sad, pensive woman

Early in my law career, the opposing party on a family law file involving family violence was representing himself.  I was retained on a bare bones legal aid certificate. In my naivete and desire to save my client the cost of hiring a process server, I decided to serve her ex myself. Fortunately for me, I did so without incident. When I told some colleagues what I had done, they suggested, strongly, that I had been an idiot and should not do anything like this again. I have followed that advice ever since.

Our first priority as lawyers, of course, is the safety of our clients. However, we should not ignore the fact that serious safety issues – physical and emotional – can arise for us and, sometimes, our staff, when we act for either survivors of or those responsible for family violence.

Physical safety risks

We all know stories about lawyers who have been threatened or attacked in the line of duty. Family lawyer Maria Mitousis of Winnipeg, for instance, was badly injured in 2017 when she opened a letter bomb from a client’s ex-partner, who had been engaging in an ongoing campaign of legal bullying for many years.

Family lawyers have been threatened, shot, stabbed, had acid thrown at them and more, most often by their clients’ former partners, but occasionally by their own clients. When I led domestic violence training for Legal Aid Ontario, I was astonished by how many lawyers disclosed threats and acts of violence by the opposing parties in their family law cases.

A 2016 CBC report noted that family law lawyers are at greater risk than are criminal lawyers of being threatened or assaulted in the course of their work, likely because of the highly emotional nature of family breakdown.

According to a 2013 article in Slaw, research conducted in British Columbia’s lower mainland found that 86% of family law lawyers had received “anything from one to more than four threatening interactions.” Approximately half of these incidents took place at the lawyer’s office, thus potentially jeopardizing the safety of staff and, even, other clients. Very few lawyers reported the threatening interactions to the authorities.

We need to take these safety risks seriously and find ways to protect ourselves against them while continuing to offer our services to clients who bring risk with them.

Making it a practice to conduct family violence screening with all new family law clients is a good first step. As we learn the details of any abuse our client has faced (or, often, continues to face), we can assess the client’s risk as well as our own. In addition to questions about the family violence, we can gather some broader information. Does the partner know she has a lawyer or has started a legal proceeding? Has he threatened her or other people she has turned to for help? Does he have a lawyer or other supports? Are there other issues such as substance use or mental health difficulties?

Depending on what information is gathered through the screening, we may wish to create a safety plan to make the office as safe as possible for staff and other clients as well as to minimize our risk outside the office in situations where the opposing party may be present.

In this day of technological communication, online safety is critical. For example, the abusive opposing party may install spyware or stalkerware on the client’s cell phone, tablet or computer, enabling him to know where she is at all times and even to listen in to conversations she has, including conversations with her lawyer. We would be well advised to implement strategies to minimize the possibilities and consequences of electronic abuse.

Emotional safety risks

Acting in cases involving family violence can have emotional safety implications, too. Many of us tend to work in isolation, assuming we can manage whatever comes our way without the need of any kind of supports. After all, we are lawyers, which means we can handle anything.

But, when many of our files involve family violence, we run the risk of developing vicarious trauma (VT) or compassion fatigue (CF). While they are different from one another, they stem from the same place: ongoing exposure to other people’s trauma.

People who develop VT are so affected by the stories of trauma they hear in the course of their work that they experience an often-profound shift in world view. They may feel extreme grief or anxiety, isolate themselves even more from others, believe no one can understand how they feel, engage in unhealthy activities such as substance mis-use and even develop something of a martyr complex.

When someone has CF, they are no longer able to recharge their own batteries. They disconnect emotionally from their clients or their work and may lose their ability to feel compassion for their clients.

Both of these are different from and more serious than burnout, which is the physical and emotional exhaustion people can feel when they are overworked and feel little satisfaction in their jobs.

Any lawyer who develops VT and CF needs to take steps to address it if they want to continue working with traumatized clients. This includes seeing a therapist skilled in handling VT/CF, turning to community resources such as women’s shelters for information and support, talking with other lawyers about it, taking steps not to become isolated and considering reorganizing their practice to include non-trauma cases among the family violence files.

The work we do is too important not to pay attention to our own physical and emotional safety.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc. Readers may be interested in the Luke’s Place online course, “Effective Lawyering with Clients Leaving Abusive Relationships”.