• by Carly Mellon
Originally published at The Lawyer’s Daily
I have always thought that my past life as a gymnast would one day haunt me. Somewhere deep inside as I used to fly through the air pretending to be the next Nastia Liukin, I knew that somehow my future would be affected with each twist and tumble. I just didn’t know exactly how — until recently when I somersaulted into the eye-opening world of family law.
From the point of view of a retired competitive gymnast, and recently licensed paralegal training now as a legal assistant, I have had the most unexpected realization — that family law gymnastics was more than just a cliché. In fact, I have discovered similarities that I hope others in my profession would find interesting and helpful, just like I did.
The first similarity is trust. It is a huge part of gymnastics because I had to trust myself and trust my training to perform skills that were scary or dangerous. When I was learning something new, I had to trust that my coach had the ability to assist me and catch me if I fell.
Not surprisingly, trust is a big part of family law. The clients trust us with very personal information despite losing that trust from a spouse who they thought would be by their side forever. As a legal professional, I am at the front lines of that trust dynamic and look for ways to gain their trust from the first time we speak.
To build that trust, I require patience, sympathy and regular communication with the client on issues that matter most. These skills allow for that trust to grow and show the clients that I really care about them and I am not just going through the motions.
Passion is the second similarity. In gymnastics, it is needed in order to train for many hours a week and miss out on plans with friends or family. That passion helped me achieve goals and advance in the sport.
When dealing with issues like parental rights or child support, I have found that passion is also fundamental. It supports my ability to spend many hours on a file, including working after regular business hours and sometimes on weekends. If I wasn’t passionate or committed, it would reflect in my work and the clients would simply feel uncared for. Not surprisingly, passion and trust go hand in hand.
The third similarity is the balancing act. This was something that I regularly did when I stood on the balance beam consisting of four inches of wood. When I was on the beam, I had to be focused on the skills that I was performing while also thinking about the next steps in my routine.
As a legal assistant, I had to learn the art of balance, now in a professional setting. I learned quickly that family law is a very personal and delicate type of law. The clients allow us into the most vulnerable and stressful parts of their lives. We provide them with relevant legal information as we make sure to draft various documents in relation to their case. At the same time, we also are required to be attentive to their emotional needs with empathy and compassion, with each Zoom call we make and each e-mail we send.
The final similarity is the mental game.
When you watch gymnastics, the first thing you probably notice is the physical aspect of the sport. The flips and the tricks are very exciting to watch. What you do not see is the mental aspect that is arguably more important. Mental blocks and fears were common, and it took a mental toughness for me to be able to overcome those obstacles. Luckily, I had a strong support system that helped me take care of my mental health when I needed it most.
Being involved in family law proceedings can equally be tough on a client’s mental health. Whether they are dealing with the infidelity of a spouse or fighting for custody of their children, it is all very emotional. As a legal assistant, it is important for me to remember that I am dealing with issues that will impact the rest of their lives. I thus have a responsibility to ensure that the legal side is done properly, while also being sympathetic and supportive. Reminding them to take care of their mental health, by suggesting a therapist or counsellor, is important and sometimes critical.
So, in tying these thoughts together, I admit that when I started working in family law there was no way I could have imagined that my gymnastics training would be relevant. However, when I broke down the values and principles of both disciplines, I found the similarities quite striking and helpful to keep in mind as I continue to grow and develop into a legal gymnast (excuse the pun).
In all seriousness, I hope that the above similarities can spur others working in family law to realize that their past experiences may surprisingly complement their current profession. Skills and knowledge learned from a seemingly unrelated discipline or sport may in fact be useful in more ways than one. And if that realization can help me make a client feel more cared for and have their struggle made a little easier, then all those twists, tucks and pikes will have been worth it.