually quite easily from written material or a short workshop or course. A second stage would be to examine and work on our motivation and blockages in actually using those skills. The third stage is emotional self-care so that we do not become burnt out.
Listening to Clients
The most important thing to grasp is the power of listening rather than doing. Lawyers may see themselves as clever, rational, analytical, dynamic, full of good advice and eager to impart it. But when a client comes to see a solicitor, they are often in a state of high emotion. They are simply not able to deliver the information we require in a quick or reliable way and they are certainly not capable of absorbing information or advice, let alone acting on it.
Especially in care law, clients may be angry and in denial, usually because they are very frightened. They may have been humiliated, shocked and battered by engagement with children’s services and the legal process. There is likely to have been a long history of dysfunction and struggle in their family as well as a whole childhood and lifetime’s history of emotional disturbance and damage.
Although I work with and talk about care clients, private family disputes and money claims may also generate very powerful emotions which need many of the same techniques. To work effectively with such clients, they have to be treated with some simple but conscious emotional, not just legal, skills.
The first thing to grasp is the sheer power of ‘giving the client a damn good listening to.’ You could be the first person that they feel has ever really heard what they have to say without being uncomfortable, without interrupting, commenting, advising or judging.
Let them start with what is most urgent for them even if it seems legally irrelevant. Otherwise you will not get the legally relevant material dealt with efficiently. If they want to rant about social services or their children or their partner, then let them. You do not have to challenge what they say. Silence does not imply agreement or collusion. Preferably do not make notes at the very outset but totally concentrate on maintaining a powerful engagement by facing them directly, with good eye contact, occasional nods and encouraging noises, and just being solid, un-distracted and attentive. This is the key moment. It is extraordinary: even five minutes of this sort of intense listening and being taken seriously can really have a powerful impact.
Next find something that you can agree with. It does not need to be factual; it can simply be what they feel or agreeing with them what their target is – presumably the return of the children, a contact order, etc. Then make a note of that.
You can then start making further notes but you may still need to take things in the random order that the client gives them to you; because they are not in fact random: they are what their priorities are and if you ignore something as irrelevant it will keep coming up and make the whole process less efficient. Note down what they say even if it seems trivial and irrational. Let them work through that until they feel engaged. Note the difference: your attendance notes or proofs of evidence need to be organised in a conventional, linear fashion. But you do not need to impose that style on the whole interview.
Later you can explain that, in order to achieve the result that you both want, you are going to have to go through things in quite a slow, systematic way. Then aim for a full life history; listen to the facts and to the feelings.
Classic counselling techniques include carefully summarising what a client has said and checking back with them that you have understood it properly. Again the impact of this on clients is enormous and very beneficial.
And, crucially, if you have listened to them, they are far more likely to listen to your advice on what they now need to do to change so they can achieve the agreed objectives, ie win the case. Also you may be able to help clients to notice and name and accept their emotions; realise they can legitimately feel them and express them assertively rather than just acting them out in what may be an aggressive or self-destructive way.
However, unless you respect the clients, then what I have suggested is simply false, play-acting. You do not have to like them but in the workshop we look at respect and empathy – really seeing things through the eyes of clients. First, dare to feel your way fully into their histories with your heart not just your head. There is a French saying, ‘To understand fully is to forgive’ or at least to stop condemning and start respecting.
Also appreciate their present situation and the gross inequalities they face. They see us at court, familiar, comfortable, paid to be there, pally with each other, laughing. They are often broke, needing to borrow the money to get to court. They are unsure, deeply anxious, defensive/aggressive and may seem objectionable and unreasonable.
Notice this: that being powerless makes a person hyper-sensitive, possibly over-sensitive to accusations, even implied ones, to mistakes, to injustice; but also to praise and appreciations. Being powerful can make a person insensitive – including ourselves. Awareness of that in yourself could offset that tendency.
There is a second stage: At some level people may hear the above and may agree with it but in fact they cannot or do not put it into practice – or not for very long. It is therefore worth looking at exactly why that is – at our own behaviour and emotional needs – to see what is interfering with our potential skills. First, we may not be comfortable with other people’s powerful emotions. Their anger or distress or anxiety may cause us considerable stress. And that may unconsciously deskill us, making us revert to the habitual ways of working in a defensive, literal minded, unreceptive way.
If you feel that clients are wasting your time is that really true or is it a function of your impatience because of your discomfort? At court, you see some lawyers being quite brisk, even perfunctory, with clients but then somehow having time to gossip and chat with colleagues.
There is one technique I use with therapy clients: I ask them to talk about or write down their immediate response to the word ‘emotional’ or what they were told about emotions as a child: and then about ‘anger’, ‘fear’, etc because at some gut level this is what they still believe. You may like to try using this with yourself – become aware of what happens to you when confronting emotions, other people’s and your own, and then be more able to work with that with calmness and creativity.
Just like the clients, we need to be heard, understood, appreciated, and admired. We may think that we will get those things by being a good (ie a clever) lawyer because that is our training and expectation. It requires considerable, conscious and continuing efforts to put those skills and needs on hold and give equal prominence to the skills which I have described.
So you may need to establish systems for your emotional needs to be met. You may be able to arrange good, regular, emotionally intelligent supervision or arrange co-supervision with a colleague and/or agree with colleagues generally that you can offload the distress, anger, frustration or exhilaration that you may feel after an interview with a client or after coming back from court. Because in court, to be effective with colleagues and judges, you also have to hold back your need for approval – your egotism.
You may find it useful to agree with your home partner, if you have one, to have time to listen to each other’s day’s events in this quite intense way. You may find it useful to keep a journal or diary in which you offload and give yourself appreciation and acknowledgement. Ideally you would have counselling or therapy to explore and possibly resolve your own issues and needs.
What I have described is a part of self-care. That is necessary if you are going to engage in an intense, human, personal, emotional way with clients – and indeed with colleagues and judges – without burning out after a few years.
The techniques I describe can work surprisingly well with clients but they can often fail which is disappointing – even painful. Therefore you need the supports I have just described but you also need physical and emotional health care. The tensions and the emotions which the job generates will be reflected in your body and they need to be released (or more interestingly, explored and experienced) by exercise: possibly intensive Western-style gym or running but also in traditional, slower and more mindful things such as yoga, massage, meditation or Tai Chi: and breathing. In the workshop we explore the value and sheer pleasure of proper breathing.
This may all seem rather ambitious and possibly a bit precious. Can a legal aid solicitor really afford the time with clients I am suggesting? The simple answer is that these techniques are quick, effective and ultimately both speed up and improve the quality of the strictly legal, factual task. They also greatly increase the chances that clients will come out of their adversarial bunkers, engage with the process and change in the way that they need to change. It is both time efficient in the office and efficient in terms of satisfactory outcome. It is incidentally very much more likely to lead to a negotiated agreement and progress with considerable saving in court time and legal costs. I hope the LSC will read this.
This process and approach can also allow parents who are in a hopeless situation to accept that fact with dignity. This again can save futile contested hearings and may salvage something – for example some ongoing contact and possibly avoid disruptions of placements or an immediate ‘defiance repeat pregnancy’.
This whole approach is essentially a human one or as some would say ‘humanistic’. That label makes more sense if it is seen as in contrast with the inhuman, de-humanising nature of care and other family proceedings. We take it for granted but it is worth noticing that parents are expected to read documents and sit in court quietly while horrible, intimate details of their own histories, conflicts and of their family lives are discussed in front of strangers as if they are simply not there. And then we expect them to behave calmly and reasonably.
Perhaps we could all be a bit more sensitive and skilful than we currently are?