A few days ago, I was lucky enough to receive a lovely bouquet of flowers from a client whose case had just been brought to a conclusion. The case had involved a very intensive period of activity over a period of a few months and was incredibly stressful and upsetting for the client, but we achieved a really successful outcome that allows the client to move forward very positively. My first interaction with the client involved a Zoom call where she could barely speak for crying, and our last interaction involved a Zoom call where she was crying with relief – tears on both occasions, but for very different reasons. Reaching the end of that process reminded me of one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most, which is seeing clients come through the other side of what is often one of the most difficult periods of their lives.
I'm often asked what qualities I think make a good family lawyer. Having at one time been perceived as the 'poor cousin' of a litigation practise, I suspect most people now recognise that family law requires a complex skill set of technical ability and expertise, empathy and litigation skills, which will apply in various combinations in different cases. Beyond that, I would say that the ability to appear unfazed, no matter what the circumstances, is the most important attribute. That applies both in situations when you think you've heard it all before and then a client's story makes you realise you haven't, as well as in circumstances where appearing calm unnerves the other side.
It's a standing joke within our department that I have an ability to appear very calm even when the exact opposite is true. "The most important thing is not to panic" is the mantra I have adopted for many years and one which I talk about often with my team. The team will, however, tell you that my mood can be gauged by the volume and tone of my humming – an upbeat hum signifies a good day, while an ominous, "funeral dirge" type hum does not bode well. Those who don't know me well are unlikely to notice, and the most important thing is that clients never know whether I'm panicking inside.
Once a case is over, clients often comment on how they can't understand how we can remain calm no matter what is happening. My response to that is that it's because we know it will be OK in the end – the clients don't always feel that, but we, as the lawyers, know that it will be. Much of the work we do is incredibly stressful and difficult, but in the vast majority of cases, there is a final resolution. As we are dealing with people who are in situations they never wanted to be in in the first place, it can be very difficult when in the depths of despair, to imagine a day when the process of being divorced, being involved in a court action, sorting out arrangements for seeing your children and so on will be resolved, but that day does eventually come. Seeing clients come through that process and move on is hugely rewarding.
It's a common perception for divorce clients to feel that they will never be happy again. A couple of years ago, I concluded a case that had been litigated over several years. It was a very difficult and sad case, and the client found it almost impossible at times to cope. She genuinely felt that it would not be possible for her to move on. A couple of months after the case concluded, she sent me a WhatsApp message that said, quite simply, "you always said that I would be happy again, and for the first time in a long while, I really am". Corny as it may seem, I think the message that can be taken from this is that there is always light at the end of the tunnel even when it does not seem that there is. There are probably lessons for all of us to learn in the current circumstances where the lack of direct interaction with our colleagues and loved ones, the constraints on our ability to socialise and so on, appear at times unbearable. We'll get there!
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