'Tis The Season For Family Law Madness




How are you going to spend the next few work weeks until you take a break for the holiday season?


Every year, without fail, the usual pre-Christmas heightened levels of stress and work experienced by most living and working in the southern hemisphere hits. Not to be outdone, us family lawyers throw on top of that: urgent applications; clients who have the sense that the world will end if their work is not sorted before the traditional summer holiday shutdown; and the fact all the car parks outside Court are taken up by Christmas shoppers. Bah humbug.


To add to it all, the build up of this pre-Christmas madness seems to start earlier and earlier each year. I wouldn’t be surprised if it reached the point where, like hot cross buns appearing on 1 January, it hits us in February!


Last December, I recall limping in my front door late one Friday evening to a well-underway, end of year party for friends. I went through that party like a zoned out zombie, I was so exhausted. I swore never again to limp across the holidays finish line. No, I was going to come into future holidays feeling positive and energised as I would have taken time to enjoy the build up to Christmas and have some ‘spirit of the season’ fun.


Fast forward a year and yet again, I feel that same exhausting drain on my time and energy happening that our work can be. I fear my Christmas spirit will be of the bah-humbug variety again and I will spend the first week of the summer holidays recovering.


What can we family lawyers do to make this time of year less stressful and crazy? Here’s a few ideas I’ve had.


Prepare Ahead. This is the family law version of buying your Christmas pressies in June. Schedule every year to take a break from work in August/September in order to replenish your energy levels before the craziness begins. In the years I have done this (even just with a four day weekend), I have definitely felt the positive effects of a break have helped sustain me through the pre-Christmas madness.


Get Proactive. In August, email all your clients and tell them that from September, the pre-holidays craziness will begin and your capacity will be limited.


Explain how Court time will be at a premium and the longer things are left, the less chance they will have of getting assistance from the Court unless a matter of extreme urgency requiring the Court’s protective function. Explain that failing to plan ahead is not a “matter of extreme urgency” for the Court.


Ask that if they have not got their parenting arrangements for the holidays locked in, to contact you now so that you can both make a plan for getting this sorted now. Ask them to let you know now if they have any expectations or timelines they would like to work to before your closure so you can see how this can be accommodated.


Not only does this allow you to plan your capacity in the next few months but also enables the client to take responsibility for the progression of their matters.


Plan for the Unexpected. Despite our best Christmas preparations, there is always something unexpected that happens. You may have all your pressies purchased by August and then discover, on the day, an Aunt you thought you didn’t have to buy for has turned up with her arms laden with gifts for you. You may invite 50 to your pre-Christmas party and then have the caterer cancel. As it is in life, it is in family law. Client’s lives take unexpected turns that don’t factor in our carefully planned out schedules.


One approach to dealing with this is to block in some “Unexpected Life Happens” time in your diary each week from about September. This means that when these things arise (and they will!), you have the capacity to deal with them without breaking commitments made to others. If you already do this all year round, do you need to add in some extra time during the pre-Christmas season of madness?


Set the Expectation part 1. Set the expectations with clients about your capacity at this time of year. I do this with every new client I see, cautioning them that if their matter stretches beyond September, progress will slow down.


Gently but assertively challenge clients (particularly those that call on 15 December expecting a miracle on an issue that could have been sorted months earlier) about whether this really will be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen before the holidays.


I find most clients are understanding but sometimes, a gentle indication to clients with non-urgent matters (which may feel very urgent to them) that you are stretched at this time because there are some children at risk if you don’t obtain urgent orders, helps put things into perspective.


Set the Expectation part 2. What expectations do you place upon yourself? Who is in control of the expectations of yourself and your work? Do you allow your expectations to be set by your clients and their demands? Remember, the sun will still rise on 25 December (and every day thereafter!) even if you didn’t get that draft agreement out to a client. Repeat: “the sun will still rise on 25 December, the sun will still rise on 25 December…”.


Inject Some Fun into The Season: This is one I am striving hard for this year. Lightening the pre-holidays load by concertedly taking time to enjoy the season and have some fun with it.  What ways can you inject some fun into the seasonal craziness?


Shift Your Perspective: Is it really overwhelming craziness or is it the sound of your holidays being paid for?


Is it long, stressful hours or is it the opportunity to help someone/learn something new/build a new collegial relationship?


Is it a case of “this client is driving me mad” or a case of “how fortunate I am not to have to face Christmas in the way this client is having to face it”?


Is it “I can’t believe how rude that Court staff member is” or is it “Gosh, everyone is trying hard to keep it together and we’re all feeling the strain at this time of year”.


Hard to do at times but a little perspective change can make a world of difference.


Take A Load Off: Another one I have slowly been getting better at over the last few years! Do you really need to do everything that is on your pre-Christmas to-do list?


Do you really need to go to the mall after work to face the crowds in order to buy all your gifts or will online at home with a glass of wine one Thursday night do?


Do you really need to catch up with every single colleague and friend before Christmas or are you better to arrange a “new year” catch up when everyone is fresher and less harried?


Do you really need to send out Christmas gifts or cards to all your colleagues and clients or could you do a little welcome-to-the-new-year gift of simply provide something at an opportune moment in your working relationship together?


Do you really need to go to the 15 Christmas functions you’ve been invited to or can you curate a careful list of say, 2 or 3?


Do you really need to wrap all your gifts and do all your pre-Christmas grocery and last minute items shop or can you pay a student to do it?


What’s on your list that you don’t really need to be loaded with right now? What can someone else do for you?


Look after Yourself: You’ll resent spending the holidays sick because you ran yourself into the ground at work before the break. Now is the time to prioritise sleep, movement, nourishment and fueling your soul extra well at this time.


What are your top tips for surviving the season?