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Family law support

09 Jun 2021 / Family law Print

Stress test

Dealing with complex family-law situations without adequate support puts family-law practitioners at a higher risk of poor emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. Caroline Kinneen and Sharon Lambert investigate.

In a follow-up to the Gazette’s ‘Crash and burn’ article in 2018, research completed at University College Cork’s School of Applied Psychology looked at the impact of psychological stress on family-law practitioners.

With the ongoing pandemic and lockdown restrictions, more families in vulnerable situations are being left in precarious situations.

The mental-health implications for these families – and, in turn, the professionals who support them – are becoming more apparent, and the need for appropriate support for all parties is becoming more evident.

The role of a family-law practitioner can be misconstrued as simply working with marital breakdowns (Weaver, 2013). In reality, family law focuses on many systemic and complex relationships, hosting many legal issues, including child visitation and support, child abuse and neglect, and criminal law (Fines, 2012).

Dealing with these complex situations without adequate support has the potential for family-law practitioners to be more at risk of poor emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing (Morgillo, 2015).

Professionals in the ‘helping professions’ are trained in secondary traumatic stress and are aware of how their clients’ traumatic situations can have an impact on their own psychological wellbeing. On the other hand, solicitors are trained to see their client’s situation through the eyes of the law (Silver et al, 2015).

What does this mean for family-law practitioners, whose role is spread over both a helping profession and the legal profession?

What the research is revealing is that family-law practitioners need to embed the role of a counsellor within their role and learn how to manage client emotions and expectations, in addition to having a large amount of legal knowledge about the family-court system (Fines & Madsen, 2007; Parker, 2007).

Additionally, levels of secondary traumatic stress and burnout are very high in family-law practitioners due to a lack of supervision, training of client’s emotions and expectations, and working long hours.

The Irish context?

In 2018, the IDEA Project looked at practitioners working in child-care proceedings across five countries. A total of 66 Irish practitioners, consisting of solicitors, barristers, guardians, and social workers were interviewed.

No training, support, or guidance relating to the management of the negative impact experienced while working on child-care cases were reported in 79% of the participants.

When asked about the impact, they spoke about how draining and stressful the work can be, and how this takes an emotional toll. In addition, solicitors described the feelings of guilt surrounding their clients’ circumstances, and found it difficult to stop thinking about cases outside of work.

The findings of this study were the first attempt to understand family-law practitioners’ experiences in Ireland. The study was not exclusive to legal professionals, with the inclusion of guardians and social workers.

The aim of the study that followed was to look at a focused population through a psychological lens in order to explore the experiences of family-law practitioners in Ireland.

In-depth understanding

For this research project, eight family-law practitioners were interviewed to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences in Ireland. The interviews were analysed using thematic analysis to identify emergent themes about the experiences of participants and what they argued would help family-law practitioners in future.

Ethical approval was granted by the School of Applied Psychology’s Ethics Committee at UCC before recruitment began.

The analysis of the interviews resulted in five main themes: ‘A day in the life’, ‘Common characteristics and attributes’, ‘Knock-on impacts’, ‘Confronting the challenge’, and ‘Concerns surrounding professional training’.

Participants spoke about the intensity of their roles and how they can feel that they perform multiple professional roles when working with clients: “Family law is intense. There isn’t any real quick fix … so I think it is intense, it is difficult at times, and there are times you do feel like the parish priest or, you know, like a psychologist and a professional and a solicitor. But again, the main important thing, I think, is to know that these people are human too.”

However, with this experience of feeling like they are engaged in multiple professional roles comes the awareness of how challenging the experiences of their clients can be: “The courts can be very difficult.

You can be working for a very long time towards something, and your client might lose, and you have to deal with that. You have to deal with what happens to the clients in court. You have to deal with the anger, with the frustration, with the crying.”

Family-law practitioners can take on their clients’ emotions, adding to the intensity of working in the legal profession. This can lead to emotional exhaustion, which was described as follows: “Where sometimes you kind of feel like you’re just going to … you just need to burst into tears, to just say, right I need to get this out of my system, it’s too much, you need to walk away from it.”

Emotional exhaustion

The emotional exhaustion experienced by some family-law practitioners, allied with the lack of training around how to handle this exhaustion, can lead to rumination about work.

