Coaching the Unrepresented: The Best Lesson Learned

Coaching the Unrepresented: The Best Lesson Learned

Shawna photoShawna Labadie, Windsor Law 3

The first day we met he looked at me with optimism and expectation, and in those first brief moments I began to understand the gravity of the situation. In a family law school classroom we are told about the emotional trauma of marital breakdown. We discuss how difficult it is for separating spouses to detach their emotional sense of fairness from the bare facts of assets, liabilities, and juridical reasoning.  We discuss how much as lawyers we should allow our clients to use the time they pay for as therapy sessions that provide more perspective and less detail than the court requires, and we discuss the conundrum of solving such private matters in a public domain. Certainly, the law school classroom pays homage to the context under which separating spouses operate; however, it’s not until I worked with a self-represented litigant that I truly learned about those implications.

I could tell from the day we were “matched” that he experienced some solace in the idea that he wouldn’t have to face this process alone, although, I’m not certain how he expected the logistics of our partnership to operate. To be honest, I wasn’t certain in what ways I would be able to support him either. Being a self-represented litigant (SRL) “coach” was new to me. I had previously engaged in some clinic work, dabbled in the world of adult diversion and completed a family law clerkship by the time I met him, but the role I played in these settings didn’t exactly prepare me for what I experienced as a coach.

I envision the coaching process and relationship to be shaped by a multitude of social factors: the personalities of the SRL and the coach, the stage of the proceedings, the knowledge and experiences of the coach, the coping mechanisms of the SRL, the list goes on. When I met him he was at the beginning of the process. He had recently been served an application for separation and had been emotionally devastated by the events leading to the separation. That is a part of the separation process that I think we don’t fully appreciate until we meet our first family law litigant. Any SRL, in particular a family law litigant, does not arrive at a legal crisis in a vacuum. There is an entire history of trauma and turmoil leading up the eventual breakdown of the relationship. When a separating family law litigant first enters the legal realm, he is emotionally exhausted and ill equipped to make objective and realistic decisions about the future.

I met “my” self-represented litigant at the height of this swirling chaos– which was evident from the beginning. During most of the initial meetings I offered a sympathetic ear as my SRL ruminated over the dynamics that had led to his separation. His emotional expressions fluctuated between genuine concern for his ex-partner and harsh conclusions about her character while he expressed equally contradictory visions for the outcome. I was witnessing a procedure of emotional processing that was not only necessary, but was a prerequisite for my SRL to engage in the legal process with some level of objectivity.

Still, it seemed I couldn’t shake the culture of my profession that was already engrained from my two and a half years of legal education. As counsel it is commonly recognized that we control and contain the attempts of clients to provide too much emotional context for their legal issue. We enter an intake with an agenda – to gently direct the client narrative toward providing only the information we need to form a legal opinion. I made a conscious dedication to allow the emotional process. For me, this was going to be different than traditional legal counseling. In my role as ‘coach”, I was not expected – indeed I was not permitted – to provide legal advice – so I should have no agenda.

Meanwhile, in the classroom we talked about guiding the SRL toward understanding their negotiation style, helping them to distinguish their aspirations from their interests, and how to provide information over advice. Following this approach, I began to challenge my SRL to think about resolution at an inopportune time. I found that he was still reeling from the impact of the separation and was hopeful on the notion that there may be reconciliation. The mere suggestion of thinking about the finality of the relationship was an uncomfortable push. The best lesson I learned through this process is that coaching a SRL in an emotional-legal process requires constant self-awareness and a faithful dedication to a SRL-led process….

As a SRL coach, my most valuable role is allowing the SRL to know that in this swirling twirling mess or professionals and courts and statutes and conflict, there is at least one person who is completely on the same page. As a coach, I don’t have to be another professional urging the SRL to adhere to some other system’s agenda. My SRL did eventually start to contemplate a realistic outcome of his separation, but he did so at his own pace – and I got to be someone who actually let that happen, instead of one more person causing chaos in an already unmanageable situation.

Throughout my last three years of law school I have had to grapple with idea of who I will become as a professional. What I learned from this experience is what kind of lawyer I want to be. Having only worked (in my previous professional work) with vulnerable populations, there was always the expectation of some degree of interventionism. Although I’ve always tried to employ a client-directed approach in my work with people in legal crisis, I am not sure I fully grasped how officious lawyers are with clients until I became allied with one as an SRL coach.


