Letting Go of Being the Expert
Sometimes you simply have to show up in all your raw, vulnerable, messy realness.
As lawyers, we face a lot of inner and external pressure to have all the answers. To be in charge. To get it right. To know things. Everything. To be the expert. It starts in our education and socialisation when we are baby lawyers. We usually don’t even know it has happened.
In her book, The New Lawyer, Professor Julie Macfarlane identifies that one of the fundamental beliefs and values instilled in lawyers through their training and development is that the lawyer is in charge. In a rights-based model of dispute resolution, the lawyer holds the keys to the pathway to justice. The lawyer is “the expert” in the lawyer-client relationship, armed with technical knowledge, applying the law to “fix” the problem.
What of the client in this situation? With our expert status, what does this mean for the authority and status within the lawyer-client relationship? With all our technical know-how, how do we address the largely emotional component that family law clients present to us with? Do we do, as I was taught, and sweep that ‘part’ off to a counsellor with the “we are lawyers, not counsellors/social workers” refrain and quickly move to the legal “facts” we need from the client in order to construct our legal claim or defence? Aren't our clients the experts of their families and their lives?
The ‘expert’ mantle is a heavy one to carry when we are, after all, just human. Sure, we’re humans with a certificate on the wall that says we have knowledge and expertise in law but we are just human. As such, we don’t always know what the answer is or what should be done. Often, we don’t even fully understand the problem! We can find ourselves in situations that challenge or affront our values. Our technical know-how doesn’t serve us when emotional intelligence is called for. An essential part of Collaborative Practice is letting go of being the expert in the room.
I recently had a Collaborative case where my colleague and I were stumped. For a multitude of reasons (which were all likely fear based), the parties were growing increasingly positional. They were holding on tight to their view of the issues and losing sight of what they had originally set out to achieve in terms of what was important to them. They had stopped listening in favour of reacting. In response, I could feel my own fear and panic rising and myself starting to default to the familiar positional, rights based approach rooted in my early training and legal cultural norms. My colleague and I could see the process wobbling and about to derail. Neither of us felt we were adding value and that if we couldn’t get the process back on track, we would need to end it.
What did we do?
In our preparatory briefing before the next meeting, we talked with one another about how we were each feeling, not what we were thinking. We decided to be upfront and honest and vulnerable with our clients. We started the meeting with our clients by exposing our professional and emotional vulnerability. We put our egos away. We shunned that part of our identities that said we were, and needed to be, the ‘experts’. We shared that we could see their struggle and that we were also struggling. We talked about the impact on us all of what was happening in the world around us.
Prior to the meeting, my colleague had arrived and warned me she felt she would need my intervention during the meeting as she could feel herself spoiling for a fight. Not because of the case at hand, but because of the morning she had had. She told the clients this. We spoke of fear. I saw one of the client’s eyes well up in recognition. We all spoke of our hopes. I saw them smile broad smiles.
To our delighted surprise, we went on to achieve agreement on the three big issues that had plagued us. While there were other things that we all did to help achieve agreement, I believe that the 'experts' confessing to not having the answers, being vulnerable too, allowed us all to come together stronger as a team. We were in this together. It allowed the parties to see that while they were working hard to show up in the world as confident and strong and brave and experts in their own fields, here, in this collaborative room with this team, it is OK not to have the answers. It is OK to struggle and to be scared and to show that. It is OK to question and to explore why we are where we are. They dug again into what was important to each other and listened. There were a-ha moments. They agreed without a lot of technical, legalistic input.
So often the value we add isn’t the result of our technical expertise. It’s the result of our humanity.
What do you think? I'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page.