Crazy Client or Bad Lawyer–The Top 5 Client Complaints
Arguably The Most Stressful Job Besides Being a Heart Surgeon
Written by: Stefano Ceroni
Although it may surprise people, being a divorce/family law attorney is perhaps one of the most stressful and thankless jobs around.
In fact, even other lawyers take pity on divorce attorneys knowing that they are constantly dealing with people who are angry, bitter, hurt, afraid and sometimes…even a little bit crazy.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that these emotions aren’t always justified. Going through divorce is hard! In fact, it’s so hard that it is usually near the top of everyone’s list of the most stressful and traumatic experiences a person can go through in life.
That being said, a divorce attorney is not only faced with dealing with one divorce at a time, they are dealing with dozens.
A typical divorce attorney deals with hundreds of phone calls and e-mails each month from people complaining about the behavior of their soon-to-be -ex and demanding immediate action. Clients attempt to communicate with us after hours, on weekends and holidays, and even during our vacations. In the eyes of our clients, we are truly always on call.
And, when things go bad, clients are also always quick to point the finger at us. For some reason, no matter what the problem is, it’s usually always our fault.
“No wonder everyone thought I was crazy in law school when I told them I wanted to practice family law.”
Anyway, my point is, being a divorce lawyer is stressful. We get yelled at by judges, opposing counsel, opposing parties and ironically enough, even our own clients. We work hard to get our clients what they want, manage their expectations when what they want is unreasonable and deal with their breakdowns when things don’t go their way.
We come home to e-mails questioning our abilities, strategies and our character. Our clients undermine us, talk down to us and even threaten us. Yet, when we wake-up in the morning, we go right back to work, trying to help them the best way we know how, because that is the profession we chose.
Now, being a divorce attorney is not only stressful because of our clients, it is also stressful because of other attorneys. In all honesty, I’ve dealt with more attorneys that I haven’t enjoyed working with than ones I have. Some are simply unreasonable and difficult, while others are just rude and condescending. Most upsetting, however, are those that are unprofessional, lazy, or even worse, incompetent.
In fact, bad lawyering is one of the most frustrating things that other lawyers are forced to deal with on a daily basis. Not only does it make our jobs harder, but it demeans our profession and taints our reputation.
That being said, there are numerous times when I know that a client’s complaint about their lawyer is 100% justified. Clients pay their attorneys a considerable amount of money for their service and their expertise. They rely on us to handle their case properly and they deserve to have us provide them with proper advice and sound counsel. So, when an attorney drops the ball and leads them astray, they are entitled to be frustrated.
Like any other profession, there are some good divorce lawyers and some bad ones. There are some lawyers who will tell you everything you want to hear just so that you hire them and others who will tell you the truth even when it costs them work. There are some lawyers who will stay late to research all your questions and others who will ignore your calls for weeks.
So, when I hear a client complain to me about their prior attorney, I immediately begin to ask myself whether they are a little bit crazy, or whether they truly had a bad lawyer. And, believe it or not, it’s usually not that difficult to decipher.
With that said, in an effort to let you know whether or not your previous lawyer really did stink or whether YOU are the real problem, I’ve come up with a list of the top 5 complaints (in no particular order) that I most frequently hear about other lawyers and let you know who is really to blame. (Also, check out this e-book on “5 Little Known Facts About Family Law Attorneys” for more info on lawyers.)
#1. I could never reach my old lawyer; they took forever to respond to me.
I hear this one a lot, and I have to say that I usually chalk this one up to BAD LAWYERING.
Usually, however, I do some digging before I immediately jump to this conclusion. For example, if a client tells me that they fired their old lawyer because it took 3 hours for their attorney to respond to their e-mails, then I don’t make the bad lawyer assumption. As I said before, we are busy. We are sometimes in Court ALL DAY. And when we are not, we are responding to 50 other e-mails, on the phone, doing research or drafting motions to the court. That being said, 3 hours is not taking forever to respond.