What is interesting about the following quote is that the participant had sought out professional supervision, and was able to articulate the experience and employ strategies to help process the exhaustion: “You know, these thoughts creep into your mind whenever I felt that my home life, or my thoughts, or my time away from work was being weighed upon, or leaned upon, by something at work.

"Then I’ll try to figure out why is this happening to me. And I’ll also look to my supervisor, to say what am I doing, what’s happening here, that this is bearing down on me.”

The lack of training surrounding client management was evident in the interviews throughout the research project. Participants commented on how they learned through experience as time went on: “I certainly didn’t receive any education about that – client management, trauma management, anything like that. It’s just something you kinda teach yourself as you go through the experience in dealing with people.”

When asked about additional training that should be given to help with client management, one participant detailed how family-law training could be adapted at undergraduate level to benefit both practitioners and clients: “My personal view on family law is that it needs to be taught differently from a very early stage … I go back to undergraduate level and how the module of family law is taught. And I think it needs to be taught in a different way.

"Because I think, and again this is just my personal view, to achieve the best outcomes from families or anybody in a family-law situation, I think you need to have a ‘resolution focus’, and a ‘resolution focus’ that sits outside of the courts system, ideally.”

Lack of support structures

The practitioners in the study reported a lack of support structures in place to help them. Additionally, they noted that child-care cases were particularly distressing, leading to emotional exhaustion and ruminating about cases outside of work hours.

Additionally, participants felt a need for counselling, debriefing training, detaching and resilience, and mindfulness.

Furthermore, the practitioners in this study spoke about a need for professional supervision, mentoring, and education focusing on the personal impact of working in this field. Many of these findings had been reported in the Gazette’s ‘Crash and burn’ article.

What this study additionally found was that family-law practitioners reported that they built resilience by employing professional and mental barriers of their own, over time. Noteworthy was the admission that just one participant spoke about seeking professional supervision to help with secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

For both practitioners’ and clients’ wellbeing, training in stress and coping mechanisms, as well as education about the mental implications of adopting a ‘counsellor’ role, is regarded as crucial. This could be done via the introduction of routine supervision.

Job satisfaction

Supervision that aids the development of emotional wellbeing tools may support job satisfaction, which would combat compassion fatigue and burnout. Kriti et al (2012), found that job satisfaction in the legal profession can be negatively influenced by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and work overload. Low job satisfaction can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout (Norton et al, 2016; Pasyk, 2019).

Platsidou and Salman (2012) found that emotional intelligence played a crucial role in protecting lawyers from burnout and job dissatisfaction. The emotional exhaustion brought about by the role of being a family-law practitioner emerged as a consequence of difficult cases in this research.

Bearing this is mind, participants spoke about the need for change in how family law is taught – and the current dearth of training, which emerged as a predominant theme.

On the topic of ‘Concerns surrounding professional training’, participants referred to the need for more specialised training for family-law practitioners and the importance of ensuring that training at both undergraduate and postgraduate level was more resolution-focused and separate to the courts system.

The lack of training in client management and trauma was a concern for participants, and an area in which they felt they needed greater support.

Training crucial

An important outcome of this study is the expressed need for better training and support for family-law practitioners.

O’Callaghan (2018) concluded that support in the form of interdisciplinary structures can provide a safe and confidential space for practitioners to discuss and process difficult cases, and the emotional impact of them.

Furthermore, practitioners suggested training in development of resilience and coping mechanisms. Debriefing during traumatic cases would help support family-law practitioners in managing stress and avoiding burnout.

Despite the shortfalls in support, family-law practitioners were insightful in relation to supporting clients, despite the lack of professional support and training. Their self-assuredness helps them support clients through some of the most traumatic moments of their lives.

With the impending consequences of COVID-19 lockdowns around the corner and the well-documented sharp increases in domestic-violence cases, it is time for targeted interventions, training and support for family-law practitioners, allowing these professionals to do what they do best – support their clients.

Look it up


Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Caroline Kinneen and Sharon Lambert
Caroline Kinneen is a trainee educational and child psychologist at University College Cork, and Dr Sharon Lambert is co-director of the MA programme in applied psychology at University College Cork