How to Be a Successful Family Law Client
What do family and divorce law attorneys look for when it comes to selecting their clients?
Written by: Stefano Ceroni
If you’re reading this question and you’re not an attorney, then I anticipate that you may be a bit taken aback. Specifically, you may be wondering if I incorrectly confused the word’s “attorneys” and “clients.”
The truth is, this would be a natural reaction of almost anybody because the general presumption is that clients are the ones who choose their attorneys, not vice versa. And, generally speaking, this presumption is not wrong. It’s just… incomplete.
What do I mean?
Well, the formation of the attorney-client relationship is not always a one way street. Yes, it’s true, clients are allowed to shop around and interview multiple attorneys before they decide to hire one. However, it is also true that an attorney is not obligated to accept as a client anyone who walks in the door.
What? You mean, not all lawyers are desperate to retain as many clients as possible?
Well, at least not the good ones!
Why Attorneys are Picky When Choosing Their Family Law Clients
The truth is, attorneys are oftentimes as selective as clients are when it comes to choosing a good match. The reason being, attorneys know just how difficult it can be to maintain a relationship of trust and respect with emotionally charged clients that are incapable of helping themselves.
Attorneys, especially family and divorce attorneys, are keenly aware of the impact litigation can have on a client’s emotions. As a result, they know that clients are not always going to be able to set aside their emotions in order to make rational and logical decisions and assessments.
Why does this matter?
Well, just because clients are making their decisions based on their emotions doesn’t mean we, as attorneys, should do the same. In fact, what clients often fail to realize is that they are specifically paying us for our independent and unbiased counsel, not our blind support of their emotionally influenced positions.
Your Family Law Attorney’s Real Job
What? Isn’t my attorney supposed to zealously advocate for everything I want?
Well, not exactly.
Of course, it is the job of an attorney to represent the interests of his or her clients. This job, however, also means that we have a duty to advise our client’s when what they want is not in line with their best interests.
What do you mean? How can what the client want not be in their best interests?
Well, that’s exactly my point. Clients almost always fail to realize that just because they want something doesn’t mean pursuing it is in their best interest. The job of a good attorney is to counsel their clients when their wants and interests begin to conflict. In fact, this is probably the most important reason for hiring us; not just to represent you against someone else, but to represent you against yourself.
The fact is, no matter how stoic family law clients can be, they are always going to be emotionally invested in their case. The advantage of your attorney is that he or she can remove emotions from the equation and give you the advice that you truly need, even when you do not think you need it.
This is why attorneys are called “counselors at law.” Our job has never been to blindly assist our clients in achieving all of their goals. Rather, it has always been to counsel our clients on the facets of the law and provide them with the best advice and options before they make their decisions. Meaning, sometimes your attorney has to tell you to fold’em, even though you think you should stick around for the long shot runner-runner.
Anyway, back to my original point, attorneys (at least good attorneys) are always evaluating their potential clients just like clients are doing to them.
“Help Me Help YOU!”
Well, there is nothing more frustrating to an attorney than continuing to try and help clients who simply do not want or appreciate our help and are incapable of helping themselves.
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about those clients who refuse to heed our warnings or consider our advice…or worse yet, blame us for the problems that were caused by them. These are the clients who cannot handle their emotions in their cases. These are the clients who ask us to blindly follow their lead, even when we know exactly where their decisions are going to lead them. These are the clients who think they do not need our advice. These are the clients all attorneys try to avoid.
And, there are warning signs!
1. If you have gone through three (3) lawyers and you still haven’t resolved a single issue in your case, we know to watch out.
2. Or, if you think you’re an angel and your spouse is the devil, and you won’t settle for anything less than their annihilation, we know to watch out.
So, what’s my real point?
Well, my point is, in order for you to have a successful attorney-client relationship that truly yields you a successful result (even if you won’t realize it until later), you will have to become cognizant of how your own actions can affect your case. Meaning, we want you to understand not just what you expect from us, but what we expect from you.
Honestly, I think Jerry Maguire said it best when talking to Rod Tidwell, and every day we say to ourselves:
“Help me…help you!”
If you can do this, you will definitely be on the way to establishing a good attorney-client relationship.
