Shrinking the Lawyers

There is a really interesting article in the December issue of Family Law (Fam Law [2007] 1107) entitled ‘Attachment Problems Among Lawyers’. In it Dr George Hibbert, a consultant Psychiatrist, writes about the issue of attachment in the family courts.

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Ordinarily family lawyers come across attachment theory in expert court reports, particularly in care proceedings, where the attachment between parent and child is explored, and often attachment problems in children are identified. This article however looks at the impact of attachment issues in litigant parents and legal professionals may affect or be affected by the legal process.

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Its easy to see that in cases where there are difficulties in parenting leading to attachment problems in a child there is likely to be an element of attachment difficulty in the parent(s) perhaps arising from their own childhood and experience of being parented. Where else do we learn how to parent but from our own parents – for better or for worse. And family lawyers have much first hand experience of how a parent’s own psychological and emotional makeup or difficulties impacts upon their ability to handle and understand the court process and to work with and get the most from their lawyers. The family court system is difficult to handle for most of us, but as this article rightly points out it is the challenging, probing nature of the family court system into the very private or very personal, and the constraints of the formal process which litigants find extremely hard to accept or work within.

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What is most interesting however, is Dr Hibbert’s remarks about attachment problems in lawyers themselves, particularly the susceptibility of some lawyers to manipulation by dyfunctional clients with their own attachment issues. He suggests that clients with attachment difficulties may be expert at manipulating the feelings of other including their lawyers. I for one certainly recognise the scenario where a lawyer loses his or her objectivity and is unable to maintain a professional distance from the client. It often results in aggressive or inappropriate behaviour in discussions and negotiations between counsel and an inability to properly consider proposals for compromise. It appears to affect some lawyers in particular cases, whilst other lawyers adopt this over-personalised approach to counsel-to-counsel discussions as a feature of their representational style, taking on the persona of their client, and taking points against them as personal affronts. My heart sinks when I receive and read a brief which is full of righteous outrage on behalf of the hard-done by client – this is often a portent of a one-sided approach to the case which blinds the solicitor to the weaknesses of the case and puts counsel in the insidious position of having to impart bad news without support from the solicitor. For some lawyers this approach to client care appears to be a deliberate choice, the result of a belief that believeing a client or accepting their point of view is a core part of the professional service. I tend to disagree – the job of a lawyer, of counsel in particular, is to advise the client objectively and to represent the clients view or interests as best as is possible, regardless of one’s own opinion or viewpoint. Often that involves telling a client extremely unpalatable things, which can put a strain on a professional relationship. That however is far better than the decidedly unpleasant experience of explaining after the event why something utterly unexpected has happened to a client whose unrealistic expectations have not been tempered in advance.

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Dr Hibbert cautions against becoming drawn in by clients, on becoming too emotionally involved in a case to meet one’s own emotional or attachment needs. I am sure that this is a real danger for even the most psychologically stable of us, and I for one can recognise cases where I have been far more strongly affected and more heavily invested in the outcome than in others, none thankfully where I think I have overstepped the invisible line. I for one find it hard to identify why a particular case has drawn me in and affected me, but I do recognise it when it happens. And in my experience this heightened empathy is as often for the family as a whole or the children as it is for the parent-client him/herself.

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Where I begin to disagree with Dr Hibbert’s article is this: he says that a professional who is seriously affected by the client’s attachment behaviour ‘will no longer be able to assist the court in finding a good solution for the children because he / she has become an extension of the dysfunctional client..[and]…the professional’s greater articulacy, knowledge of the system and professional weight add credibility and power to the client’s dysfunctional voice’. I think this is to confuse the role of expert, whose role is to give their opinion by way of advice to the court, with the role of lawyer, whose role is precisely to amplify the client’s voice (dysfunctional or not) without regard to their own opinion. It is the role of the court, having heard all the expert evidence and all the representations made on behalf of the various parties (all of whom will have a lawyer representing their own view of the matter with equal force), to decide what is right decision. Not only is it not part of our role as professionals to judge our client’s viewpoint, but we are simply not qualified to properly assess how dysfunctional our clients are save in the most crude way based upon our day-to-day experience.

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Towards the end of his article, Dr Hibbert goes so far as to warn us against being drawn by clients ‘into complicity with continued child abuse’.All of us in the family courts want the best for the children involved in these sorry cases. But we also want what is best for our clients. And we are employed to do our best to represent that client. It is the Judge who is paid to bear the burden of ensuring that the child’s interests are met. I am not sure if this was the intention but the article appears to suggest that in doing our job properly and with equal vigour for the sensible and the misguided, the balanced and the dysfunctional, we may should be critised as complicit with child abuse. That is an unfair burden to place upon lawyers and the wrong approach to parents – it is perhaps those parents with the biggest emotional and psychological problems who need most to have assistance from lawyers in order to articulate their position and wishes clearly, and to ensure that the decision of the court is based upon a proper and full exploration of all the factors bearing upon a complex case.

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5 thoughts on “Shrinking the Lawyers

  1. Very interesting. An attachment is a strong emotional bond with a specific person that is enduring across time and I’m sceptical about the wide use of “attachment” here. Nonetheless, I think it is a valid point that clients are not served well when professionals (or indeed family and friends) take on the dispute as their own.

    (I will add you to my blogroll, if you have no objection.)

  2. Yes, you are right, my use of the term attachment here is a little sloppy, but this is not so in the article I am referring to which clearly describes attachment better than I, as a lawyer, could do. Although, I think the article uses the term in a more specific way than you do in your definition i.e. as a piece of scientific terminology.

  3. ps I have added you to my blogroll.

  4. [...] that he is an expert who seems not to be used much around these parts since I arrived in 2008 (and an article I wrote that referred to him in 2008) – I have no interest in whether or not the allegations are true other than the obvious [...]

  5. [...] only a psychopath Monday to Friday – I’m quite nice at weekends). I’m reminded of a blogpost that I wrote some years ago which dealt with an article suggesting that in fact some family lawyers were not so well [...]

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