My general rule of thumb is that all non-emergency e-mails should be addressed within at least 24-48 hours. Now, some e-mails call for a long answer that may need to be researched. That being said, a full explanatory e-mail might be impossible within this time frame. However, a courtesy e-mail just to let the client know that we received it is most certainly possible within the 24-48 hour window.
That being said, when a client tells me that it took weeks to receive a return phone call or response to a pressing question, then the lawyer is usually to blame. Lawyers are not perfect. Trust me. I continually get upset with other lawyers when they don’t adhere to deadlines or provide me with common courtesy of answering my letters. So, I know how frustrating a non-responsive lawyer can be. If your lawyer is constantly MIA, chances are, they’re not taking your case as seriously as they should be. However, if you’re complaining about the fact that you sent them an e-mail on Labor Day weekend and they didn’t respond to you until Tuesday afternoon, take a long look in mirror and ask yourself about whether you’re being reasonable.
#2. My lawyer wasn’t AGGRESSIVE enough; I want a “bull-dog”!
I probably hear this complaint more than any other complaint on the list. And, believe it or not, 9 times out of 10, I immediately think “watch-out” for this client, because they are never going to be happy. Yes, it’s true: some attorneys are more “aggressive” than others. However, in the context of family law cases, being “aggressive” doesn’t necessarily serve as an advantage.
The truth is, clients usually make this comment when something doesn’t go their way. And, because the comment is made so frequently, there are either no “aggressive” attorneys left in the state of Arizona OR clients are misperceiving the true role of their attorney.
When clients make this comment to me, I immediately ask them why they feel that their attorney wasn’t “aggressive”. When this happens, the client is usually at a loss for words. This is because most clients don’t really understand what it means to be an “aggressive” attorney and worse yet, they don’t even know how their attorney being “non-aggressive” hurt their case. Usually, when people do answer this question, they say things like “Their letters were too nice to the other attorney.” or “They didn’t tell the judge that my ex cheated on me when I was pregnant.” or “They just weren’t on my side. They thought I should agree to joint legal decision-making, and I wanted sole.”
Let me tell you something folks, no matter who your lawyer is, no matter how long they have been practicing, no matter how “soft” you think they are; they all have one thing in common: they have done this more than you and when your divorce is over, they will still be there. That being said, there is absolutely no purpose to sending letters that are rude to the opposing attorney or derogatory to the opposing party. Letters like that are unprofessional, unnecessary and only serve the purpose of hurting an attorney’s reputation. In fact, they can even get your attorney in trouble with the Bar Association.
That being said, your attorney is not going to put their own career on the line just because you are mad at your ex. Furthermore, a rude letter does not make your point any more persuasive or intimidating. Lawyers know the law! We do not get rattled just because another lawyer threatens us or our clients. Instead, all it makes us want to do is write another angry letter back. Obviously, this does not solve anything.
Look, I choose not to write a nasty letter because although you may think it helps, in reality, all it does is affect the relationship that I will have with the opposing attorney for the rest of our careers. Same thing with judges! How do you think it helps your case for me to argue/yell at the person who holds your fate in their hands? Remember, judges are people too. If they don’t like you, odds are, they won’t do you too many favors when it comes to your case.
Also, you may see your judge 2-3 times, tops. Me, on the other hand, I have to go in front of them all the time, for years. So, once again, it makes no sense for your lawyer to destroy their career or their reputation with other attorneys just to serve your own personal vendetta.
Believe it or not, being a good “aggressive” attorney means knowing the law and persuasively arguing it in a professional matter as best as possible. It means being up-front and direct with your clients. It means telling them when to hold-em and when to fold-em. It means keeping your own client from playing dirty, even when the other side is. It means taking your pleadings seriously and always being prepared. And finally, it means knowing what to say and how to say it when negotiating with the judge, opposing counsel or the other party. A good lawyer out-lawyers the other, they don’t out bully them!
Nagging, filing unsubstantiated motions, making illogical-arguments and making unreasonable demands is not being “aggressive”; all it’s really doing is costing you more fees!
