Family Law Attorneys: Dealing with the Stress of the Job

When attorneys begin practicing, it’s a given that stress comes with the job. That’s true for family law lawyers, and maybe even more so, due to how personal cases can be.

Law Week caught up with family law attorneys in Colorado to find out how they manage stress and difficult cases.

Diane Wozniak, a member at Sherman & Howard’s Denver office, originally thought she would work in policy law, but decided she wanted to work with clients at a more human level. Eventually, she found family law spoke to her.

“I really liked knowing that the work that I would be doing in family law would be helping individuals get through tough times,” Wozniak said. “All of my clients are amazing, wonderful people. I’m just happening to come into their life at one of the toughest times of their life and helping navigate them through a really difficult time.”

She noted any work can be stressful and to help deal with it she takes care of herself through exercise and meditation. Wozniak, the chair of the Colorado Bar Association Family Law Section, added creating connections within the legal community also helps a lot by making her feel like she’s not alone.

“All of my cases I feel vested in; some become a little more personal than others,” Wozniak continued. “I’m personally fascinated with how people work and everyone has a story. … It’s their story, it’s not mine, so I tend to not internalize their story.”

Wozniak said some of her cases are more difficult than others.

“I think when there’s been child abuse or domestic violence in a family, I think those are very difficult,” Wozniak said.

Carrie Kelly, partner and managing attorney of the domestic relations division at Gasper Law Group, said to deal with the stress of family law, you have to be self-aware. 

“I have a tendency to hyperfixate and I know that about myself and so I will lean into that Monday through Friday and I will shut it off on Friday,” Kelly said. 

She added it’s nice to be in an office where everyone respects boundaries and will not contact her during her off-time unless it’s an emergency. Kelly said to get out of the negativity she often faces in her cases, she seeks out positive experiences like volunteering.

For new lawyers entering family law, Kelly said they need to strike a balance between compassion and boundaries.

“You have to figure out that balance between being compassionate without becoming consumed by your client or becoming the alter ego of the client,” Kelly said. “You have to maintain a certain amount of objectivity or you are going to do your client ultimately a disservice.”

Family law attorney Christopher Sutton, a partner at Robinson & Henry, started out in a trust and estates practice before moving on to become a prosecutor and eventually ended up at his current firm. Sutton’s wife, Allison Sutton, is also a family lawyer at Robinson & Henry.

“Having a wife who works in my industry, who can understand my stressors and empathize, and I can do the same for her, that has been a real plus for me,” Sutton said. “She doesn’t give herself enough credit. She’s been really there for me through some tough times. I’d like to think I do the same for her.” 

Sutton also deals with stress by seeking out things he enjoys like exercising, getting out in nature and spending time with loved ones.

“As an attorney, especially when you get super busy, it’s really easy to lose sight of taking care of yourself,” Sutton said. “I really think that’s crucial. The attorneys I find that burnout tend to be all work and no play.”

Sutton added Robinson & Henry operates as a team setup. 

“We rely on each other and some of that reliance is not just on the legal work, it’s kind of the emotional support,” Sutton said. 

When asked if it’s the toughest practice area, Sutton said family law is certainly a stressful one. 

“These are matters that are real near and dear to the heart of our clients,” Sutton said. “It’s a lot of stress for our clients and part of our job is to help them manage that stress. … You want to be passionate about your case and feel for your client, but you never want to lose sight of being an objective counselor.”

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