In her text, The New Lawyer, Dr. Macfarlane writes:

“…legal education…[is] critical to both the creation and reinforcement of the dominant norms and values of the legal profession…legal education remains in thrall to the traditional models of lawyering that are beginning to lose their place in the delivery of legal services–for instance, the image of the lawyer as trial lawyer; the values of adversarial advocacy; the assumption that technical expertise translates into authority in client relationships; and, more generally, the social and economic elitism that characterized and over-whelmingly white, male legal profession until recently.”


At the beginning of last summer I began to struggle with my identity as a future lawyer. I was not identifying well with those typical images described by Dr. Macfarlane.

And so the occasion to work with a SRL could not have come at a more opportune time. I needed to change my understanding of the role of lawyers and the law in order for it to fit with my identity. Having the opportunity to coach a SRL, fully understand his needs, document my experience and observe an innovative approach seldom discussed in the law school setting gave me the awareness I needed to understand that the law is a helping profession, if I choose to make it one.

Reporting on the Justice Stakeholder Summit in 2007, the Ontario Bar Association recognized that the complexity of the system, rising legal fees and Legal Aid funding cuts had led to a serious issue of access to justice for many litigants resulting in the rising rates of SRLs. On the first day of law school, that was simply a statistic, but now he has a face and a story.

This profession is not always virtuous, but I have come out the other side of this with a sense of pride that I am just now recognizing. In the final week of my final year of nine years of post-secondary education I realize that all of the work I’ve done to keep my focus and integrity has been profitable. I came to law school to help people and I am leaving confident I gained the insight to so.

Today I enter a legal career at a time of significant change, but I am prepared. Now that I have completed this course, I can also credit this project with resolving an internal conflict of my own.

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Comments (3)

  • Brian

    I appreciate you sharing your experience as a a new law grad. As a SRL [and after years of reasearching legislation], I found it interesting how little many family lawyers understood the scope, history, meaning and intent of much of the family legislation written over the last 30 years and how much of it “is” and “is not” relevant in present day realities. I verily believe that many new lawyers take on the advice of those that are long in the tooth in this profession and are often mentored into believing thier own personal ideologies and not the true intent of the law; sometimes on par but all too often at great comprimise.

    If the intent is to become the best possible family lawyer than I would ask to dig deep into the legislation. Understand it’s purpose and true intent as [plausabily] on many occasions, you may recognize the breadth of fundamental flaws and possible Charter issues as they allegedly dont seem to have the same purposeful application in todays cultural and evolving society as they may have had 3 and 4 decades ago. Duty of fairness should always be first and foremost, not a win at any expense as the cost to society is far to great and the reprecussions we leave for our next generation only seem dire. Justice Cromwell and Maclaughlin got it right, our Family Legal system needs a significant overhaul, lets just hope that language is sincere and doesnt take another 30 years to come to fruition.

    July 28, 2014 at 2:38 am
  • Sharon Silbert

    A very insightful post. Thank you for sharing your experiences Shawna!

    July 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm
  • Michael Jensen

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Shawna.

    I recently (last night) became interested in Self Represented Litigants, and stumbled upon this blog.

    Shorter: I’m motivated by love for my 5 year old daughter.

    Longer: I’m currently finishing up my financials with ‘my’ counsel, which cost $2500. Now that my previous partner (in London, ON) has decided without just cause to deny me access to my own daughter for the summer (I’m working in northern Alberta), I’m at the crossroads of paying a $5000 retainer to file action in court, or becoming my own SRL voice. I’ve been an excellent father, I’ve paid child support willingly since our valuation date, and I’ve done nothing to be subjected to this cruel and probably not-so-unusual punishment.

    I work with Information Technology for a large corporation. There certainly may be a role for technology to play a role in serving the under-represented. Disruptive technology has flourished wherever institutions have implemented barriers to information or entertainment.

    At this point, I don’t even know the right questions to ask, or how I can afford to pay for both child support and come up with $5000 to have court-ordered access by the summer time. What I do know, is that I plan to embrace this challenge with a very keen interest in possibly helping others if I can.

    I appreciate the information and resources that the SRL project has provided!

    April 7, 2015 at 3:02 am

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