Managing Client Expectations in Family Law Matters - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Melissa A. Kucinski, Esq.

It is particularly difficult to manage a client’s expectations in an emotional family law case.  A new practitioner should be particularly attuned to several common situations with family law clients.

Dealing with client’s definition of “fair”
Clients may have a different definition of “fair” than our definition.  Family law cases are not one-size-fits-all.  A judge who hears anywhere from an hour to a few days worth of testimony and evidence, expertly vetted by lawyers, is not going to able to make the “fairest” decision to everyone.  They make the best decision that they are able to make given the small amount of information they have been provided.

How to explain rules of evidence
It is important to explain the rules of evidence well before the advent of trial preparation.  Clients may not understand why they cannot tell the judge what their child said to them, or produce a therapist’s report without the therapist testifying.

Dealing with the unknowns
Family law cases involve numerous unknown factors, including changes in the judge handling your case on the day of trial.  Each judge has a different viewpoint, and reasonable intelligent judges may reach different resolutions on the same facts.  A client needs to know the uncertainty that is inherent in taking a family law case to trial.

Dealing with mistaken notions
In family law cases, even the most consistent of behaviors change.  A parent may have no interest in his or her child for years, but as soon as a lawsuit is filed, that parent may want to play a major role in the child’s life.  Clients need to be prepared for this to happen.  If a lawyer goes into a case believing it to be simple and straight-forward based on the client’s representation that “all is well,” he or she may be surprised, and may have already done damage by validating the client’s initial belief that things will proceed simply.

Dealing with client’s pre-conceived notions of the legal system based on what they learn from Judge Judy, Law & Order, and Ally McBeal
The basis of many Americans’ views of the U.S. legal system comes from television.  This creates skewed expectations of your performance and the result that will likely occur.  A client may get frustrated and upset when his or her lawyer is not advocating in the manner in which he or she believes should be par for the course.  A lawyer needs to properly prepare his or her client prior to any trial so that the client knows exactly what to expect in court, the legal standard that the lawyer must meet to prove the client’s case, and the behavior expected of lawyers and clients in the courtroom.   

Dealing with the BIG question – “How much is this going to cost?”
Clients will often ask how much a case will cost.  Many clients need to take loans, against houses or retirement, or from family or friends.  As a lawyer, I have an obligation to conduct myself in a certain manner.  If a client asks me to cut corners, I need to truly assess whether the lawyer-client relationship is worth my professional reputation. 

Dealing with deadlines 
Both the court and statutes set strict deadlines by which a client must answer a complaint, respond to discovery, or appear in court.  A client needs to understand that depositions, court appearances, or responding to discovery will come before vacations, or other fun activities.  The client needs to plan in advance for deadlines. 

Dealing with the armchair lawyer as a client – what to expect when the client has a computer and knows how to use Google
It is not uncommon for a client to come into a lawyer-client relationship having some basic knowledge of the law.  A lawyer needs to be open about what information a client already has, ask where the client obtained information, and work on educating the client about the nuances of their case, and how each case is different. 

Dealing with the email conundrum
In the technology age, a client may become accustomed to a quick response time.   A lawyer needs to understand the client and the pattern of the client’s communication to assess what should be responded to on evenings and weekends, and what can be left until the next morning.  The lawyer should properly communicate his or her email policy and expectations to the client so that the client is not anticipating a response when one may not be forthcoming.

Educating clients about their legal options
A client needs to fully understand not only their legal options and what a court can and cannot give to them, but also have a reality test as to how different options may affect them.  The lawyer should not be afraid to ask a client difficult questions and make the client think about the end result. 

Dealing with emotions and how that affects what a client hears
When a person is experiencing dramatic emotion, they may not hear what their lawyer is actually saying.  A lawyer may need to repeat his or herself, put it in writing, and say it five different ways to ensure that a client heard and understood the law, the options, and how things are moving forward. 

Understanding options – ADR vs. litigation
Mediation is often ordered by U.S. courts in family law cases, so lawyers must also be adept at explaining mediation and its use in the overall case.  A lawyer must educate his client about the many options a client has short of litigation, and ensure that the right process for this client is selected.

Dealing with the court’s rules on withdrawing from a case
Many clients, and some lawyers, are completely unaware of their jurisdiction’s rules on withdrawing your name as counsel of record for a client.  Many jurisdictions require formal notice to a client followed by a motion, waiting the requisite time period to run before a court would rule on it.  Furthermore, if you are close to any hearing date, there is a good chance a judge will not grant the motion to withdraw your appearance.  A client may have a difficult time understanding why he or she cannot simply “fire” their lawyer and represent him or herself.  The lawyer must be absolutely clear about the process should the attorney-client relationship start to deteriorate.

Ensuring client cooperation in discovery and helping in case preparation
A client needs to be fully engaged, very communicative, and extremely helpful if their case is to succeed.  A lawyer must impart that information to the client during the first meeting.   It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort for a complete stranger (the lawyer) to become intimately familiar with all details of a client’s family life.

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