Words: Rhiannon Thomas (November 2017)
Image Credits: Rhiannon Thomas
Reading Time: 5 minutes

IMAGINE THAT YOU’VE JUST BEEN TOLD YOU HAVE A COUPLE OF MONTHS LEFT TO LIVE. You are reeling, but because you are a pragmatic lawyer you start thinking about all the practicalities that have to be attended to before you die. You’re like many of your colleagues and friends – you drew up a Will when you bought your first home or on the birth of your first child, but you haven’t bothered to update it since then.

You haven’t ever really contemplated your mortality – you were planning to live, naturally.  Your death was always an ‘if’, but now it has become a ‘when’. You have a family – a partner and children – and they are more important to you than anything else, especially in light of your recent diagnosis.  You’re not sure who to approach to update your Will. Do it yourself? Too challenging at the moment and you’re not feeling well. Approach a colleague? Approach a stranger? Frankly, the prospect of talking about your imminent death to anyone seems overwhelming right now.

Now, imagine you’re the lawyer that this person is coming to see. How comfortable are you discussing dying and death, especially with someone who knows that they will die soon? Do you feel you can manage this conversation? What will you do if they start crying? How will you deal with your own experience or relationship with dying and death? Will you feel so overwhelmed that you forget to ask an important question, one which you might not get the opportunity to ask again?  These are just some of the questions I’ve asked myself over the years while consulting with Will clients.

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2012 was a life-changing year for me. I met Amanda Boardman (WOLELA) and J Kim Wright (Cutting Edge Law) and some other lawyers who thought that the current legal paradigm wasn’t able to holistically serve clients’ (and their own) needs for a meaningful, engaged dialogue.  I had thought I was very much alone, but then Kim Wright told me about many other lawyers who felt like I did, and the concept of Integrative Law. According to Cutting Edge Law, Integrative Law is ‘an emerging worldwide movement to create a legal system that grants dignity and voice to everyone in the legal system, crafting values-based, creative, sustainable, and holistic solutions that build and strengthen relationships.’ This was not an approach that I’d been taught at law school. Rather, we were praised for our rational, intellectual abilities and taught not to let our emotions interfere with our decision-making. Problems existed outside of the particular person and could be solved by applying the facts to the law, leaving feelings aside.

When I started practising law my experience was very different ­– most of my clients only came to see me when they were going through deeply emotional life-events: illness, death, marriage, divorce, moving house, new or floundering business relationships (all of which are well-known to be high up on the list of emotive and stressful situations). Many of my clients found it unusual that I could (and was willing to!) talk about their feelings: one client even asked me if I was a real lawyer.However, I did feel out of my depth a lot of the time, especially when it came to talking about dying and death.

In 2013, I approached two mental health professionals – Victoria Mayer, a clinical psychologist and family mediator (and ex-lawyer) and Di Burger, a family counsellor whose expertise lies in adult and paediatric palliative care, and bereavement support. Together, we developed a new breed of legal practice, which we named Milkwood Law. Based within the new paradigm of Integrative Law our legal services would be expansive, including the heart and soul in the consultation and the resulting legal document.

Our starting point was the underlying narrative, rather than the law. In my view, the law is the simple part. The complex part is the underlying story, and we were curious about that. What were the particular client’s personal values and reasons for needing a Will or other legal document? What were their hopes for the future in which the document would prevail? How could we make the contract a ‘living document’ rather than something consigned to the filing cabinet? Using our combined skills we wanted to offer clients an opportunity to create a legal document which was a fuller expression of themselves. We also made sure that the document was written in plain English – there’s no point signing something you don’t understand.

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Everything about Milkwood Law is meaningful – the name has a special meaning to us, the logo and the website were thoughtfully created, our relationship as colleagues, our own personal development and emotional well-being, our client’s individual circumstances and the contracts we create collaboratively with them. We even offered an ongoing relationship with Victoria or Di for those clients who needed further assistance with the non-legal issues that arose during their initial consultations – from how to have constructive conversations about each other’s unique values, their relationship to money, conflict resolution styles or how they felt about the prospect of a certain death (the ‘when’ rather than the ‘if’), or their ‘non-legal’ plans for the future.

Milkwood Law is currently exploring opportunities in the United Kingdom and for now the Cape Town practice is hibernating. I have been fortunate to meet Ninon van der Kroft, who lives in London. She is an end of life planning specialist and Doula (registered through Living Well Dying Well), who supports people dealing with the full spectrum of end of life issues. Together, we have collaborated to offer clients an integrative approach to creating their Will, as well as putting in place any other practical or personal end of life planning requirements they might have. There is also the option of a future relationship with Ninon to deal with ongoing non-legal issues. Instead of asking clients the usual questions to draft a valid legal Will, we ask additional questions, which allow us to get to know the client in a more personal way resulting in a fuller, holistic and more meaningful conversation about their mortality. The questions are simple, but ones which generally go unasked, especially when consulting with a legal professional: What is important for me to know about you? What is most important to you? What is worrying you most? How can I best support you?

As an integrative lawyer I have a mission: to offer the best, most meaningful encounter that a person can have with the law and a lawyer; to work collaboratively with other professionals, if necessary; to inspire other lawyers to reassess the way in which they practise law and serve their clients; and to take Milkwood Law’s methods into mainstream law firms by providing training and workshops on using this approach.

My vision for lawyers is that we can serve society holistically by developing ways in which to have values-based, creative, meaningful conversations that result in solutions that not only build and strengthen relationships but also contribute to developing a more conscious world.

RHIANNON THOMAS is a lawyer, consultant and facilitator. She has worked in academia, run her own law firm in South Africa, and most recently moved to the UK where she practices as an independent legal specialist. Her practice has become steadily more holistic, responding to her feeling that the traditional legal approach lacks a ‘human aspect. She is aligned with the global Integrative Law movement, and more recently is collaborating with other lawyers to build a ‘teal’ legal organisation. Rhiannon lives in a small village in Oxfordshire where she loves taking long walks in nature. If you’d like to know more about Milkwood Law, you can contact Rhiannon Thomas on info@milkwoodlaw.co.uk or visit www.milkwoodlaw.com

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