Last week seemingly most of the British public and probably all family lawyers tuned in to watch the first episode of The Split, the much-discussed new divorce drama on BBC One. Reviews from everyone apart from family-law friends were positive. So why did those in the know find it so difficult to watch?
Probably because they know too much. The tiniest misuse of terminology grates, the slightest high-heeled shoe out of place irritates. This is not the fault of the producers; it is probably the same for doctors watching Holby City. But just how far removed are the protagonists from their sisters on the ground?
A scene I found particularly troubling was when Hannah Stern, one of the central characters, oversees a meeting in her office during which her client, the husband, informs his spouse for the first time that he is seeking a divorce. Obviously the wife is devastated, not least because of the bizarre circumstances.
We advise (one party) and we support; we do not step inside the relationship. Usually people come to us to let us know that they have spoken to their spouse about divorce already or they instruct us to write to them, carefully and sensitively, acknowledging that this is the case. More surprisingly, Stern goes on to client-swap and act for the wife without being at all troubled by the potential breach of professional conduct that flows from having already acted for the husband.
It seems as though Stern’s office has an open-door policy for her clients’ families; later on we discover that she is hiding a client’s young son in the office, unbeknown to the father, during a difficult meeting between his parents. Inevitably the father spots him and high drama ensues, potentially to the long-term damage of the child.
Good TV perhaps — but exactly what family lawyers seek to avoid. And if that level of unprofessionalism isn’t enough, the same meeting erupts into a personal dispute between two lawyers, with their bemused clients looking on. In an area of law in which emotions can run high, your personal life always has to stay at home so as to act in your client’s best interests.
There are odd flashes of the job that really hit home — arriving late to a party definitely rings true. Managing clients who, understandably, can move from being extremely angry and aggressive to subdued and tearful is a key part of the skill-set needed. The devastation of a wife reacting to her husband cheating on her was skilfully portrayed, as was the scene in which she is trying to hack into his computer and then break into his safe to peruse private documents. Incidentally, this is potentially illegal and should be avoided at all costs.
There is a fundamental problem in creating a realistic drama about divorce lawyers. Most of our days are spent at our desks trawling through documents like other lawyers, but of course this doesn’t make good drama. However, taking lawyers (and their families and their personal issues) and their clients (and their various problems) and throwing them into an explosive cocktail of emotion does. It would be a catastrophe in the real world, but it makes for compelling Tuesday evening viewing and I’m sure we will be back for more.