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Clients on the Couch
Legal therapy can be just what the lawyer ordered..
By Susan Howery

March/April 2000 Issue

I’m always on the lookout for new career avenues for my students to explore. Even before creating my post-degree certificate program, I began noticing that more and more students were coming to paralegal programs with multiple degrees and long careers in disciplines other than the law. For example, I’ve had several health care professionals enter my program looking to either mesh their experience with a paralegal career or looking to find a new professional experience.

When I first heard about a field called legal therapy counseling services (legal therapy), my ears perked right up. I thought my students with mental health care, social work or psychology backgrounds and the readers of Legal Assistant Today might be interested in learning more on the subject.

What Is Legal Therapy Anyway?
Anyone who has worked in family law will immediately recognize the value of legal therapy. The process of seeking and obtaining a divorce in an adversarial system is emotionally draining, and in my experience, clients can go over the edge before it’s over. The attorney may be poorly equipped, no matter how talented, to deal with a client’s emotional seesaw. An attorney’s job is to help seek the best legal result for the client, and he or she simply doesn’t have time to deal with the emotional turmoil that is part of the process. Many times, the paralegal on the case will end up dealing with the client’s emotional distress, and although many paralegals possess strong interpersonal skills, this can be a poor use of their time and talent.

Ronni K. Burrows, co-founder of the Legal Therapy Institute Inc. at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., saw an opportunity in all of this. As an attorney at the Burrows Law Office in Pittsburgh, she had been practicing matrimonial law since 1988 and decided to hire a mental health care practitioner to assist in her practice. As a result, Burrows was able to double her caseload in the first year and do what she does best: practice law.

“Most clients don’t even understand that divorce involves a lawsuit. This is an emotional time for the client. One job of a legal therapist counselor is to educate the client about what to expect from the lengthy process,” Burrows explained. Legal therapist counselors (LTCs) aren’t hired to provide psychotherapy for the client and are prohibited to do so by the Legal Therapist Counselor Code of Ethics. They’re hired to allay the emotional problems the client might face by explaining the process of the divorce, being available to answer questions and escorting the client to hearings, depositions and trial. Attorneys and paralegals are often too busy to return frantic telephone calls on a daily basis. An LTC can return those calls. Not only does this help the client emotionally, it also helps strengthen the attorney-client relationship. Attorneys and legal assistants are ethically bound to keep the lines of communication open, and legal therapy is designed to do just that.

The main advantages of using the services of an LTC are:

  • Ongoing emotional support and prevention strategies for the client
  • Assistance with preparing the client emotionally for depositions and trial
  • Assistance with the client at deposition and trial
  • An improved attorney-client relationship
  • More time for the attorney and paralegal on legal matters.

The LTC’s fee may or may not be passed on to the client. The fee can be calculated into a firm’s overhead, or the fee may be negotiated between the client and the attorney.

Burrows has developed a certification program through the Legal Therapy Institute. To enter the program, you must have a master’s degree in a mental health discipline. The certification requires two three-day weekends of coursework and a 40-hour supervised practicum in a law firm. There is a strong ethics component in the training, and the coursework provides the basics of divorce law practice and counseling strategies. Upon successful completion of the requisite coursework and practicum, the individual can claim the title of legal therapist counselor.

How Do Paralegals Fit In?
As I said, many students are entering my program with master’s degrees in various disciplines, and at least three have had degrees in the mental health field. I asked Burrows if she thought they would be good candidates for legal therapy certification and she thought they’d make excellent candidates. She explained that many times LTCs have a hard time understanding their role as advocates for the client. “Counselors typically want to make it better for everybody. They may want to try to save the marriage, and find it uncomfortable to act as an advocate for only one side. The built-in advantage for paralegals is that they may understand this,” Burrows said.

After researching this subject, I’ve concluded that someone who is trained as a paralegal and looking for a career change may be extremely well-equipped to be an LTC. There are many built-in advantages: paralegals have the training and experience in the legal field that mental health care practitioners lack; paralegals have first-hand experience with the nuances of cases, law practice, the players involved and the court system; and much of the education required to help a client deal emotionally with the stress of a difficult battle is obtained through rigorous training and experience.

Paralegals also understand the ethical duties involved in dealing with clients. Burrows said that when she designed the curriculum for the Legal Therapy Institute, she borrowed from various paralegal model codes of ethics.

This is a specialty area that could greatly enhance the practice of law and expand the role paralegals play in it. Lawyers have just recently recognized the value of using nurses in their practices. Legal nurses are valuable because of a combination of medical and legal training. Imagine what these talented individuals can offer to any case involving medical issues. The same can be true of paralegals who have a mental health care background. Using legal nurses and LTCs on staff or as consultants frees the lawyer to practice law, and provides the client with expert assistance not previously provided.

Current Practice
According to Burrows, there are a number of firms nationwide that currently employ LTCs. The firms range from large practices to solo practitioners. Some of the firms use the services of LTCs on a part-time basis and some use them for consults.

Pittsburgh attorney Constance McKeever has been using the services of LTCs since 1995. Burrows used the services of Sharon Saul, a psychologist (and now an LTC) for several years. She put her on the payroll for an average of 15 hours per week. Burrows said that ordinarily, using an LTC in this manner, a lawyer should expect to pay about $45 to $55 an hour. Some larger firms have hired LTCs to do consults, and have paid up to $125 an hour. Saul no longer works for Burrows because Saul’s practice, Associates in Solution Oriented Psychology, has grown substantially and now occupies the majority of her time.

Predicting the Future
I see the advantages of using an LTC in any complex litigation. After speaking with Burrows, I let my mind wander back to some of my experiences with complex litigation. Some of the most difficult client relationships I dealt with weren’t only in divorce cases, but also in wrongful death, medical malpractice and personal injury cases. In these types of cases, clients are traumatized in so many ways, and litigation can often take up to two years or longer. I thought about the many benefits of using an LTC, and the caseload we might have had without all of the time spent dealing with the clients’ anxieties and pain. As Burrows said, “In a divorce case, about 18 percent is legal. The rest is a breakdown between financial and emotional issues.”

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