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The Type of Supervision Family Lawyers REALLY Need

Last week, over in The Law Lighthouse Group, I shared a very personal post about a struggle I have been having with vicarious trauma from working on a particular case. That’s a different story for another blog but what it got me thinking about is the type of supervision we receive as family lawyers.

When we start out in our careers, the supervision we receive can vary from non-existent to excellent, purposeful and educative. However, supervision usually is of the “What do I do with this application?” or “What do I do next on this file?” variety.

More often than not, as we progress to being intermediate and then senior lawyers, formal supervision drops away. If we go out into practice on our own, the experience can be very isolating, and we become very much dependent on colleagues we can call or see at Court to talk through a problem file with.

Family lawyers don’t have a great record for receiving professional supervision beyond the law or file related variety. Other professions, such as medicine, social work and psychology have long recognised and valued the importance of having an external professional supervisor.  However, lawyers have been slow in this regard and aren’t great at receiving, giving or recognising the need for professional supervision that focuses on us as people, our wellbeing and the connection between our work and our wellbeing.

I am not ashamed to say I have monthly professional supervision sessions with a mental health professional who is trained and qualified as a professional supervisor. The NZ Law Society requires professional supervision for its mediators and this is how I came to it. I went to it begrudgingly and sceptically. Now, years on, I would not be without it. My mediation work, my work as a lawyer and me as a human (well)being has benefited greatly from my monthly professional supervision sessions.

Among other things, my supervisor has seen me through:

  • my grief around the serious illness and death of a parent while trying to juggle a very busy practice;

  • a number of mediations and cases involving challenging personalities that triggered difficult responses in me, helping me to gain insight into my responses and giving me tools for managing such situations;

  • recognising what is important to me and my values in the work I do and conscientiously crafting a practice that honours that;

  • developing healthier (physically and mentally) work practices;

  • building stronger boundaries with clients and colleagues in order to protect my wellbeing;

  • exploring issues of managing to be the parent I want to be but feel challenged to be at times because of the demands, in terms of time and emotion, of my job;

  • recognising, and developing strategies for managing, vicarious trauma (as mentioned above).

Mutual respect and accountability are at the heart of the professional supervision relationship. My supervisor and I hold each other accountable and regularly check in with one another as to how the supervision relationship is working.

Supervision provides me with a confidential space, outside of my colleagues and workplace, in which to explore my professional life and wellbeing. It allows me to gain clarity around a problem, whether that be a problem file, testing client or a life-work challenge. I feel more resilient. It has helped me venture towards creating a different career direction and future for myself. Supervision has allowed me to move from a sense of constantly giving and having people taking from me to a place of being able to give to myself.

Receiving professional supervision does not mean I am a bad lawyer or that I can’t handle the work or that I am weak and need to ‘harden up’ or any of the other things our professional culture may lead us to believe. It means I am an even better lawyer who is proactive, conscientious, less stressed and stronger!

Family lawyers and mediators need to look after ourselves in order to look after the families who entrust us with their wellbeing. It is OK (I would argue necessary) to receive professional supervision. It is OK (I would argue necessary) to lean on each other and show our own vulnerability and need for professional supervision.

Perhaps 2020 is the year when you resolve to give yourself the gift of professional supervision! You won’t regret it.

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