A spouse or parent walks into an attorney’s office with a “relationship” problem: he isn’t getting along with his wife and wants out of the marriage; she and the child’s father disagree over how much time he should spend with that child. Such problems don’t have an obvious or correct solution; rather, to resolve them will require an understanding of the dynamics of way the parties’ relate to each other, with the attorney attempting to help them achieve a new dynamic in which the parties can interact as parents of a child or ex-spouses in a manner that enables some stability. If, at the end of the attorney’s representation, the client has not achieved what he or she perceives of as a stable situation, that client will not be happy no matter the actual legal resolution of the problem.
As I tell my family law clients, “it’s not within my abilities to make you happy; it’s my job to try to get you to a place where you can be happy.” A man who comes in thinking he needs custody of his child may simply need a feeling of validation for his role as a father and, if I can help him reach this goal, he will probably be satisfied. A woman who comes in thinking she wants vengeance upon a cheating husband may simply need a sense that her financial well being will survive the end of her marriage and, if I can help her achieve financial stability, she will probably be satisfied. Meanwhile a parent who comes in wanting “victory” may find such victory does not achieve peace but merely is “Act I” of a multi-act play. with little time elapsing before the other party files a modification action.
Since I charge by the hour for all of my contested family law work, the amount of my ultimate bill is highly dependant upon the amount of time it takes for me to help my client reach a resolution in which he or she can be satisfied. Starting with similar fact patterns and ending with similar results, my ultimate bill for cases can easily range by a factor of ten. Sometimes I review my final bill and think that my client achieved great results–a reasonable resolution of a problem that will be stable over years–with a minimal charge. Other times, I review my final bill and feel discouraged that my client has spent so much money to achieve a result that I do not believe will remain stable. There are various reasons that some cases resolve inexpensively with a stable result while others resolve with an unstable result at great expense, but I think three reasons predominate.
The biggest distinction between clients who end up with stable results at minimal charge and those who don’t is the spirit my client (and the other party) takes into the conflict. My best clients understand that family law issues involve a dynamic and that their feelings are not the only ones that matter. The parent of a child can expect to be dealing with the other parent long after my representation ends and their child is likely to desire a good relationship with each of them. A client who understands this will understand that a resolution that leaves the other parent feeling undervalued or leaves the child feeling torn between the parents is neither ideal nor stable. I have seen too many cases in which one party has desired and achieved total “victory” in a custody case at great expense only to see the children feeling alienated and the other parent gearing up for round two. In these situations my client can never relax because every action he or she takes will need to be analyzed through a prism of its impact upon a subsequent modification action. “Victory” without peace and with continuous stress is no one’s idea of success.
Twice in the past two weeks I have resolved child related cases at minimal expense–minimal in the sense that my bill easily could have been ten or twenty times greater had the case been heavily contested–because my client had a generous attitude towards the other parent and the child. In each case opposing counsel was surprised not only at how easily the case resolved but also at how confident I was that the case would resolve easily. Yet my confidence wasn’t naive; I simply knew that my clients were prepared to make generous offers–perhaps even overly generous offers–because they placed some value upon their child’s happiness and upon their child’s relationship with the other parent. While I advised both clients that their offers were probably better than the other party might expect to achieve through litigation–I believe the Rules of Professional Conduct require I provide such counsel–in neither case did I discourage them from making the offer. I applaud the client who has the sense to know that the good will resulting from a generous attitude has lasting value while the extra money that client pays me to fight for victory is money gone forever.
The second major distinction is that a good client allows me to focus on long-term goals. Especially in cases involving children, part of what needs to happen during the litigation process is that the parties need to learn how to interact with each other as parents even though they are no longer in a romantic relationship. I try to stay out of the minutia of “where are we going to meet for visitation exchange this weekend” or “do I allow him to pick up our son this evening or tomorrow morning,” feeling that such micromanaging of parenting issues is counterproductive and that the parties need to learn to negotiate these issues between themselves. Keeping the focus on the long-term goals–what sort of relationship should the children have with each parent that will allow them stability and safety while maintaining a loving relationship with both parents; what income and property will my client need to live a life of dignity–holds down costs and leads to stability.
Sometimes–rarely–there will be situations in which total “victory” in custody is required. One cannot coparent with someone mired in serious mental illness or substance addiction. Yet in most cases, parents will be coparenting long after my representation ends and it is during the litigation process that they need to learn how to coparent. Often at the start of a domestic dispute one or both parties will need a cooling-off period in which such micromanaging is necessary in order that even minimal stability is achieved and so that some trust can begin to redevelop. However, when six months into a custody case I am still being asked to get involved in disputes over whether to switch weekends to accommodate some special event, one or both parents are failing to develop skills they should have been encouraged to develop. An unstable and expensive resolution is likely.
The final major distinction is that a good client takes an active role in his or her case. There are numerous ways my client can assist me. Much of the basic fact gathering is easily obtained by my clients and the best clients allow me to teach them a bit about what I believe the court will find meaningful in their situation and help me locate such meaningful information. In contrast some clients will simply overwhelm me with a constant barrage of information while asking me to try to sift the meaningful from the irrelevant. One reason my web site contains a numerous and growing list of frequently asked questions is my desire to help my clients distinguish which information is most germane to their case. A client can also take an active role by developing an understanding of what result will need to be achieved in order for him or her to be satisfied. A client who simply tells me “get me the most time with my kid that you can” or “get me as much property as I am entitled to” is basically forcing me to prepare for protracted litigation and trial. A client who knows his or her needs can get those needs met. A client who expects their attorney to determine what he or she needs is frankly frightening.
Some of the clients I remember most fondly are those who came to me understanding little about their financial situation but worked hard to develop that understanding and also worked to determine how much of their goals they could achieve without the other party’s assistance. In the end, such clients almost always achieve dignity and stability when the case is over. Some of my most disheartening clients are those who received substantial income and assets after their divorce but remain adrift and dependant in the years following.
A client who is realistic, even generous, focused on a long-term stable resolution, and active in his or her representation is a pleasure to represent. At a reasonable cost I can help such clients get to a place where they can be happy. In contrast a client who is unreasonable, fails to consider the other party’s needs, focused on minutia, and passive in my representation is likely to spend a great deal of money without achieving stability.
Why wasn’t I surprised about those two cases that settled recently to the surprise of the opposing attorney? Because in each case I knew I had a good client. Kudos to them.