Relationships are important in all walks of life, but few more so than that of a family lawyer. Gillian Bishop’s career in law started almost 40 years ago. She is now a consultant and founding member of FLiP, an award-winning team of specialist family lawyers.
Gillian’s achievements in law – which include being named as a top-ranked family lawyer by leading legal directories such as Legal 500 UK and Chambers – are a result of her dedication to and knowledge of the profession, but it is her commitment to forming strong relationships with her clients that truly shines through.
Every day, Gillian handles sensitive issues and difficult cases and subjects, but through understanding the true value in communication, relationships and trust, she has well and truly thrived in her industry.
In this week’s #KnapChat, I spoke to Gillian about the power of relationships and her valuable career insights and experiences…
KW: How do relationships break down?
Gillian: That is a huge question! As a family lawyer for the best part of 40 years, I have seen so many people with broken relationships caused ostensibly by a whole host of reasons. My view though is that whatever the “trigger” the background cause is lack of good communication with their partner.
People have been too tired, too busy, too upset, too inarticulate, too scared to be able to deal with the niggles that start the rot. Remember that communication is a two way thing. It is not just talking, it is, more importantly, listening too.
KW: What are the key factors in building them back up?
Gillian: Relationships can be mended only by the people in them making and taking the time and space to listen to the other.
Listening is a lost art. I think it should be called “hearing” rather than “listening”. Too much listening these days is done in order to answer rather than to understand.
KW: What’s the most important aspect of resolving a family dispute?
Gillian: Treat clients as the unique individuals they are rather than a problem to be solved. The second most important aspect is to understand that we don’t work in a vacuum.
What we do as family lawyers and the way we do it has a direct and lasting effect on our clients, their partners and their children, potentially for the rest of their lives. That is huge. Get those points and the rest is relatively straightforward.
KW: How did it feel to win the Family Law Partner of the Year award last year?
Gillian: Brilliant! It (The Lexis Nexis award) is the prize we all want to win because it has been judged by our peers.
KW: Relationships are the key to so much in life, but you see them at their lowest ebb sometimes. How does that affect you?
Gillian: Many, many years ago when I was a trainee solicitor I got very upset one day over what I perceived to be a great unfairness inflicted on a client. My then boss gave me the best piece of advice I have ever had: “If you are going to get caught up in the emotions of your clients you will not be any good at the job. Your clients depend on you being able to remain objective.”
I have passed that advice on many times since. But at the same time, we cannot ignore our own humanity and undoubtedly there are clients whose stories are tragic, sad or unfair and you are touched by them.
The important thing is to know how to deal with those feelings in a way which does not impact adversely on the client or their family. I have monthly supervision as a place to acknowledge and reflect on the cases and clients that get under my skin in some way.
All that said, it is a great privilege to walk alongside someone and see them grow back (or sometimes for the first time) their sense of self worth.
KW: I’m told you go on a week-long silent retreat every year; what are the benefits of this? What made you first decide to try it?
Gillian: I am an introvert living and working in an extrovert world. By that I mean I draw my energy from within rather than from people and places around me.
It is essential therefore to get away from everyone and everything for a while to recharge my batteries and “refill my well”. I do that on my annual “silence holiday” – an 8 day retreat far from the madding crowd. I come back refreshed on every level.
I have a friend who used to go on retreats and her description of them sounded like heaven. I had to try it myself – that was 21 years ago and I have not missed a year since.
KW: What is your career highlight so far?
Gillian: Well I think it has to be setting up my own firm in 1995. Now called Family Law in Partnership (FLiP), it was one of the first niche family law practices in the country (there are hundreds now).
We set out to be innovative and to provide counselling and mediation services as well as legal advice, and it has done so ever since. Our tagline “leading change for families” holds true.
KW: How has legal practice changed over the past 30 years?
Gillian: Where to start? In short, everything has changed – the law, procedure, the process options, methods of communication (when I started carbon paper was de rigueur and telexes were new and exciting), client expectations, the pace, demands and sophistication of the work.
KW: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
Gillian: Meeting people and hearing their stories.
KW: Tell us how FLip Faculty came about…
Gillian: For at least 20 years I have known that very little of my daily work has much to do with law. That is the context but law alone does not bring resolution- in fact it sometimes gets in the way.
What really matters is understanding people. The problem is we don’t get taught that in law school. We only learn on the job about people and how their brains work, what makes them tick, why some relationships work and some fail.
We can eventually learn, usually from getting things wrong, how our personalities, prejudices, passions, values and views affect the way we interact with some clients differently from others.
14 years ago, I had the idea of setting up a training body which would fill this yawning gap in our knowledge. The time wasn’t right then but now it is. People know so much more because of the internet and things like TED Talks. The conversations about wellbeing and mental health were almost unheard of 5 years ago.
People are born to be in relationship with every other person they meet from family, friends, classmates, teachers, bosses, professionals, shop assistants and passers-by. Understanding people and what causes relationships to go wrong is key to helping them solve problems.
In 2017, I set up FLiP Faculty to address the lack of education and training in this area specifically aimed at the Family Law community.
KW: What value does FLiP Faculty have for your firm and those who use it?
Gillian: I think if we all understand the context of our work and the psychological dimension of it we would have the capability of changing from being good lawyers to exceptional ones.
KW: You say that FLiP Faculty is about “understanding the soup of relationships”. What do you mean by this?
Gillian: It’s really understanding “the soup in which our clients swim.” That is, life in all it’s messy complexity of hopes, dreams, desires, triumphs and disasters. And to reflect on the fact that we are swimming in the same soup.
KW: How do you ensure the client remains at the centre of what you do at all times?
Gillian: Well they have to be front and centre as they are our paymasters if for no other reason. As I said before, we have a lasting impact on their lives and they are paying serious money for our advice. Front and centre is the only place they can be.
KW: Are there any common misconceptions of being a lawyer or of family law in general?
Gillian: The most common public perception of family lawyers is that they “make things worse.” Sadly that is still true of some lawyers but fewer each year. Most good family lawyers are members of Resolution, which aims to cultivate a more respectful approach.
KW: How do you approach sensitive subjects such as those involving children, for instance?
Gillian: Of course, cases involving children can be difficult and affecting but I don’t think they require more sensitive handling – the clients are the same whatever their issues are.
KW: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Gillian: No. I wanted to be, variously, a ballerina, a doctor, a tree surgeon and a speech therapist. At least three of those required me to be good at science – and I wasn’t. I chose law because it kept plenty of options open.
As an expert family lawyer, Gillian has seen the breakdown of many relationships only to rebuild them with the utmost of professionalism, sensitivity and understanding.
As Gillian touched upon in our discussion, it is easy to listen to someone, but it is much harder to truly understand; to find human connection and empathy, while maintaining the level of professionalism that has helped her become one of the leading individuals in her industry.
Brené Brown once defined connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
This ability, to understand a person’s hopes, dreams, values, views and interests (what Gillian describes as the “soup of relationships”) is something that cannot be taught in law school, or anywhere for that matter. Why? Because it has to be learned.
People are born to be in relationships, as Gillian says, and the strongest bonds stem from truly listening to understand one another, not purely to respond. We are naturally drawn to people, so let’s not ruin that by purely focusing on our narratives and waiting for our opportunity to be heard.
Instead, let’s listen to and understand the stories of others first. After all, that’s what separates the good from the exceptional…