Family lawyers should scrap billing targets and develop a new business model, a senior practitioner has said, while criticising the profession’s failure to continue pushing collaborative law.
Gillian Bishop, co-founder of pioneering London firm Family Law in Partnership (FLiP), also said the legal regulators should introduce compulsory supervision for “all lawyers working in fields of law concerning the lives of individuals”.
Ms Bishop said: “Targets are a dead weight around the necks of many, many practitioners. The temptation to pad out time spent in order to make target is huge.
“Targets lead to many young lawyers working longer and longer hours each day in order to hit them. I have heard so many times that to record five hours chargeable a day you routinely have to be in the office twice that time. Just crazy.”
Writing for The Review, published by family law association Resolution, Ms Bishop went on: “This means we have to develop a new business model for this work. A less stressed workforce and more satisfied clients are a good place to start.
“I appreciate that there is more to it than that. I appreciate that we do have to run profitable businesses but I am sure there are other models if we start to think about them.”
Ms Bishop said a number of commercial firms now operated without a billing target model, showing that “it can be done”, and the challenge was to create a variation of that model or “another model altogether” that worked for the family law sector.
She suggested “a co-operative model where the money made in a firm is shared more evenly and there is more carrot than stick”.
Collaborative law is a form of divorce resolution that sees the two parties negotiate around a table with their lawyers, who agree not to continue acting should the case end up in court.
Ms Gillian said it was “introduced to great fanfare” in 2003 but efforts to increase its use had failed, with the decline starting in 2010 following the economic crash.
“Suddenly, and this is perhaps the cynic in me, collaborative practice was no longer as popular because it did not bring in as much money as litigation and there was a fear that lawyers would lose clients.
“Many trained practitioners were ready with all the reasons why collaborative practice wouldn’t work when it was proposed, yet the alternative was to lead their clients into a court process which we have known for years does not work.”
Ms Bishop added that the profession had to “stop paying lip service” to dispute resolution methods and seriously embrace them.
“Yes, they may not pay as much as litigation does but they are, generally, much better for their clients.
“I acknowledge that sometimes in the mad, bad and dangerous cases, court is the only option, but those cases are really few and far between. In other words we have to start putting our clients before our billings.”
FLiP launched three years ago what it said was the first training scheme in psychologically based supervision to help family lawyers manage work-related stress, and Ms Bishop said at the time that supervision should be compulsory for family lawyers.
She now said legal regulators should insist on “supervision for all lawyers working in fields of law concerning the lives of individuals”.
The solicitor went on: “As a profession we are right in the firing line of vicarious trauma. And we are doing virtually nothing about it.
“A fair number of firms/chambers are addressing this for their younger members but many more are doing nothing at all, or think that free gym membership ticks all the boxes. It doesn’t.”
Ms Bishop said family lawyers should have “properly reflective practices”, where they were alive to what “the toxicity of this work” did to their minds and bodies.
“I know of one young lawyer who has persistent migraines and is losing her hearing through the stress of the job.”