Law: Reconciling emotion and practicality: An increasing number of firms are turning to in-house counsellors to assist in divorce cases, says Barbara Lantin

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Every matrimonial lawyer keeps a box of tissues in the room for the client who dissolves into tears at the very mention of divorce.

A growing number of firms, however, now take a more constructive approach to these difficulties by employing an in-house counsellor. They handle certain kinds of client, mainly those whose emotional state prevents them from making progress in their divorce proceedings.

Margaret Bennett believes she was the first solicitor to use an in-house counsellor. Having referred clients for counselling while head of the matrimonial department of a central London firm, she set up her own specialist matrimonial practice in Bloomsbury in 1990. She then asked Lady Patricia Harris, a former co-director of the Divorce Conciliation and Advisory Service, to join her. Lady Harris now sees around 20 per

cent of Ms Bennett's clients.

'Solicitors are trained to advise on the law and may perform certain welfare functions, but we are not counsellors,' says Ms Bennett. 'A counsellor is experienced in dealing with family dynamics and relationships, and can guide people when those break down.'

She is very clear about the benefits which using a counsellor can bring a solicitor. 'A client who is in emotional turmoil may not only be deaf to the advice you are giving, but cannot give you proper instructions. They change their mind every five minutes, or they might have to ask you two or three times to explain something quite simple.'

Not all clients need or can benefit from counselling, but an experienced matrimonial lawyer should be able to pick out those who will. Barbara Worrall, a magistrate and a former hospital social worker, now a counsellor with the specialist Nottingham practice Rupert Bear and Co - says the right kind of referral is essential.

'At first I tended to get the clients with whom the solicitors could not cope. Some people expect me to have a magic wand and I don't. It is important that solicitors refer clients who will benefit from counselling at an early stage. A classic situation is when someone has been deserted.

'In one case, the husband had gone abroad leaving the wife and two small children. She was extremely distressed and unable to make a decision about what to do. The financial and practical sides are hard to deal with when you feel like that. But gradually she took control and was able to come up with her own solutions.'

Nearly half Mrs Worrall's clients see her for just one long session. Another counsellor says she sees people an average of four times. However, both agree that they have a short-term task - to put people back in charge of their lives. Long-term analytical therapy is not their province.

Reconciliation is not the intention either, but it can happen. Although Mrs Worrall is not in the business of marriage guidance she will, unlike some counsellors, see both parties if asked to do so. As many as half her clients 'take time to think' after seeing her, and decide to delay proceedings. Some ultimately stay married.

To that extent, using a counsellor could actually reduce the number of clients seeking matrimonial legal advice. However, there is little doubt that their presence attracts new business, which is one of the reasons why firms are choosing to have a counsellor on the premises, rather than referring clients elsewhere.

Consumer resistance to the idea of any kind of therapy is another reason for having somebody in-house. Philippa Pearson of Osbornes in Camden, north London, says: 'We felt it would be easier for clients to see a counsellor at their solicitors, instead of having to look through the Yellow Pages or ask friends.'

Even so, only about 10 per cent of Osbornes' matrimonial clients agree to a referral. Those who do tend to be articulate, broad- minded and 'the wronged party', rather than the partner who has decided to end the marriage. The effect can be astonishing, says Ms Pearson.

'I see clients who have counselling growing in strength markedly, and much more quickly than those who don't have it. Clients who would benefit from counselling but refuse to have it tend to come back week after week. Their costs end up being very high. They are constantly brought down by the whole business of the divorce and dread dealing with the solicitor. In contrast, the cases of clients who have seen the counsellor tend to be over more quickly and cleanly.'

And cheaply. At around pounds 30 a hour (some firms charge according to means, but legal aid is not available), counselling will cost the client a good deal less than seeing a solicitor. The result may, of course, be reduced costs for the solicitor. However, a satisfied client presented with a reasonable bill is more likely to pay than a wretched client presented with an astronomical one, especially if a large proportion of those costs were incurred dealing with emotional baggage.

'The benefit to us is that we can deal with cases in the way they should be handled, with the client focusing on the things that matter,' Ms Pearson says. 'As time goes on, I am sure we will get more clients seeing the counsellor, and more practices taking this innovation on board.'

(Photograph omitted)

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