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April 26, 2022 Health and Wellness

Healthy Boundaries for Family Law Professionals

By: Andrea Cozza and Andy Wilson

The after-hours calls.  The demands for immediate attention to matters that aren’t urgent.  The “this meeting could have been an email.”  Such is the life in the highly emotional world of family litigation.  The very nature of an adversarial process can cause clients to react in ways they would not in other situations, and the source of their frustration can quickly become targeted at their lawyer. Knowing that family law attorneys – and attorneys in general – have higher rates of suicide, depression, and mental illness than other professions, we wish to offer a few tips on preventative ways to help your clients maintain a healthy boundary with you, so that you can be a zealous – but more importantly healthy – advocate. 

The gist of our tips below are to help create healthy boundaries with clients at the onset of your relationship, because a client who knows what to expect from you as a lawyer, and from the litigation process, should make for a more positive and less stressful experience for both you and your client.  Clients benefit too because clear expectations usually save them money.  With a touch of levity, here are some preventative tips to help keep you as the practitioner from succumbing to the stress of a tough case.

  1. “Your emergency isn’t the court’s emergency.” Discuss what your court defes a an emergency and what isn’t.  We’ve all been there when a child is late to pickup, or a check bounces, and our clients panic.  We’ve all gotten the “fix this now” message after-hours and on weekends.  (And in many cases, they want repercussions on the other party as well.)  If a missed appointment or a disagreement over an activity does not warrant emergency relief in your jurisdiction, explain that clearly to the client as early on as possible.  You can empathize with their situation, document the misconduct, and create a long-term strategy.  But they should be aware that a 7pm phone call over a backpack that was left at school is not something that Judge So-and-so is going clear their schedule to address the next day, as upset as the client may be.  
  2. “This can probably wait.” To that end, talk about timing of non-emergencies in court.  If it typically takes 8-12 months from filing to final hearing in your jurisdiction, share that with your client.  If a motion for temporary financial support generally isn’t heard for months due a lack of hearing dates, let your clients know that as well.  It simply isn’t possible for any court to micro-manage an acrimonious relationship, so be transparent with clients about not only what the likely outcome might be, but when it might happen.  Perhaps they would rather get to a final hearing than delay the process with motion practice. 
  3.  "Time is money, and more time with me means less money for you.”  Explain to clients that there is a cost to wanting attention.  While being an armchair therapist for a client is often reassuring to them, it probably isn’t the best bang for their buck.  Sometimes it takes the first month’s bill to show a client that sending 6 emails a day is not cost-effective for them.  If there are emotional issues, perhaps suggest a therapist on their insurance plan who might be a better source for the client’s frustration.  Consider adding a clause to your retainer agreements that messages sent after 7pm or on weekends, to which the client wants a response, are billed at a higher hourly rate. And if “hand-holding” is not a recoverable expense in a case where fees are litigated, warn the client that as much as you may enjoy their venting, it may very well be on their dime at the end of the day. 
  4. “Did you ask them first?”  Who can relate to this: “My partner is supposed to pay the lawn person every month and I just found out it wasn’t paid!  How can they get away with this?  They need to pay NOW!”  Many times, the situation comes down to communication – did you discuss the expense first?  Is this a normal and customary expense that was paid before the relationship broke down?  Did the client provide a clear receipt?  While there are cases where parties simply shouldn’t speak, that is the exception and not the norm.  In custody cases, courts may consider how parents communicate – do they talk to each other, or do they run to their lawyers and communicate through motion practice?  How does operating this way affect a possible fee claim against the other side or their ability to coparent?  Clients should be warned that forgetting to use common sense or refusing to discuss things with their co-parent or partner usually hurts them in the long-run.  Either they get what they want, or they don’t, but they’ve documented a perhaps unreasonable position that may help them in the future. 
  5.  “Think about what this costs.”  Along the same vein, how many times have we gotten the upset email saying that so-and-so didn’t pay the $25.00 copay for their child’s dentist appointment, demanding that you get them reimbursed?   If you charge $250.00 per hour, simply reading the email cost more than the amount of money owed.  If you email the other side, that’s potentially another .1, at which point your $50 exercise cost more than the $25 copay.  It is a luxury to be able to afford a lawyer for most of the country, and still, it makes no financial sense to ask a lawyer to file a motion over something that costs less than the fees to obtain it.  Advise your clients to keep a running tab and loop you in every few weeks for anything that is a large expense, a pattern, or comes with a nasty message.  
  6. “Put it in the burn book.” (Paraphrasing “Mean Girls, dir. Mark Waters, 2004).  Who has a client that sends you daily updates on everything their former or soon-to-be-ex partner does that upsets them?  Today the child’s hair wasn’t brushed at school, yesterday they forgot a water bottle, last week they fed them fast food twice in one week.  And every time that happens, they want to keep their lawyer in the loop.  It’s a great idea to document the day-to-day, particularly in contested custody cases, so that you can prepare examinations at deposition and trial and not lose track of the details.  However, there’s likely no reason for their daily diary to be sent to their lawyer who then has to bill to read it.  Coach your clients on keeping a log of issues, by date (along with proof via emails, messages, or online parenting software), and have them send it to you with a frequency that works for you.
  7.  “Not on my time!”  Set aside time for yourself.  Use your “Out of Office” message or notices of unavailability to ensure you are taking sufficient “me-time” to recharge and refocus.  Use the lunch hour to take a walk and leave your phone in the office.  Carve out time before or after typical work hours where your phone is not in your hands or is silenced to work emails.  Avoid checking your emails right before bedtime to avoid the inevitable raised heartrate, desire to “clap back” at opposing counsel, or engage in a conversation that can wait until morning.  Your body and mind will thank you.
  8. “Let Me Address Your Concerns.”  When a client expresses a concern to you about your representation of them or about time devoted to their case, address those concerns promptly so they do not fester and become more problematic for you in the future.  Whether it is justified or not, timely respond and come up with a plan of action to address these concerns moving forward that will satisfy both you and the client. That may mean you need to withdrawal from the case if the fit is not right for you and the client or, perhaps, it means making changes in how you or your client acts in the case to help better meet or manage expectations.
  9. “What Is Coming Up?”  Keep the client and your office staff informed of upcoming deadlines such as affidavit due dates, discovery deadlines, and trial deadlines. Get notice out to the client for these things as early as possible with sample forms if you have them. This allows your client plenty of time to work on gathering information or documentation you may need from them to prepare various court documents and makes the client less stressed and without a time crunch.  It also minimizes the chances that your staff is going to have the documentation provided to them by the client at the last second before the deadline. 
  10.      “I Will Soon Be Out of the Office.” Anticipate upcoming issues with your calendar such as vacation dates and trials, which will make you unavailable. If you know that you have a client who requires more handholding than the average client, notify the client in advance of your time out of the office in order to answer any concerns they may have before you leave for vacation or start a lengthy trial.  This will reduce the interruptions to your vacation and reduce panicked calls and emails from the client that realizes you will not be accessible for a week when they need you.  Also, direct them to the staff member they can call if something does come up in your absence and reassure them that this person will do everything they can to assist with any concerns that arise while you are gone so they know someone is there for them if needed.

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Andy Wilson

Esq., Ft Lauderdale, FL

Young Berman Karpf & Karpf PA

ABA FLS Health and Wellness Committee Co-Chair

Andrea Cozza

Esq., Westerville, OH

Treneff Cozza Law, LLC

ABA FLS Health and Wellness Committee Co-Chair