January 22, 2019 Practice Management

Practicing Family Law with Civility: Pit Bull or Golden Retriever? Be a “Golden” Family Law Attorney

By Elise F. Buie

In his book The Soul of the Law (Element, 1994), former litigator turned psychotherapist Benjamin Sells discusses “winning.” He writes that a lawyer who attempts to win a case by any means necessary “is mimicking conduct from a time when might literally made right. When the legal profession places winning over altruistic ideals, it is returning to its barbaric roots.”

The return of barbarism in the context of winner-take-all litigation endangers the very ends the legal mind seeks to ensure. If winning supplants idealism, then anarchy, the law’s great enemy, must follow, as all sides do whatever is necessary to win. The argument that the quest for winning is proper so long as it is carried out “within the rules” is simply another way of saying the end is justified by the means.

The Pit Bull Attorney

A pit bull attorney in the field of family law is impulsive, short-sighted, and aggressive. A pit bull attorney often believes the client is paying for aggressive tactics, so these lawyers do not act as “counselors at law.” The pit bull sees no merit nor value in their “counselor at law” role. These lawyers refuse to counsel their clients on the consequences of their actions or whether their desired course of action would harm their family. Sometimes, the pit bull attorney simply has troubling personality traits often stemming from their own mental health issues and/or issues related to anger or substance abuse. These aggressive attorneys practice incivility in their day-to-day communication; they are rude, demeaning, patronizing, and stir up conflict with their tone and word choice. The pit bull views each interaction as a win or a loss. That win/loss attitude not only hurts the client, but it erodes the entire profession. Sells writes, “Can there be any doubt that such attitudes eat away at the lawyer, eroding the banks of morality?” Winning at all costs creates a breeding ground for post-dissolution revenge and conflict, as well as family-wide, continued psychological harm. This type of winning at all costs, simply put, profoundly harms families.

The Golden Retriever Attorney

A golden retriever attorney in the field of family law is wise, forward-thinking, and measured. A golden retriever’s zone of genius is in that role as “counselor at law.” Golden retrievers mentor and counsel their clients on what is right and fair in certain situations. Golden retrievers understand their client’s heart and goals as well as their opponent’s heart and goals so that they can construct a win-win when negotiating with the other party. Golden retriever attorneys explain the court’s mandate to make decisions in the best interest of the children. A golden retriever explains equity in family law and the court’s view of fairness given the law and the equity of the facts. Golden retriever attorneys educate their client on respectful conflict-resolution techniques and model these techniques in their interaction with other attorneys.

Five Steps to Becoming a Golden Family Law Attorney

Here are five transformative, immediate steps to go from a pit bull family law attorney to a wise Golden Family Law Attorney:

  1. Listen, listen, listen. Listen more, talk less—we all have heard this advice before. It is worth repeating: listen more, talk less. Stop interrupting clients when they are speaking. Listen for the client’s feelings—feelings drive decisions. Repeat what was heard back to your client. Acknowledge what the client has said. Look for nonverbal cues. These simple steps will provide you endless knowledge in the representation. The main reason to listen more and talk less is so that the client will feel understood and cared about. That feeling alone will diminish the conflict and the negativity.
  2. Educate, educate, educate. Every consult is a “teachable moment.” As a family law attorney, there are so many great resources out there to share with the client on conflict resolution, co-parenting, stepfamilies, etc. When I do consults in my practice, I give everyone The Co-Parenting Handbook (Balboa, 2015) by my friend and “co-parenting ninja,” Karen Bonnell. It provides a great starting point for parents to explore what skillful co-parenting can and should look like by providing a common vocabulary and common goals. If I am doing a consult with someone who is already involved in a new relationship, I am now able to share Karen’s newest book, The Stepfamily Handbook (CreateSpace, 2018), which will help the client understand the impact of that new relationship on everyone else’s emotions. I also encourage my clients to learn about high-conflict personalities from the works of Bill Eddy (president of the High Conflict Institute) so that they can better understand the possibilities and the pitfalls. Another way we educate clients is by offering “e-mail revisions” to help clients learn to send non-triggering e-mails/texts to their soon-to-be-ex spouse. We teach our clients to avoid some of the pitfalls such as “you always” or “you never” or “as I have said a million times before.” We also teach Bill Eddy’s concept of BIFF (Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm) to help clients communicate effectively and respectfully even in a high-conflict relationship.
  3. Encourage counseling for clients. Counseling is yet another tool in the toolbox of the wise Golden Family Law Attorney. Encouraging clients to work through the understandably tough emotional aspects of divorce in counseling so that they can make sound, logical decisions in the divorce process will help diminish the conflict in the divorce. Divorce counseling will help empower the client to develop a successful and fulfilling life after divorce. Divorce counseling will also help minimize the impact of the divorce on the children. Lastly, divorce counseling will help clients better understand what mistakes they might have made in the relationship so that those same mistakes can be avoided in their next relationship.
  4. Teach constructive communication skills. The wise Golden Family Law Attorney teaches constructive communication skills and models those skills with all the professionals involved in the case. Bill Eddy has pioneered a new co-parenting class entitled “New Ways for Families,” which strives to teach four important skills: Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behaviors, and Checking Yourself. This class is designed to assist both parents in developing a better co-parenting relationship. Remember, co-parenting is not a competitive sport. These same, important skills are applicable to the professional communication as well. As in all relationships, communication is a key factor. Again, Bill Eddy’s concept of BIFF is invaluable.
  5. Flex the “counselor at law” muscles. By practicing steps 1 to 4 above, the “counselor at law” muscles will strengthen, thereby empowering clients to reach the highest emotional intelligence possible so that they can gracefully glide through the divorce process, protecting the children and themselves from future conflict. An attorney is in the unique role as legal technician and counselor at law. Too many attorneys focus only on the technician side, forgetting how important emotions and feelings are to decision making, especially when dealing with family law clients. Understanding a client’s feelings and blind spots will revolutionize your practice and your ability to advise the client not from a place of fear and aggression but from a place of measured, forward-thinking wisdom.

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Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC (elisebuiefamilylaw.com), in Seattle, Washington. Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, and guardian ad litem work, and she strives to bring civility into her professional world through each and every interaction.