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Psychological safety

15 Oct 2021 / Wellbeing Print

A safe space

Psychotherapeutic modes of supervision – already central to psychotherapeutic and counselling practice – are available to certain family-law practitioners in Britain. Marc Mason believes that lawyers work more effectively when they feel a sense of psychological safety.

When I began my career at the Bar, it was in the field of family law, with a caseload that was weighted towards child protection. From the outset, I was dealing with files and witnesses detailing acts that showed people at their worst.

I read accounts of children being beaten, or evidence relating to them being sexually abused. I listened to parents’ confessions of what they had done, and I listened to their fears of having their children taken away.

I heard people who had once thought that they loved each other declare their hatred, and try to prove it through entrenched positions over the house, the bank account, or the venue at which they would hand over their children each week – often implicating me in these implicit vendettas.

Now, requalified as a therapist, I am required by my accrediting body to have regular supervision. I notice that I get enormous value from that hour every fortnight with my supervisor, and I find myself wondering again – wouldn't lawyers find this valuable too?

The hour offers me opportunities for both protection and development. I'm often left feeling less stressed or negatively affected by the work, but also leave better able to communicate with my clients, to hear what they're saying to me, and to get a sense of what they might not be saying. In addition, I'm able to notice any patterns of behavior between my clients and I that, otherwise, I might be too close to spot.

Role of supervision

Supervision is central to psychotherapeutic and counseling practice. In Britain, it is an ongoing requirement of practice for both trainee therapists and practitioners at all levels, including supervisors themselves. There are many models of supervision but, broadly, the practice involves elements of work review and professional development.

It also involves learning through the supervisee's practice and through what could perhaps best be described as their 'self' – who I am when I'm with clients, how this affects them, how I feel when I'm with them, and how relational dynamics develop between us: these are all up for discussion in supervision.

It is, perhaps, this that distinguishes this approach the most. While some lawyers I've spoken to embrace this idea, I can also think of colleagues who I imagine wouldn't, on first blush, see this as relevant. But with some reflection, I think it becomes clear that it is – and must be.

When I was in legal practice, I knew that any particular client would have got a different flavor of service from each of my colleagues in chambers. Solicitors know this, too, from their decisions around instructing counsel or referring to other colleagues, when they think about the best match for their client.

Because of these experiences, I was fascinated to see that psychotherapeutic modes of supervision are becoming available to lawyers – for example, the Association of Family Law Supervisors was recently launched in Britain to offer voluntary registration for those offering this type of supervision.

I am interviewing some of the solicitors who are using these services as part of my wider research programme, looking at the psychology of legal practice. Already, some themes are emerging, both from existing research in this area and from the interviews.

Broadly, the benefits of this type of supervision can be thought of as either relating to development or to protection, although, of course, there is substantial overlap between these categories.

Becoming better practitioners

Solicitors I have interviewed so far have been unanimous in holding a strong view that supervision not only helps them cope, but also makes them better practitioners. This holds true both for those starting out in their careers and for those with decades of experience.

Common to all interviewees is the description of an experience where the client's behavior or the lawyer/client relationship was confusing or difficult in some way for the solicitor. Supervision allows for exploration of these relationships, including why they might be arising - and strategies for either changing them or coping with them.

Interviewees also speak of a more general impact, where supervision allows them to develop their communication style and their way of being with the client. This allows the client, in turn, to feel heard and understood by their lawyer, and this has several benefits.

Firstly, the client is more likely to trust the lawyer and disclose things that turn out to be really important to their case.

Secondly, the solicitor can offer advice from a perspective that is humane and transparent. By that, I mean that they are able to explain to the client their reasoning and motivation for their advice, and their wish for the client to follow a particular route, while at the same time acknowledging the client's own motivations and freedom to choose.

Thirdly, and perhaps consequently, clients seem to start to recognize their solicitors as people and are more likely to recognize, in hindsight, circumstances where they chose not to follow the lawyer's advice, but would have benefited from doing so.