#3. I gave them $5,000 and nothing happened…where did all my money go?
This one’s tough. The reason is, it could really be either of the two: bad lawyering or crazy client. For example, your attorney could have drafted up six subpoenas and three sets of discovery requests without ever informally asking the other party to provide them with the information they are requesting. Obviously, the subpoenas and discovery requests cost you money. That being said, they may not have really been necessary.
Some attorneys, however, will do this because it is easy money. They change a few things around on some pre-drafted forms and charge you an arm-and-a-leg before you even have a chance to ask whether it was needed. That’s bad lawyering!
Other attorneys will fill your head to your heart’s content that they will get you everything you are asking for just to avoid having your case settle. Look, there is no way that any divorce attorney can predict exactly what parenting time schedule a judge will order in your case. That being said, if you and your ex are arguing about 5 days a month, your attorney should be encouraging you to work toward an agreement, rather than going to a judge.
Going to court costs money. In fact, it costs a lot of money. As a general rule, three (3) hours of preparation is needed for an attorney to prepare for each hour of court time-not including all the paperwork that needs to be compiled and filed before each hearing. Considering that the average divorce lawyer charges between $200-$400 an hour, each time you go to Court your bank account is going to take a hit.
That being said, it still amazes me just how many times I hear clients say, “We’ll let the judge decide.” Really?! That’s your position?! You want to spend $3,000 to go to Court to let a complete stranger, who could care less about the fact that your spouse is a jerk and a liar, to choose whether you see your kids 3 days a week or 4?
A good attorney will let you know what the best use of your money is during your divorce. A bad lawyer will turn a blind eye and let you dictate every single aspect of your case. Remember, during a divorce, most clients are acting out of passion and on emotion, they are not thinking clearly. As your attorney, we are supposed to counsel you on your decisions and keep you from hurting your own case and your wallet.
Bad lawyers, however, are not the only culprit when it comes to this complaint. In fact, clients usually do not do themselves any favors when it comes to preserving the use of their retainers. For example, most clients forget that each time they send their attorney an e-mail to ask a question, there attorney is forced to read that e-mail and then send a response. This takes time, and it is something we all must bill for. Clients, however, are always amazed when they see their bills each month and say “I didn’t know I was going to get billed for e-mails.”
The truth is, once clients pay their initial retainer they seem to subconsciously think that their money will last forever. As a result, they are always asking us to write letters, file motions and answer e-mails, even when the issues are not that important or significant to their case. When this happens, clients get upset because they eventually see that their money is gone when not much has happened in their case. To that end, I encourage all clients to carefully review their fee agreements and speak to their attorneys about how they can go about using their money in the most cost-effective way possible during their divorce.
A good lawyer will give you some solid tips for helping you save money and a good client will follow them.
#4. My old lawyer was condescending and completely ignored my ideas and my positions.
Again, this is a tricky one. I’ve heard a number of clients express to me that they were frustrated with their former lawyer because their lawyer did not really listen to their positions or consider their opinions. Obviously, this frustrates clients, a lot! Clients always know their case better than their attorneys. I mean, let’s face it, the facts of the case are the client’s lives. That being said, all lawyers need to empathize with their clients when they express their opinions regarding their kids or their spouses, job, etc.
Bad lawyers are those lawyers who don’t really listen to their clients and don’t take the time to unearth their clients underlying interests and just adopt their positions. Believe it or not, this hurts the clients. Going through divorce is not always about the x’s and o’s (or the kids and property). It’s about preparing a person for life after divorce. It’s about preparing them for having to re-join the workforce or live on a reduced budget. It’s about teaching them how to be civil with their ex’s new girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s about empowering people to move on and re-invent themselves. If you fail to really listen to your client, you will not help them live beyond their final decrees.
Now, that being said, bad lawyers are not the only guilty parties here. When I hear this complaint, I can’t help but think back to some of my own clients who thought “they knew everything” and thought they knew what I should be saying and doing throughout their case. These are bad clients.
