When it comes to choosing a divorce attorney, I have heard people say, “I want the meanest, toughest attorney I can find. I need a fighter, someone who’ll take out that shark my spouse hired.” That attitude always makes me shudder. A talented attorney doesn’t have to fight and sling mud to engineer a successful divorce. A successful divorce takes much more than a warrior mentality and the ability to shred an opponent.
A client may want a warrior but what does the client really need from a divorce attorney? After spending hundreds of client hours listening to people’s experience, both positive and negative, it became clear that this is a topic that needs further exploration. In this newsletter, I will summarize the themes that appeared over and again in these conversations with the hope of providing some “inside information” to those who can most benefit from it.
The Unique Complexity Of Working With Divorcing Clients
Few life events can match the emotional distress of divorce. It is a time of deep emotional trouble, a time when most people feel that they have lost their center of gravity. In an earlier newsletter, I spoke of the challenges that divorcing clients present to the attorneys who work with them. In part, this is due to the client’s needs to spend significant amounts of total talking time focusing on their personal problems and not the actual mechanics of divorce. Researchers have found that clients can spend nearly 40 percent of their time focusing only on their emotional needs*
In order to move on as single person, clients must mourn their losses. Throughout the divorce process, clients frequently express their raw feelings of grief, anger and depression. Unfortunately, lawyers often find themselves in the crosshairs as they sometimes become misguided targets of some of these feelings and frustrations.
Impasses in the divorce process can arise from several psychological sources; clients unresolved emotional issues and pre-existing clinical disorders. While divorce itself can cause psychiatric disorders. In some cases, psychiatric disorders may have existed prior to the divorce and perhaps even contributed to it.
Divorce is a minefield that can cause clients to regress and behave in immature was that are far from normal behaviour patterns. An unsatisfactory phone call from a spouse can
*Doane and Cowan, Interpersonal Help-Giving of Family Practice Lawyers, in the American Journal of Community Psychology, 1981.
Set off clients feelings of failure, rage or depression. Clients needs are often unclear
And can even change in reaction to events in the divorce process.
Like it or not, the pressing and intrinsic nature of problems and stresses that divorcing individuals face, coupled with their need to talk about them throughout the legal work, thrusts attorneys into a help-giving role. Learning to work effectively with clients’ heightened and often contradictory emotions is a necessary piece of the successful client/attorney relationship.
What Makes A “Good” Divorce Lawyer
Divorce clients present challenges to their lawyers that few other legal specialists face. The lawyers’ goals for the clients are very clear and defined; to obtain a divorce and the best possible settlement. These tasks require them to be oriented to the business of divorce, not to the emotional needs of the clients. It is not the attorney’s job to help the client put his or her life together and attend to their feelings. Unfortunately, it is something the client can easily demand of them.
In order to create better and less chaotic outcomes, lawyers must separate the client’s emotional factors from the legal ones. However, in doing so, they must also produce a human legal process. The right lawyer leads his or her client through the divorce quagmire and hopefully attains the best possible results. The wrong attorney can create more problems and add to the nightmare of divorce.
Using the information I have gathered from my clients, the following is a list of those qualities that they cited most frequently as defining a “good divorce lawyer.”
- Proactive. Clients spoke of the importance of their attorney taking charge of the case, rather than reacting to the opposing counsel’s requests. This means having a strategy.
- Willingness to negotiate. Clients appreciate the benefits they derive from their attorney’s willingness to press forward with negotiations rather than being uncompromising and unwilling to bend.
- Assertive. Over and over, clients agreed that the assertive attorney is one who is confident but not arrogant. They like them to be amicable and unemotional with opposing attorneys.
- Approachable. When clients use the word “approachable,” they are saying that they want an attorney who is easy to talk to and easy to reach. Clients are frustrated when phone calls aren’t returned in a timely fashion. They are frustrated when they feel that their attorney “just isn’t listening to me.” Clients need an attorney who demonstrates good listening skills. Clients also appreciate an attorney who keeps them on track and reminds them to use their time wisely.
- Problem-solving skills. In the same vein that clients like their attorney to be proactive, they want them to have a strategy for the case. They want problems t be identified and solved. It is not helpful to look at problems in terms of winning and losing.
- Personality characteristics. In addition to being knowledgeable, clients want their attorney to be competent, patient, and confident. Clients have a strong need to like their attorney and get along with him or her. Since attorney and client will need to meet, communicate and reach agreement on many points throughout the divorce, it goes without saying that if they do not get along, the process will be more difficult than it already is.
- Proper use of power. At a time when clients are in crisis and vulnerable, it is very important to them that their attorney realize the power they have and understand the necessity of not violating it. Lawyers and their clients are often not on level footing with each other. Attorneys may be more educated, have a more secure income (at a time when the client’s is being threatened) and a familiarity with the issues and processes (which the client does not have.) Clients have no interest in pompous power-trippers.
- Compatible management styles. Some clients end up switching lawyer’s mid-divorce because they feel that they are not on the same page, resulting in too much frustration and conflict. Clients want their attorney to understand what is important to them. For example, if the most important part of the divorce to the client is getting a reasonable custody settlement, they will not be happy with the attorney who keeps emphasizing rapid financial settlements.
- Experience with children. Parents going through divorce say that it is critically important to them that their divorce lawyer have extensive experience of divorce cases involving child custody and support issues. They want their attorney to understand that their children are the number one priority and can never be manipulated in the case.
- Keeping the confusion to a minimum. Clients are frustrated when they do not have the answers to their questions. They need the pertinent information from the very beginning – how to get a hold of the attorney in an emergency; will another attorney in the office be working on the case, and if so their experience. Clients want to know about costs – will there be additional costs for faxes, copies, long distance calls, etc.? How much will the divorce really cost? How they can help keep the costs down – what are the tasks the client can take on instead of the attorney?
- Straightforward. Clients want a divorce lawyer who will be honest with them and not just tell them what they think they want to hear. They want a lawyer who is not afraid of telling them bad news: The family residence will have to be sold. There will not be enough money to maintain the current standard of living. Clients need to hear all of the facts, not just the ones that will support their cause or make them feel better emotionally.
- Cost conscious. They want an attorney who will respect their finances and not spend their money without just cause.
- Empathetic and responsive to the clients feelings. A highly emotional presentation by a client, met by a very rational response, or by avoidance, is a recipe for disaster. For the client, feelings are dominant. The need to have a response to those feelings is urgent. Downplaying or ignoring those feelings leaves the client feeling abandoned, minimized, even patronized or stupid. A helpful response is one that acknowledges the clients feelings.
For clients, divorce is really about feelings. They are hurting and tend to focus on their partners’ shortcomings or on the reason for the failure of the marriage. They look to the legal system as the mechanism to make them feel better. Too often, that does not happen. The system does not perform the magic, they want it to, and they shift their focus to the shortcomings inherent in the system. Clients may feel as if they’ve suddenly been hit with a double whammy – they are upset with their spouse and with the system they turned to for help.
What is the antidote for their disappointment? The answer, I believe, lies with effective use of the power that the attorneys have with their clients. Directly or indirectly, each client I spoke with made reference to the need for their attorney to consider their underlying humanity, upon which they base their sense of justice and entitlement. They need to feel that they are being represented with respect and dignity.
According to my clients, divorce attorneys are not difficult to find at all. Good divorce attorneys, these are awfully rare.