In the same fashion, a client who is angry and just wants to get back at a spouse likewise is a detriment and makes representing him or her difficult. Anger is a very natural part of the grieving process that all people go through in a dissolution, some to a bigger extent than others. Some lawyers encourage and feed off a client’s anger, which ultimately is not in the client’s best interest; after all, your client, and his or her ex-spouse if children are involved, must still deal with each other, which may be more difficult depending upon how the dissolution has proceeded. Keeping anger in check will work to your client’s benefit. If a client’s anger is unabated, he or she can irreparably harm the case, especially if custody is at issue.
Counseling clients as to the pitfalls of email and text communication is essential at the outset of any case. Many times, clients will communicate by text message or email because it is very easy to spout off on anything behind the screen of the computer or phone. However, such communication is in writing and may become evidence in the case. Clients should be told not to put anything in writing that they wouldn’t want their grandmothers to see.
Cases can become either a pleasure or a nightmare depending upon opposing counsel. Given the choice between a seasoned, experienced attorney and a lawyer who has no idea what he or she is doing, most attorneys will choose the experienced lawyer, who will likely be beneficial to the process. That lawyer will know how to evaluate a case and counsel his or her client. Typically, the experienced lawyer creates a much more professional atmosphere without unnecessarily ratcheting up tensions. However, we also know there are experienced lawyers who ratchet tensions up for no apparent reason. Try to steer clear of them.
Your Strengths and Limitations
When representing any client, you must be mindful of your strengths and limitations. If you are not familiar with an issue in a case, you have an ethical obligation to educate yourself regarding that issue or to bring someone in to help you. See Model Rules of Professional Conduct, rule 1.1, Competency. This equally applies if you are brought in to co-counsel a case with a less-experienced attorney. Do not let the less- experienced attorney make decisions outside the realm of his or her expertise. A matrimonial lawyer is often asked to be a jack-of- all-trades, given the complexity of different financial issues we face in our cases, from complex compensation structures to trusts and estates. However, the danger of being a jack-of-all-trades is that we may miss a nuance that a professional, trained in that area, would be familiar with. That nuance could be very costly to your client. Do not hesitate to recommend and consult with additional professionals should they be needed.
Many clients come into your office with preset expectations of the dissolution process and the expected outcome of their cases. Educating your clients about the process and a reasonable range of outcomes is imperative in managing their expectations. This should be done proactively, starting with the very first meeting. Allowing clients to articulate their expectations prior to educating them results in clients questioning what you are saying and putting you in a defensive posture instead of being an authority on the subject.
Clients need to be given the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t sugarcoat anything. Many lawyers try to soft pedal the bad news at an initial conference for fear of losing the client. You may, however, be setting yourself up for later problems when you do have to deliver the bad news. Your client will have more respect for you and listen to your advice if he or she feels you are being honest.
While some of the expectations a client develops are self-generated, more often than not, they come from some well- or not-so-well-meaning friends, family, and acquaintances. How many times have you had a case where a client has come in and told you about what she heard from a friend who just went through a divorce or what she just read on the Internet? These outside influences are the bane of a lawyer’s existence. Often it seems we spend more time dispelling clients of crazy notions they have garnered from other people or read on the Internet. Educating the client about the process from the start will help dispel a lot of these notions right away. Giving your client the information will obviate the need for him or her to seek it from other sources. Clients need to be informed that divorce cases are not a matter of one size fits all. While a client’s best friend may have been able to keep the marital residence, the friend’s assets may be very different from your client’s assets in terms of asset structure and value. The initial conference should be spent educating these clients about what the law of your state provides, as well as the divorce process.
Sometimes Just Say No
It is wise to remember that not every client should be represented by you. There may be times when you and the client don’t mesh or the client is asking you to do something that you find abhorrent. You have no obligation to represent such clients and should discourage them from hiring you. Do not tell them that you are not taking new cases at this time, as that is something that is likely to get out in the public and could prevent you from getting cases in the future. Be honest. Tell them that not all attorneys and clients mesh. Above all, trust your gut instinct with people. If your gut is telling you not to do it, then don’t.
The key to representing your clients well is transparency. Over-inform your clients. Talk to them. Don’t hide behind email. fa