(If you want to see the clip from Jerry Macguire, watch below, but WARNING – there is a BRIEF flash of Cuba Gooding’s behind (nudity) at the very end of the segment. Coincidentally, the end of the segment is the best part – not because of the nudity, but because of what Rod Tidwell tells Jerry Macguire.)
What Attorneys Want in a Client
So, what are we, the attorneys, looking for in our clients?
In order to answer that question as easily as possible, I put together a list of adjectives/skills that I feel all great clients’ should possess:
Articulate- you need to be able to clearly and precisely explain both the facts of your case and your positions. The more difficult it is for you to articulate your arguments, the more difficult it becomes for us. Remember, we cannot testify for you at trial…that is up to you.
Compromising- if you are unwilling or unable to compromise on anything, then you will never be happy. It is extremely unusual for any party to get everything they want in a family law case. So, if you are unwilling to compromise in your positions, then you will have a very difficult time reaching any agreements or resolving any issues short of trial. This, in turn, will likely cause you to incur so many legal fees that even if you are successful on some issues, you will almost certainly be disappointed in your empty bank account at the end of your case.
Controlled-simply put, a good client knows how to control their emotions. Now, this does not mean that you need to be completely emotionless. However, you cannot allow your emotions to enrage, frustrate or overwhelm you to the point where you cannot make rational decisions and reason effectively. Being in control means not being suckered into the fool’s game of doing something just to “tick-off” the opposing party; once this game is started, nobody wins.
Organized-all legal cases require the production and evaluation of a lot of paperwork. Clients who are organized (both in their documents and their thoughts) make our jobs much easier. No attorney has the time to babysit their clients while they sift through all of their important financial documents. So, take your time, organize your documents, try to have a good understanding as to what it is you think your documents show, and then fill us in.
Not –Unreasonable-this is a biggie. There is nothing more difficult than representing an unreasonable client. Trust your attorney on this one, if they are telling you your positions are unreasonable, listen to them and save everyone the stress of fighting for something that a judge will not order.
Noble-having good morals and choosing not to play dirty is an attribute that all attorneys look for. Mudslinging and unnecessary name calling may not bother you, but it does bother your attorney. No attorney wants to put their own career and professional reputation on the line just because you are pissed at your ex. Clients who want us to do this are not good clients and attorneys who do this are not good attorneys. All it does is add fuel to an already acrimonious situation, which is never a good thing.
Truthful-please do not lie to your attorney. When you lie to your attorney you put both your case and their reputation at jeopardy. Trust me, if you are lying to your attorney, chances are, they will eventually find out. And, when they do, you will soon be without them.
Appreciative-this one is hard, but trust me, it goes a long way. Once you hire an attorney, they become invested in your case right along with you. They stay up late, wake-up early, work overtime and sometimes talk to you on their weekends. They know you are counting on them to do a good job. Acknowledge the work they do, especially when they go the extra mile.
Benevolent (not belligerent)-believe it or not, yelling and screaming in family matters is usually the worst thing you can do in your case. Be kind. Be kind to your ex, be kind to your kids and be kind to the judge. If you’re not, chances are, it will come back to bite you.
Logical-judges are lawyers; they took the LSAT, they graduated from law school and they passed the Bar exam. In order to do so, they had to master the science of logical reasoning. This means they like to think logically. So, if you find yourself making conclusions and taking positions that defy logical explanation, check yourself, or your judge will.
Evaluative-this one is all about perspective. Good clients put themselves in the place of the judge and try to see things from an un-biased perspective. If done right, this will help the clients understand the other party’s positions and interests, which will, in turn, promote compromise and settlement. If a client is unable to accurately evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own case, they make their attorney’s job much more difficult.
Last, but not least, be A-C-C-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E. As an attorney, there is nothing more frustrating than a client who fails to take accountability for their own actions. If you did drugs, hit your kids or lied about your finances, don’t come crying to your attorney when the judge rules against you. Do judges make mistakes? Absolutely! Do attorneys do bad work? You bet! However, for the most part, family law cases are won and lost (if you can even consider it that) on the individual facts of each case. Whose responsible for those? That’s right…the client!
So, when you screw up during the middle of your case, take ownership of it, acknowledge it, and become accountable. You never know, it may even win you some favor with your judge.