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Working with Your Family Law Attorney: Practical Tips for Surviving the Stress of Separation and Divorce
Friday, May 31, 2024

Multiple studies and respected authors agree – divorce is one of the most stressful life events any person can experience. 

After 34 years of practice in the family law field, I have represented many individuals who have successfully navigated a divorce or separation. Unfortunately, I have also seen many clients and opposing parties who ultimately struggle through a divorce far more than the average person. So, what separates those who survive this process relatively unscathed and those who do not? In my opinion, many factors are at play, including a person's baseline mental health issues, the support of family and friends, and finding competent professional help – especially your healthcare providers, accountants, and lawyers. In this article, I want to focus on how to work well with your family law attorney. Building and maintaining a sound attorney-client relationship unquestionably helps in your fight to survive the stress of separation and divorce. 

Tips for Working Effectively with Your Family Law Attorney

After years of marital challenges, your spouse has decided to leave you and the marital home. Who should you choose to represent you? Well, this is easy, right? You reach out to your friends and family close by and ask them, "Who is the "bulldog" family law attorney in town?" You hire that person straight away and never look back. Piece of cake… Well, that may not always be true – in fact, hiring the "meanest" family law attorney in town may not (often is not) be the best approach. Here are a few thoughts you may want to consider when trying to select the attorney with whom you will work best. 

  1. Identify the qualities you are looking for in an attorney
    Before you meet with any potential attorney, write down three important characteristics you believe you want and need in your legal representation. For example – Does responsiveness matter; do you need someone who is very empathic; is it important to you that your attorney be practical and mindful of how "legal dollars" are being spent, or do I just want someone who will fight, at every step of the way, regardless of cost? None of these characteristics are especially bad or flawed, it is more about finding the attorney whom you believe will best support you and advocate for your identified goals. Oh yes, it is important that you identify goals – but be prepared that you may need to alter goals as your case progresses.
     
  2. Ask family and friends
    Use this strategy as one consideration, not the single deciding factor, when selecting your legal representation. Opinions are okay, but someone who was a good fit for your BFF might not be the best fit for you.
     
  3. Schedule initial consultations with at least two, and preferably three, attorneys.
    There is a cost that comes with this approach. In my opinion it is money well spent. Yes, there still are a few family law attorneys (not many) who do not charge a consultation fee. In my experience, these attorneys almost always fall into two categories – newly admitted practitioners who need to build a book of business or individuals with a less than stellar reputation. Yes, every lawyer starts somewhere, but I tend to recommend avoiding these attorneys, except in the most basic cases. If your case is complex, you should seek out experienced legal counsel. Initial consultations are the time to ask questions of the attorney – their experience with cases similar to yours, billing practices, hourly rates and retainer requirements, responsiveness, communication preferences, and who else makes up the team supporting the attorney.

    You should leave the consultation with answers to these questions, an understanding of how this attorney approaches family law litigation, and some additional knowledge about how the law might be applied to your particular situation. I cannot emphasize enough – "fit" is very important. Use the consultation to analyze where this might be a good fit for you. Experienced practitioners undertake the same analysis. I have declined representation when I questioned whether I would be a "good fit" for a prospective client.

Strategies for Enhancing Your Lawyer's Efficiency

Once you select an attorney, here are a few tips to effectively put your financial resources (legal fees) to work and how to maximize your attorney's effectiveness.

  1. Utter truthfulness
    No matter what the issue might be or how embarrassing or apprehensive it may be to tell your attorney everything, this is absolutely essential to a successful attorney-client relationship. Good attorneys ask the question – "Is there anything else we have not yet touched on that you think I should know." This is the time to pull back the curtain and tell your attorney everything and anything you think may be important. Do not avoid facts simply because you believe those facts may not help your case. Your attorney needs to know all of the relevant facts – good and bad. Also, do not share facts that you (perhaps mistakenly) believe are not important. I see better outcomes for clients who share more rather than less.
     
  2. Communication
    First, you and your attorney should agree on preferred means of communication. For most, it is email. This is the most efficient method for the law firm to retain records of communications. Some attorneys refuse to communicate by text messaging. Personally, I communicate with some clients via text, but I insist that any substantive communications about the case must be through email, not text. Effective communication is more than just the method of communication. Effective communication involves managing the frequency of your inquiries to your attorney. If you email your attorney once each day for 5 days in a row asking, in each, a single, non-urgent question, expect to see five time entries on your next bill – one for each day. Each entry will read something like, "Receipt, review, and response to client email regarding ___[insert particular question subject matter]___ concerns." If you instead save up those five questions and send them in a single email, there will be a one-time entry. The time associated with the single entry is typically less than the total for five separate time entries.
     
  3. Ask the "why" questions
    After 34 years in practice, I am occasionally guilty of neglecting the "why" explanation – and truly appreciate it when a client asks me, "Why?" It tells me the client is engaged and wants to understand the reason(s) for various options and recommendations. As the consumer, the response to your "why" questions is critical. Your attorney should be able to articulate the rationale and basis for his or her recommendations. If they can't, or if they offer a "just because," you should question whether the attorney-client relationship is working as well as it could.
     
  4. Organization
    Some clients are far more organized than others. Some love spreadsheets, while others embrace an organizational model of stuffing multiple large plastic bins with hundreds or thousands of pages of wholly unorganized documents. Experienced attorneys have dealt with all ends of the "organizational spectrum." A truly well-organized client may have less legal expense as there is a cost to review and organize multiple boxes of materials. However, if you are not terribly well organized in your day-to-day life, do not think you will suddenly become a well-organized human being – especially in the throes of a divorce. I have seen clients try and fail miserably in this area – to the point that I cannot move a case forward because I am waiting for my client to provide documents to me. It is better to acknowledge your challenges with organizational skills and make it clear to your attorney that they will need to organize for you. We do this all the time!
     
  5. Listen carefully to your attorney's recommendations.
    The best attorneys touch on three elements when strategizing with a client:
    1. Options;
    2. Expected or possible consequences for each option; and
    3. The attorney's recommendation as to which option(s) seem to be best aligned with the client's goals. 

    You should follow the recommended path if you agree with your attorney's analysis. If you do not agree, then you and your attorney need to discuss the issue further. Ultimately, other than certain ethical and procedural issues that must or should be made by your attorney, decisions about your case – and how it progresses – are yours to make. It is very common that those around you – family, friends, casual acquaintances - want to offer their advice and guidance or, better yet, tell you exactly what you should or should not do and what you are entitled to in a divorce. I do my best to empower clients not to ignore, but at the same time, be very cautious with these "gratuitous" offers of advice. Most often, the person offering the advice is well-intended. However, no two divorces are the same, so "comparisons" are, at best, not terribly beneficial and frequently dangerous. This is not to say that a piece of advice from a family member or friend might resonate with you. In this instance you should discuss this with your attorney. I am always willing to engage in a discussion with a client about the advice from a "friend."
     

  6. If the relationship is not working, speak up.
    Do not internalize these thoughts, as they will only add to the stress you already are experiencing. Also, if you need more of something from your attorney, ask for it. For example, it is not unusual for a family law attorney to update a client only when there is something substantive to report. If you prefer more frequent updates, then ask for this – your attorney should honor this request – after all, the attorney is working for you. Again, communication is the key – throughout the attorney-client relationship, do not hesitate to share with your attorney what you think will work best for you. 

I hope these tips assist you in reducing the stress surrounding a separation or divorce.

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