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Jo O'Sullivan

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What is a Family Law Supervisor?

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What is a Family Law Supervisor and how can it help lawyers and clients?

 I am very pleased to be joined by Gillian Bishop who needs no introduction but....she is the founding partner of Family Law in Partnership (Flip), and an innovator in all things family law.  She is a Family Law Supervisor and has rolled out training for new practitioners via her training platform, the Flip Faculty.

So Gillian, what is Family Law Supervision? 

Gillian: Family Law supervision is the opportunity to reflect confidentially on a regular basis on our family law practice in its widest sense. Any aspect of our work (save the actual law bits!) can be the subject of a supervision session - our relationships with the clients, the other lawyers, other professionals, our colleagues, our work environment etc.  It is an opportunity to look at how the work is affecting us emotionally, physically, spiritually even and, where necessary, looking at ways to improve our working life. It is also an opportunity to look at the successes and what is going well, to consider making changes to our ways of  working and whether what we are doing, how and where we are doing it align with our personal values. It is rich and fertile supportive soil. I understand that you are having supervision Jo, what made you decide to do so? 


Jo: I decided to have supervision because I realised that, because I am very interested in lots of things, I needed to try and work out what was important to me; to stop dissipating my energies.  I have around 15 years left of working, before retirement, and I wanted some help figuring out what I wanted to do with them. I also had some ambitions that I needed some help to realise. There is something about working with someone so supportive that has given me the courage and impetus to actually get on with them!  But as I built a relationship with my supervisor these practical things have changed into more emotional support.  My father died before Christmas in 2019 and I had to work out how I could manage my practice but also give myself some space to mourn.  More recently, the Covid19 crisis meant that most of my clients (sensibly) wanted to pause our work together to see what happened with the property and financial markets; but this meant I was very quiet. I had the usual worries about financial insecurity but when we looked at my finances it was clear I had absolutely nothing to worry. The way I run the practice was sensible and that gave me the faith I needed that things would return to normal at some stage.    So there is a lot there.  I would say it’s the best hour at work that I have each month. 

Gillian, is this your experience of the kinds of things that family lawyers come to sessions with?

Gillian:  In fact, no! But that just shows the wide diversity of topics that can be covered in supervision. With my supervisees I have discussed, amongst others, issues of clients with whom there is a difficult relationship, clients who are acting against advice and to their detriment, the usefulness of being real and oneself with clients, showing something of our vulnerability, issues about problems with colleagues, whether there needs to be a change of workplace (in the widest sense), and, to some degree, issues which might look more like mentoring. It’s fascinating. As trust builds between the supervisee and their supervisor so the exploration can get deeper. That’s the real joy of it. Some senior people I have spoken to think supervision is good for junior lawyers - and it is - but not so much for them. Do you think supervision has something to offer the old guard? 


Jo: I’d say the old guard need supervision just as much or even more than junior lawyers. Although they have shown great resilience to reach the top of their profession (or at least hung around long enough without cracking) it doesn’t mean they are content. Nor does it mean they don’t have problems. Indeed, senior lawyers are likely to have pressure coming from all sides; the other partners/directors, the teams in their charge, not to mention their clients!  They may also be the generation who are looking after their own parents and possibly grandchildren. My goodness, so much pressure.  Senior lawyers may also want to talk to someone who is not a business partner but who understands the business of family law.  That’s the premium for me – speaking to someone who really gets my business and can help me ‘untangle’ my thinking.  I wonder if this process must help not only we professionals but also our clients.   


How do you think supervision for lawyers can benefit their clients?

Gillian:  in the safety announcements on aeroplanes they advise that you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. The reason is simple - if you can’t breathe yourself you can’t help others to. The same applies to lawyers. If we are too stressed by the job, if we do not take the time to reflect on our practice how are we in the best position to advise clients objectively and calmly? How can we model for them what objective and calm looks like? Supervision helps lawyers breath. Because it is a long term process and not just used in a time of crisis then it has a long term positive effect on the wellbeing and mental health of the supervisee. The benefits to clients flow directly from that. It is my committed view that supervision should be mandatorily available to all lawyers that want it. Most other professionals who work in the family justice system are obliged to have supervision in order to practice. Why not the lawyers?


Jo: I like the idea that this kind of refection and support should be mandatory.  As a mediator I must have 4 hours a year with my supervisor otherwise known as a PPC - Professional Practising Consultant.  Often we do more because in addition to the one to one contact with my PPC, I really enjoy group supervision with other mediators. The three of us all share the same PPC; we learn a lot from each other’s experience and mediation dilemmas. Do you envisage being able to offer group Family Law Supervision at some point in the future?  


Gillian:  Group supervision is definitely an option and is definitely better than no supervision. The main advantage of one to one supervision is the total confidential nature of it meaning the supervisee can be completely open and dig deeper in what they discuss whereas, inevitably, they would be more circumspect with others listening in. I recommend Chris Mills’ book “The case that really got to me” which is a book of family law supervision case studies (fictional but drawn from real cases) which includes a group supervision. I think the distinction between the two kinds is clear from the book. It is also a gripping read!  So what next? I would be interested to hear the views of your readers about whether they think supervision should be mandatory for family lawyers and also how many would like to give it a try. 

Jo: Thanks Gillian. How would fellow lawyers get hold of you or other Family Supervisors if they wanted to have a chat about how supervision might work for them or their firm?

Gillian:  The plan is to have a dedicated website in the autumn but in the meantime they can contact me on gb@flip.co.uk and I can either speak to them myself or point them in the direction of someone closer to them geographically.