Family law clients do not only present with legal problems; family law clients very often also present with trauma, high conflict, stress, poor communication skills, limited conflict resolution skills, and if those complicating issues are not enough, family lawyers are also dealing with very serious claims of domestic and family violence and/or child sexual abuse, or other child safety type matters. These areas are beyond the scope of any university or practical legal training lawyers undertake; yet on a daily basis, family lawyers, who are trained in law, have to do their very best to deal with a multitude of issues, that they have little to absolutely no training in.
In this article, Chrissy Leontios, Principal Lawyer and Mediator of CLEON Legal and Mediation Services, advises family lawyers to upskill in order to better assist their clients in a more human and trauma informed way, and to tap into their own human and soft skills; such as kindness, patience, compassion, heart, empathy, and awareness.
Family lawyers must move beyond merely being transactional lawyers, i.e. achieving only a transactional outcome in isolation without assessing and understanding how a client’s needs, trauma, and life experiences impact on the way they will engage with their family lawyer, provide instructions, recall memories, and their level of trust or mistrust with their family lawyer and the family law process.
A checklist for practitioners to help assess whether their ‘lawyering’ is merely transactional in nature (or if a family lawyer’s skills takes into account trauma informed practice, understanding victim blaming, and understanding the dynamics of domestic and family violence and domestic violence theory) is to reflect on this set of reflective questions: –
- Have you minimised a client’s experience of domestic and family violence?
- What is your work environment like that you meet clients in?
- Do you consciously take steps to minimise re-traumatising your clients?
- How do you reality test? Is it aggressive? What is your style of reality testing?
- Have you ever yelled at a client or been short tempered with a client?
- Would you consider that you have ever inadvertently put pressure on a client when they were under stress to quickly make a decision?
- Do you treat and acknowledge your client as an expert of their life and story?
- Do you create a space for a client to give their story (or do you talk more than the client?)
- Have you been quick to label a client as non- credible if they cannot recall memories or provide instructions coherently?
The actual process of ‘lawyering’ has to be changed with family lawyers learning new skills, so a client’s trauma can be understood and taken into account when the client is being asked to provide instructions on traumatic incidents in a way that is trauma informed, or so that questions being asked about a client’s experience of their domestic and family violence does not directly, or inadvertently, victim blame, such as “well, why didn’t you leave?”. If a client is triggered, is in a space of trauma (and this is not acknowledged or understood, or not being accommodated to in a trauma informed way), and a client is feeling blamed, or perceiving that they are being blamed for violence (for example), then this can impact on the lawyer – client relationship, have a significant bearing on the legal outcome because the client may be triggered and in a state of trauma that affects memory or the client could withdraw and not provide instructions or coherent instructions, or the client does not feel safe or comfortable to disclose pertinent details to the case, then the family law process has failed that client, and arguably, can greatly and negatively impact on the legal outcome for that client.
Whilst our role as family lawyers and as lawyers generally is to advise on legal issues, apply the law, and present a legal case to achieve a legal outcome, these are the end results of the legal process and ‘lawyering’ in general; however, the process that family law clients require, and demand, is so much more than that.
Ultimately, if family law clients feel empowered, listened to, and supported to achieve their legal outcomes, and clients feel as if their goals, values, and interests have been taken into account, and they feel supported through a Trauma Informed Lens, this style of ‘lawyering’ has made a much more profound impact on a client. This style of ‘lawyering’ can be built into your business model as well; because a client who feels their lawyer went above and beyond in understanding their needs and responding to their needs (even if the legal outcome they sought was not successful), can potentially be some of the very best word of mouth referrers, in a very saturated legal market (particularly family law market). Practising law in this way can create greater satisfaction in work for family lawyers because the outcomes and results are much more profound and are much more client and human centric.
Understanding that family law is a type of human rights law, and at the centre of the process are humans with complex needs and experiences, is a step in the right direction of transcending from mere transactional ‘lawyering’ to bringing more compassion, heart, understanding, and awareness in family law matters.
Chrissy Leontios is the Principal Lawyer and Mediator of CLEON Legal and Mediation Services, a boutique and specialised trauma informed and feminist domestic violence and family law firm. CLEON Legal’s primary office is based in Townsville, North Queensland, and represents clients all across Australia, with a particular focus on Townsville, Brisbane, and Sydney, and is the only specialised domestic violence law firm in North Queensland, and one of a few in Australia. In 2018 Chrissy won the prestigious Partner of the Year Award in the Australian Law Awards and won a Gold Stevie Award (and also two Silver Stevie Awards and a Bronze Stevie Award) at International Women in Business Awards in New York City. Chrissy is also the owner of CLEON Empower. CLEON Empower sell empowerment cards – these are to lift women up, and provide strength and empowerment. CLEON Empower is soon to launch mini courses on domestic violence and trauma informed care for family lawyers. CLEON Empower also provides coaching to lawyers setting up their own practices, or lawyers in their own practices, who wish to create a thriving and niche legal practice, just as Chrissy has done in setting up a niche, and an award winning, domestic violence law firm. You can contact Chrissy at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via LinkedIn