I had underestimated the challenges of dealing with clients who are going through the most emotionally and financially challenging time in their lives when I first started my career as a family lawyer.
I had seen my colleagues deal with vulnerable clients, but it was often listening to their conversations on the telephone, so I hadn’t fully appreciated what the client was saying, or if I did witness them dealing with a vulnerable client face to face, the lawyer made it look so easy. When I began to deal with the clients myself, it was another matter altogether.
I think it is safe to say that almost all my clients need support throughout their case, but not all are as vulnerable as the next. What amazes me is the constant changing levels of support and how quickly I need to adapt how I deliver my advice, verbally or written, and to find different ways to explain things tailored for each client.
In one day, I could speak to 5 – 10 different clients of different sexes, ages, backgrounds, stages in the relationship, and family breakdown, all of whom are feeling different emotions.
I think it is fair to say that it is a relief when I know I am about to speak to a client who is calm and pragmatic. But are they that way because they have confidence in me and my clear, calm manner, or at least I appear calm on the surface!
However, that being said, it would not be true to say that I don’t appreciate the challenge of dealing with vulnerable clients. I do. It hurts me to hear and see the clients being as vulnerable as they sometimes are, but when anyone asks me what do I enjoy about my job and why did I choose to be a family lawyer, my answer is always that I take pride in seeing the change in my clients from when they first instruct me, to the conclusion of their matter and to be on their journey with them.
I find it challenging, yes, and sometimes I do not always know what to say to a client who is extremely vulnerable, but the more experienced a lawyer I am becoming, I’m finding ways of better handling the situation.
All of this is on top of providing complex legal advice, meeting targets, trying to progress in my career, supervising junior members of staff etc – no wonder why I reach for a glass of wine on a Friday evening!
But wine is not always the answer. On a more serious note, it is so very important to ensure that you have support from others and can find ways to support yourself when dealing with vulnerable clients.
I am fortunate in that I have an experienced and incredibly supportive team around me and to whom I can pick up the telephone or speak to face to face in the office. Even when working from home, I know that my colleagues will be there for me, albeit on the screen!
I find it so comforting to know I am well supported and my colleagues are there to listen should I need to offload, and also the more senior staff provide constructive feedback when they think I could have handled a situation differently.
The firm are very mindful of supporting us wherever possible. They provide mental health first aiders and identify courses to attend, to build our skill base in dealing with vulnerable clients.
I remember that a very experienced Partner once said to me: “You can do this job as long as there is nothing going on in your own life,” and those words have stuck with me and are so very true. It takes a lot of strength and professional skill to listen and to show sympathy and empathy with your clients when their concern may be trivial to what is going on in your personal life. But with experience and the right support around you, you stay professional, keep your professional life and your personal life separate from one another, and always put your clients first.
Everyone has different ways to relax and cope. I will pop in my headphones and go for a run in the countryside, walk the dog, relax at home with a glass of wine. Whatever you enjoy, you should do.
Take the evenings and weekends to reset and start fresh on Monday morning. Your clients, and you, will thank you for it!
Lisa Payne, Legal Executive in the Family Law Team at Wilsons Solicitors LLP