September 25, 2018 Practice Management

Practicing Family Law with Civility: Civility for Ourselves as Attorneys

By Elise F. Buie

Welcome to the the third installment of GPSolo eReport's series “Practicing Family Law with Civility.” This month’s we examine how to educate your client about the benefits of civility.

Family law can be a very difficult, emotional, and contentious practice area. A lot has been written about being civil to one another while practicing in high-conflict legal areas. What about being civil to ourselves? If we are civil to ourselves, it is easier to be civil to others. Civility in the profession and civility to ourselves are complementary, you cannot have one without the other.

The Civility Center for Law defines civility as “a set of attitudes, behaviors, and skills that call upon us to respect others, to remain open-minded, and to engage in honest and constructive discourse.” There are numerous resources available to understand what this means with respect to how we treat others, but the same principles apply when thinking about being civil to ourselves.

Being a family law attorney—among many other high-conflict areas of law—requires compassion and empathy for our clients and their families. Occasionally, this level of emotional investment can come with a price for the attorney, opposing counsel, and the attorney’s family. This price highlights the importance of promoting the psychological health and well-being of professionals. If you practice what you teach your clients about being civil to each other, you will be of better service to your clients and others in your life. Before we can help others, we need to help ourselves.

What does civility to ourselves really mean? What does it mean to treat oneself with kindness and respect? It means different things to different people. However, for everyone, it requires practice, consistent work, and commitment. One way to create a civility habit is to develop your own civility code.

Civility codes are essential for attorneys to ensure they can help clients and practice civility into the future. Do not wait until burnout is evident to identify an issue that should have been addressed. To create your own civility code, examine what brings you peace or inner joy or releases stress. It does not have to be on the usual list of “taking care of yourself.” But it should encompass taking care of all aspects of your life: proper nutrition, regular exercise, adequate sleep, satisfying relationships, personal meaning, and perspective.

Your personal civility code should speak to your unique construction and alignment.

The most important part of a personal civility code is it must be a part of your to do list.

Below are some ideas to add to your civility code.

Play

Take time to play. Is there a hobby that you miss, or you want to resume? Do you love taking an art class or spending a night playing board games with your family? Playing can be scheduling a day to do nothing on your list, going dancing, trying a new restaurant, or taking a leisurely drive. There is never enough time to do all the things we want to do, but scheduling time to play will lead to a less stressful work life. The most important part of taking time to play is not to feel guilty. Allow yourself to binge watch a show or go for a walk with no destination, free of guilt. After all, it was on your to do list.

Eat

Of course, this is one of the usual self-care tips. However, making healthy eating choices and learning what works for your body is being civil to yourself. Options for healthy eating are overwhelming, so take time to try different strategies a little bit at a time. After a while, focusing on foods that provide you with the nutrients you need to maintain your best health becomes a habit. If you only make one change to how you eat in your civility code, schedule time to share a meal with family or friends. Not only does it make healthy eating a time for play, shared meals create a great time for connection with friends, family, and colleagues.

Exercise

We all know exercise is good for us, but often we are sitting all day long. We need to incorporate movement into our lives. Now is the time to get moving! Even setting a timer on your phone and standing when you hear the alarm is a good start. Walk around the office for a few minutes. Get some fresh air. If you do not have a regular exercise routine or if you have lapsed in your normal routine, start a new one that motivates you. What do you need to keep you moving? Variety or a consistent schedule? If you establish a habit, it will last. If you do not have time to set an exercise routine, put a quick walk around the block on your to do list for the day. Schedule walking meetings where it makes sense. With technology, you can even stand up and stretch, walk around, and be on your conference call.

Sleep

Good sleep is the most important part of being civil to yourself. Sleep helps us to respond to emotional challenges. When we are tired, we are more likely to snap at others or respond in an uncivil way. This contributes to anxiety and relationship troubles. Sleep needs vary, but getting into a regular sleep routine is invaluable. One easy way to help your sleep patterns is to stick to a sleep schedule—go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Schedule it on your calendar.

Talk and Laugh

Social support is important to taking care of ourselves. Identify the people in your life you can speak freely with and who make you laugh. These are the people you should spend your valuable time with. Even better, keep a monthly date, whether it is coffee or dinner. If it will help you with your exercise routine, pick one of those people in your life you enjoy and start a walking group/running group/golf group. Regular social time with people you can be yourself with is another way to be civil to yourself. Having those dates on the calendar will encourage your commitment to attend.

Work Environment

Creating a quality work environment where you work together as a team by supporting each other should be on your civility code. Creating a quality work environment means investing in culture. Even if you are not a decision maker in your firm, you can contribute to a culture of treating each other and yourself civilly. Communicating effectively with each other is the first step in building a positive work environment and encourages civility in the legal profession. If we are communicating civilly and supporting each other in the office, this translates to civility with outside counsel and in the courtroom. Additionally, working as a team focused on the best outcomes for clients and the firm helps attorneys feel supported rather than sitting alone in an office. Feeling supported in a positive way leads to confidence and positive dealings outside the office.

Education

A big step in self-civility is equipping yourself with the knowledge and skills to deal with high-conflict personalities. There is a plethora of research and advice around dealing with these people. Take some time to research and identify strategies that you think will work for you. Implement one or two approaches at a time and see how it effects your outcomes with high-conflict personalities. Then share those strategies with your colleagues and clients. If you are writing your civility code, add reading one article a week to your to do list.

Network

Build a solid professional support network. Surround yourself with other professionals you respect who use civility. Ask a colleague to lunch or coffee and discuss ways of supporting each other in your quest for civility in the profession. Start a group with other professionals that meets once a month to share ideas and examples on promoting civility in all aspects of life. If you are surrounding yourself with civility, it will be easier to practice your civility skills as well!

If we are out of practice, it can take time to retrain our attitudes and behaviors to be self-focused and build the skills to treat ourselves civilly. Remember, putting yourself first is not selfish. In fact, it is an important part of becoming a healthy, well-rounded individual. Holding ourselves accountable for the attitudes and behaviors we are promoting will only lessen our stress levels and defuse high-conflict relationships. Work on your personal civility code today, and remember to add it to your Outlook Tasks list.

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Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC (elisebuiefamilylaw.com). Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, and guardian ad litem work. She strives to help clients resolve disputes outside of court action and also educate clients on effective, respectful co-parenting skills.