Clients who constantly tell their lawyers what to do and how to do it seem to completely ignore the fact that they are not repeat players in this game. When your divorce lawyer tells you something, something like, “the judge won’t care” or “this is not worth fighting about” or “that’s an unreasonable position” or “trust me on this one” or “I’m not saying that in this pleading”…Listen to them.
When they say these things, they are not trying to be condescending and they’re not ignoring your opinions. They are making a decision that you pay them lots of money to make. They are making a decision based on experience and a $100K plus education. They are making a decision based on the fact that you’re not their first client to say the same thing you are. Trust us: we’ve heard it all before.
When you question your attorney, you question their character and their judgment. And, you make it very difficult for them to want to help you. Think of it like this, how would you feel if we showed up to your office and told you how to do your job, every day, for a year? Not so fun, right?
Look, we get it; it’s your life, you have to deal with the results of your case forever. We understand it and we understand that you want us to understand you. However, you must trust that when we do those things like write letters, file motions and speak to the judge, we’re not just “winging-it.” We say and do what we do for a reason. We do it for a reason that is impossible for clients to understand because this is not what they do; it’s what we do. Everyday.
It’s funny when I see people for the first time after they have been “attorney shopping.” You can see it in their face. For some reason, they were hoping you were going to give them a different answer than the three other attorneys they spoke to earlier. They’re hoping you’re different. They’re hoping you will tell them exactly what they want to hear. WARNING: If a lawyer tells you something different than every other lawyer you have spoken with, chances are, they’re a bad lawyer.
When I tell them the same thing that they have heard all day, this is where the reality sets in. This is where they realize that the laws regarding divorce and child custody are pretty straightforward. This is hopefully where people begin to realize that there is no such thing as winning and losing. This is where people hopefully realize that the system and the law, that attorneys are sworn to obey, has been designed to be fair and equitable to both parties. This is hopefully where people begin to realize that being open and honest about their finances and their children is the best decision that they can make. This is hopefully where they start to put their past behind them and look forward to their future. That is the purpose of the law and that is the goal of your attorney.
Sometimes, you just have to trust that we know what’s best for you. That’s our job!
#5. I didn’t get what I wanted…my attorney didn’t fight for me.
Fortunately or unfortunately, family law cases are heavy decided based upon the facts of the case and parties’ credibility. Meaning, if your case goes to trial and you don’t get exactly what you want, it’s usually because the judge disagreed with your position or didn’t necessarily believe everything that you were saying.
Yes, it’s true that you may not have gotten what you wanted because of your lawyer. This, however, happens in very limited circumstances where an attorney is completely unprepared. Meaning, the attorney fails to have you speak about those issues and facts that are most relevant to your case. This, however, doesn’t usually happen.
And, even when it does, it doesn’t always matter. For example, I’ve seen cases where great lawyers have lost to awful lawyers who stumble around the courtroom as if they were lost. In fact, I’ve even seen cases where people without lawyers get everything they wanted even when the other party had an attorney. In truth, this happens all the time. It happens all the time because judges can generally see through the charade and look directly at the facts. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t, but very rarely do they get it wrong because of the lawyer.
For example, no matter how “good” your lawyer is, they can’t change the fact that you failed a drug test, or smacked your kid, or made more money that you actually said you did. We can’t convince a judge that you need maintenance even though you make 40K a year. We can’t change a judge’s mind that equal parenting time is in your children’s best interest when neither parent is unfit. Only you can.
As any good attorney will tell you, anytime you go in front of the judge, it’s like rolling the dice. Now, sometimes your facts give you slightly better odds, but there are rarely ever any slam dunks.
In fact, as my old law professor use to say, it’s a “Slam Dunk…80% of the time.”
So, next time you see yourself writing a letter to your attorney, threatening that you will fire them because of how your case has progressed…evaluate the situation, examine the reason for your unhappiness, and try to see what the problem actually is.