This week something quite fascinating arrived at my office. Something that really made me stop and think for just a few moments. It wasn’t a fancy gift or grand delivery- it was a simple ‘Thank You’ card. I appreciate that a thank you card sounds very simple, even perhaps uninteresting. The difference this time was not the card, but the sender. This card was sent to me not from a satisfied client, but most surprisingly from my client’s former wife- ‘the opposition’ as some might say.
Well she of course was not the ‘opposition’ at all- she was exactly as I say- my client’s former wife and the mother of his child. We found ourselves in the Family Courts recently and after some discussion and a bit of back and forth, were able to find a resolution. So this week I received a card from my ‘opponent’ thanking me for helping her and her ‘whole’ family-being my client, their child and her.
It really took my breath away.
The life of a Family Lawyer is at times a thankless role. We do our best to help our clients who are often in the throes of significant grief, feeling fear, anger, sadness and uncertainty. With these deep emotions often comes erratic and challenging behaviour. We are often the first point of call when a client needs to voice their anger or their fear or when something just isn’t working out as they hoped. This takes its toll on even the most robust practitioner.
So what do you do? What do you do as a Family Lawyer when you receive that email (the 10th one before 10am) that seems to be another complaint about something you have or have not done. How do you keep the confidence to plough through? I am certain I don’t have all the answers on this one and would welcome your thoughts, but here are my tips-
- Let your client be a client- I was reminded by a dear friend and colleague last year that we must allow our clients to be just that- ‘clients’. I was having a difficult time with a client who had taken to including some personal snipes in their emails to me. I was assessing whether it was perhaps time for our professional relationship to come to an end as I sensed that our working relationship was quickly becoming ‘unworkable’. Wisely, my colleague reminded me that my client was only demonstrating their fears, anxiousness and upset and at that time I was the person in the firing line as I was the only one they could really express their true feelings too. I took a deep breath and picked up the phone. After a long conversation my client and I were able to cut a deal- I was still going to be the recipient of some (at times) hurtful emails but we were able to set some ground rules about how we might together discuss and at times debate the legal options as they arose. I just had to remind myself that this really was not about me and sometimes my job is all about just being there because no one else can really understand just how that person, my client, feels.
- Know your own limitations- Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you are just not the right fit for some clients and just as importantly, they are just not the right fit for you! This can often be a quick and mutual decision after a short first meeting, but sometimes it may not become apparent until significant amount of time and money has been invested by both of you in difficult legal proceedings. It is in these circumstances that it can sometimes be so much harder to step away. There is skill in knowing your own limitations but even more skill and confidence in being able to then act upon them. Don’t ever be afraid to say no. If your professional relationship is just not working well it won’t be long before this client file is the one you leave to the end of each day- where the emails are left at the bottom of your inbox and where your stomach turns before you pick up the phone. Don’t be afraid to speak openly to your client about what you can and cannot offer and discuss with them the other options that are available for their representation.
- When the good things happen take the time to celebrate them (over and over!)- In a busy work day, filled with meetings and deadlines it can be too easy to overlook the positive news, the small (or big) thank you’s and the good outcomes. No sooner have you finished something that the next thing begins. The irony of course is that the stuff that sticks with us is often the things were we have either not done as well as we liked or where someone, often a client, is unhappy with our performance (whether justifiably or not). While we all enjoy a celebratory lunch that is not always practical or within your control so instead I set you this challenge!
Today I want you to really focus on the good stuff- the short ‘thank you’s’ you receive at the end of the phone call or the kind well wishes in the emails that are coming in. If you open your eyes I bet you will be surprised just how many there are. Write them down and then, take 5 minutes later today to share them with a colleague. (And if you have the time- share them with me!)
Then, take your pen, find a card or piece of paper (email just won’t work for this one) and send someone you know, someone you work with a ‘thank you’. Post it- the old fashioned way with a stamp and all- and see what happens.
In my office I frame every thank you card or email I receive. I have two walls covered in them to remind me, my team and even my clients that we value their ‘thank you’s’ more than anything. Even with such a physical reminder of the appreciation we have received it is still too easy to get caught up in the things I wish I had done better and overlook all that was done well.
I have received a lot of ‘Thank You’ cards in my time and I appreciate every one. But my surprise gift this week was the first I have ever received from the person whom I am in essence acting against. It really brought home for me that as Family Lawyers, when we do our jobs well we can help a whole family, not just our own clients.