Many, if not most, of the clients seen by a family law attorney, exhibit a high degree of anxiety. Sometimes, it manifests itself in anger; sometimes in depression; and sometimes in a different manner altogether. This anxiety interferes with the attorney’s ability to concentrate on the legal aspects of the case.
Frequently, the attorney will refer the client to a mental health therapist. Certainly, when the mental health aspects are severe, therapy is necessary. Often, however, all the client needs — and sometimes all the client can handle — is a guide through the emotional aspects of the marital crisis. Recent experiences have raised the possibility that referring the client for therapy might not be the best means of helping the client through the mental health aspects of the divorce.
This is the next in a series of articles examining the relationship between family law attorneys and mental health professionals.
One of the innovations of the increasingly popular collaborative divorce model is its use of mental health coaches. Prior to collaborative divorce, mental health professionals were used for one of two purposes: providing therapy or evaluations.
The role of a “coach” is neither. As explained by Dr. Sanford Portnoy in a recent article, therapy typically “seeks symptom amelioration or cure.” Sanford M. Portnoy, “Divorce Coaches: A New Resource for Matrimonial Lawyers,” 19 Am. J. Fam. L. 4 (Winter, 2006). However, the role of a coach is far more limited. As explained by Dr. Portnoy, it is intended to “help individuals manage situations… [T]he emphasis is on helping the client manage in specific, delineated ways. It is skills training rather than healing.” The search for underlying causes and, hopefully, resolution, waits for later.
Why does this approach have merit? As an analogy, while news stories try to explain events as they occur, novels examine more global issues. Interestingly, the great war novels are never written during the war, but years later. For example, the great Civil War novel, “The Red Badge of Courage” was written in 1895, some 30 years after the end of the war. Similarly, the great World War I novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, was written in 1929, 11 years after the end of that war. And, “From Here to Eternity” was written in 1951, six years after the end of World War II. We may still have not seen a great novel arising from the Vietnam War.
Therapy is, to a large extent, trying to get the client to write a novel of their life, by searching for the greater issues that affect their lives. When the legal bullets are flying overhead might not be the best time to engage in this search. The best that the client can do is to keep his head down and wait for the shooting to stop.
Coaching is assistance for keeping the head down and avoiding increasing problems. As many collaborative lawyers can attest, using coaches can be a godsend for lawyers seeking to deal with legal issues and avoid the emotional ones from subsuming them at great cost to everyone.
Can coaching be applied in a non-collaborative approach?
Perhaps not as well as in a collaborative case, where a teamwork approach can assure that each professional is working in tandem with each other professional in an organized fashion.
Still, there is no reason why it cannot work in a traditional divorce. As Dr. Portnoy explains, even without the frequent direct contact in a collaborative setting, the benefits of coaching can still be attained. These benefits include separating the client’s psychological and emotional needs from the legal needs, teaching the client how to communicate more effectively with the lawyer, and preparing the client emotionally for court hearings and other stressful events associated with the legal system.
As Dr. Portnoy explained, the role must be clearly explained to the client. Further, clients, especially those involved in custody and placement disputes, should be made aware that it is unclear whether confidentiality and the traditional patient-therapist privilege apply in the coaching context.
However, it should be an easy sell. For the client, it maximizes the efficiency of their financial resources. For attorneys, it allows us to act in the field for which we were trained.
The value is obvious for both.
Gregg Herman is a shareholder with Loeb & Herman S.C. in Milwaukee. Herman, is available via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.