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Like many areas of practice, family law is going through a period of change. Both clients and their lawyers are questioning traditional modes of practice. Economic woes both cause legal problems, and leave clients with limited resources with which to resolve them. Stress – for both families in crisis and for their lawyers – is a constant reality. Still, within this challenging climate, family lawyers are expected to work diligently and professionally in the service of their clients’ interests.

To understand how the bar is coping with the demands of modern family law practice, we invited a sampling of lawyers from across the province to answer the question “What keeps you up at night?”

Erinn A. Fitzpatrick is an associate lawyer at Valin Partners LLP in North Bay. She practises in the areas of family law, real estate, and wills and estates.

The problem
Like most other family law lawyers, I often work with clients who are in crisis. Clients often attend my office immediately after being blindsided by a sudden separation, or after months of careful planning to leave an abusive relationship. The fear, pain, and anger they express is very real, and my office is sometimes the first place they have had an opportunity to disclose their extremely personal problems. These accounts at times quite literally keep me up, especially when I receive multiple panicked email messages on my mobile phone from clients requesting instantaneous advice at all hours of the night.

Working with clients in crisis is rewarding, but stressful. Although our job as lawyers is to provide meaningful legal advice and not therapy, it is impossible not to be affected by the depressing and sometimes horrific narratives of our clients. As many family law lawyers have not been formally trained in dealing with crisis or trauma, I fear that we are not always able to recognize the symptoms of burnout before it is too late. I have witnessed family law lawyers become overly cynical, disengaged, frustrated, and exhausted by the difficult work that they do every day. Some suffer even more serious consequences, including depression and substance abuse.

What helps
The first step is simply to recognize that family law is very stressful, and to take precautions against burnout. Lawyers are notoriously guilty of working long hours and having poor work/life balance. Taking adequate time to spend with friends and family, to engage in favourite activities, to get enough exercise, to rest, and to eat right are all ways of ensuring wellness and preventing burnout. While these suggestions might seem self-evident, they are often surprisingly difficult to incorporate into our busy days.

Lawyers must also set appropriate boundaries between their work and private lives. Sometimes I go as far as to lock my mobile phone in my vehicle for the evening to feel completely unplugged from my office.

Advice for new lawyers
New lawyers can easily become overwhelmed by the stress of working with family law clients. It helps to keep in mind that while it is important to be patient and compassionate, it is equally important to remain professional and to avoid becoming personally engrossed in a family law client’s situation.

The full article can be found in the August 2012 issue of LAWPRO Magazine. All past LAWPRO Magazine articles can be found at www.lawpro.ca/magazinearchives

Categories: Family Law