Impact protection

Supervision can also offer some protection against the impact of what is often difficult and demanding work. Some of these impacts are common to all members of the profession, while additional needs can be identified for those working with clients who might be expected to have suffered from traumatic events.

Significant work has been done, and is being done, to look at the way that the work that lawyers do affects their mental health and well-being. The work that has already been carried out has found that lawyers suffer disproportionately from stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidality (see James (2020) for a summary).

In Britain, the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society found that 48% of respondents experienced a mental-health problem in the month before their survey, and 60% had physical-health impacts from their mental ill-health.

In Ireland, an independent study commissioned by the Law Society in 2018 found that members frequently experience high levels of stress that negatively affects their mental health and well-being, with 57% describing 'very high' or 'extreme' levels of stress. The Law Society is also now engaging in its own 'Dignity Matters' survey, dealing with the important issue of bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment.

Globally, an International Bar Association (IBA) survey recently confirmed that well-being is a concern to the profession, with well-being being particularly poor for women, those with disabilities, and ethnic-minority lawyers.

These issues might be seen to be common to the profession as a whole, and relate to working conditions, practices, and cultures that place particular demands on solicitors.

Pervasive stigma 

Sadly, research by Collier (2019) has also shown that there is pervasive stigma around disclosing mental-health problems in the profession, a finding supported by the IBA global survey.

He also describes ongoing cultural issues around workloads, and personal tendencies towards perfectionism. This latter finding echoes other research, which has found that, as well as perfectionism, lawyers have higher rates of pessimism, risk aversion, and skepticism, which all leave lawyers more susceptible to stress, depression and anxiety.

These factors make compassion fatigue and burnout more likely, particularly for those working with clients who have, in some way, been exposed to trauma (see James). Family law, asylum law and criminal law are areas where it is easy to see how client experiences of traumatic events are commonplace and central to the work of lawyers. But they can often be found in other areas, such as housing, personal injury, and professional negligence.

Fleck and Francis, in their recently published book Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession , describe how being in the presence of those who are experiencing post-traumatic stress (for example, in the recounting of traumatic events) or how acting in a function similar to first responders (dealing with clients at the police station or in an acute crisis) can lead to vicarious trauma – a cognitive change that leads us to see the world as inherently malevolent.

This, in turn, can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress. Other forms of indirect trauma can include the practitioner experiencing intrusive thoughts, images, or painful emotions. It is also important to note that these reactions are not indicative of something 'being wrong with' the practitioner, but rather can be seen as a normal response to an abnormal situation (James).

In these ways, lawyers are exposed to circumstances – either inherent to the working culture or in the particular experiences they explore with their clients – that can have real impacts on their mental health.

Gold standard

Supervision can provide a space to explore those circumstances and experiences, free from the judgment and stigma they might fear elsewhere in their working environment. Indeed, Fleck and Francis describe it as "the gold standard for psychological support" for lawyers exposed to traumatic material.

It can allow the solicitor to become more aware of how the work is affecting them, to explore the support they might need, or to recognize the need for boundaries. It might also simply provide a space to work through and understand these experiences, which, in itself, provides sufficient support. All of these benefits are mentioned to a greater or lesser degree by those solicitors I have interviewed.

In summary then, supervision provides a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space within a work context to significantly develop interpersonal skills, making lawyers more effective and more humane in their work. There are ethical arguments to be made for its use, as well as sound organizational arguments. For example, James cites research that lawyers work more effectively when they feel a sense of psychological safety.

Supervision offers a chance to work through issues that, in the long term, might otherwise lead to the lawyer suffering mental ill-health or increased stress and potentially lead to them leaving the profession.

It seems clear that it is something that needs to be considered by organizations claiming to be trauma-informed practices – but also seems to be an important tool that promises to be part of a package that could address the important emerging issue of lawyers' poor state or well-being. 

Look it up


Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Marc Mason
Marc Mason is a senior lecturer at Westminster Law School and is a counsellor in private practice (www.lawyertherapy.co.uk)