Divorce lawyers hear their clients’ deepest traumas. They need therapeutic training

• by David Frenkel

Originally published at Toronto Star

Divorce lawyers hear their clients’ deepest traumas. They need therapeutic training

Divorce lawyers are a bit of an anomaly among their colleagues practicing other areas of law.

Clients regularly entrust them with their most intimate secrets, too embarrassing to share with even their closest of confidants.

They regularly share stories of being cheated on, rejected, abused and financially devastated. Their legal advisers come face to face with despair and unimaginable pain, which at times can take their breath away. This special breed of lawyer is obliged to navigate complex mental health issues that correspond to the current upheaval, and often historic childhood traumas.

And yet, divorce lawyers are not psychiatrists, nor are they trained therapists or counsellors.

Therefore, when clients reveal their psychological history, their lawyers appropriately recommend seeing a professional. However, the unfortunate reality is that clients rarely follow up on their recommendations.

The financial costs of retaining a lawyer are stressful enough; clients usually do not have the time or money to hire others.

What soon becomes evident is that many clients need immediate therapeutic help, but often forge on alone into the blizzard of their emotional disruption.

Their lawyers thus turn into soundboards, without offering anything more than an empathetic nod and a tissue to wipe away the anguish. The lawyer continues to listen to the distress, knowing that they are likely the only individual aware of the severity of their client’s psychological ailments.

These ailments include major depression, severe anxiety and extreme levels of stress, to name a few. The uncertainty of the divorce can exacerbate any of these issues, whether they were present prior to or during their separation.

To make matters worse, if divorce lawyers do try to address any psychological component of the client’s life, they are dangerously overstepping their role as a legal adviser and can create more harm than good. They may unknowingly provide counselling without appreciating their client’s full medical history. In such instances, they can make the client worse off if their uninformed recommendations are actually followed.

Therefore, it may be time for divorce lawyers to receive the necessary training so that they properly address their clients’ emotional turmoil and provide helpful therapeutic advice in an effective manner.

One option may be adding a certification process to the lawyer’s required continuing legal education.

Such certification may include a simplified summary of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” a guide to common mental health issues and individualized treatment methods. The lawyer would obviously be required to remind the client also consult a mental health professional.

The time has arrived for divorce lawyers to add a rudimentary level of therapeutic training as part of their overall education. Many clients desperately need a lawyer that is more than just an advocate — they need a knowledgeable guide that will not just be exposed to their emotional pain, but also have the tools to treat it.