Just another day at the office (from Solicitors Journal)

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.”

Professional mask

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.

Business-like

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

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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15 comments

Leon - March 17, 2013 at 4:41pm

I’ll spare you the details (rape accusation, no contact with my kids for 2 years now…)
after the fact finding hearing last week, my ex’s credibility deficit has now become too obvious even for her barrister to ignore, yet her drive to achieve compliance with what she call her client’s best interest is as strong as ever.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not about to try and argue that somehow her attitude in this matter is analogous to the Nazis’ policy of racial extermination.

But one element of the period in war-time Germany does seem to have a most unsettling echo for me: time and again, when asked to explain their seemingly incomprehensible compliance with their government’s pernicious demands, ordinary Germans and high ranking officials, responded by saying that they were merely doing their jobs.

So my question to you is: at which point in one’s live does career plans become more important than moral judgment?

Yes, I know, solicitors & barristers are merely doing their job, just an other day at the office…

Marilyn Stowe - March 18, 2013 at 7:17pm

Dear Leon
Time and again the issue of an adversarial approach is queried in family law. A lawyer takes instructions and proceeds with a case on the basis of those instructions. The lawyer is not the judge but is presenting the case with a view to a successful outcome for his client. That is the case for both sides. The Judge hears all the evidence and e evidence will come out. It is the Judge to decide if the parties cannot agree. Judges usually but not always get it right. It’s up to them as to how they present the decision to the parties.
Another day at the office is far from easy. Working in family law is about as stressful as it can get, because you routinely absorb each client’s stress as part of the job. You may see several clients each day. Remaining calm and professional is the added extra for each client. Obtaining the result the client wants for each client comes on top of that. Running the firm as senior partner, then comes on top of all that.
We’re sitting duck targets right now because the Government wants to justify getting rid of access to lawyers, when in fact we are the cogs that turn the wheel.
Best wishes
Marilyn

Leon - March 19, 2013 at 10:30am

Still, you are missing the point, is it still ok to obtain the result your client wants when you know it is all based on lies?

I am talking about ethics, moral values here, you reply by “i am just following order” from my client..
how does it feel to destroy someone’s life Miss Stowe?

Marilyn Stowe - March 19, 2013 at 9:22pm

Leon
A lawyer receives instructions. The lawyer does not know if its true or not. The lawyer wasn’t there. If a client tells you it’s a pack of lies that’s different. A lawyer must not mislead the court.
Regards
Marilyn

JamesB - March 20, 2013 at 5:15pm

The lawyer does not know if it is true or not. I think they do. For example the UB allegations against me were not true, my lawyer just asked if I wanted to get divorced or not, therefore she told me to accept they are true when we both knew they weren’t. Sorry if this blows your argument.

A lawyer must not mislead the court? I think that is there job!!

JamesB - March 20, 2013 at 5:15pm

their ;-).

Respondent - March 20, 2013 at 9:25pm

It’s rather easy to know when someone isn’t telling the truth. If they are good at deception, they have the look of a politician about them, and thus give themselves away. If they are bad at deception, they tend to just sound ridiculous.

The reason that lawyers exist, well I suppose there are many, but I think one reason is to prevent their client from looking ridiculous, and to give dishonesty the appearance of the truth.

Leon, you’ll soon realize that you cannot expect morality from someone whose job it is to make money for their firm. Just as you cannot expect the banker to make transactions on the basis of ethics. There is no ethics in these spheres of life, and you’d be better to focus one asking questions about the extent to which that damages children and perpetuates violence and abuse toward men and children in this country.

JamesB - March 21, 2013 at 10:03pm

There is a saying not to shoot the messenger.

Lukey - March 22, 2013 at 1:26am

The system has to be adversarial because if it isn’t there is no incentive for people to pay lawyers the big bucks to represent them. When you pay a lot of money to a lawyer it is to get the best possible outcome – fairness doesn’t come into it.

So with the best will in the world you cannot expect lawyers (and a massive number of MP’s are lawyers too remember) to try and introduce fairness as a criteria for coming to a judgement – it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas :-)

Leon - March 22, 2013 at 9:32am

SRA Handbook:

Acting in the following way(s) may tend to show that you have achieved these outcomes and therefore complied with the Principles:

(…)

IB(5.4)
immediately informing the court, with your client’s consent, if during the course of proceedings you become aware that you have inadvertently misled the court, or ceasing to act if the client does not consent to you informing the court;

IB(5.5)
refusing to continue acting for a client if you become aware they have committed perjury or misled the court, or attempted to mislead the court, in any material matter unless the client agrees to disclose the truth to the court;

Leon - March 22, 2013 at 10:42am

Acting in the following way(s) may tend to show that you have not achieved these outcomes and therefore not complied with the Principles:
IB(5.7)
constructing facts supporting your client’s case or drafting any documents relating to any proceedings containing:
(a)
any contention which you do not consider to be properly arguable; or
(b)
any allegation of fraud, unless you are instructed to do so and you have material which you reasonably believe shows, on the face of it, a case of fraud;
IB(5.8)
suggesting that any person is guilty of a crime, fraud or misconduct unless such allegations:
(a)
go to a matter in issue which is material to your own client’s case; and
(b)
appear to you to be supported by reasonable grounds;

watch this space!

JamesB - March 22, 2013 at 11:38am

Yeah, like I say most divorce petitions and AR statements are sworn as truth on the bible even though everyone knows they are lies and half truths at best. Lawyers get round your statements by getting client to swear on the bible. That way they can pretend to be nobler than they are. I remember a saying about divorce that a Judge knows it is going well and normal if both sides are lying.

JamesB - March 22, 2013 at 7:12pm

Hi, just wanted to say how pleased I was on the Israeli’s apology to Turkey today. Was very nice to see them being nice and reasonable. I won’t add the three words I was going to to the end of the last sentence as hopefully it will help things move in a better direction in the area and I am being positive too as was the Israeli PM, not a bit fan of his, yet he proved me wrong today and that is good. Perhaps they have the capacity to be more then they have been in recent years afterall. I hope so and continue to pray for them.

JamesB - March 22, 2013 at 7:12pm

Well, I pray for all people really :-).

JamesB - March 22, 2013 at 7:13pm

First time I’ve ever heard an Israeli apologise. Perhaps over the assassinations with British passports too next please.

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