I frequently get calls or emails seeking advice about a family law problem someone’s sibling, spouse, fiancé, parent, child or friend has. I generally ask to talk to the person who would actually be needing my assistance. Sometimes that person is incapacitated and there is no good option other than to talk to a close friend or relative. More often the person who needs a family law attorney is either “too busy” or “too intimidated” to talk to a lawyer. In those situations, while attempting to be polite, I suggest that if that person needs my assistance he or she reach out and contact me.
There are numerous reasons I have adopted this approach. Often such callers are merely curious and are searching for second (or tenth) opinions. Frequently, this is done without the knowledge of the person actually needing help. It’s impossible to make a living offering free legal advice to folks who don’t need an attorney. Early in my career I would even allow friends or family to set appointments for potential clients. Frequently these prospective clients would fail to show up for the appointments. Sometimes they claimed ignorance that an appointment had been made on their behalf. Now I require contact from the person actually needing my help before I schedule an appointment.
Further, the folks who call me on someone’s behalf typically know only part of the story–and, because folks generally try to hide their bad behavior from those they are close to, often they only know the facts that would support the client’s position. Asking someone’s mother or daughter if that person is committing adultery or has a drug problem is not only awkward but the response may not even be accurate. Too often a claim that appears strong when I talk to the friend or family member looks much weaker after I talk to the prospective client.
Finally all family law work requires collaboration between the attorney and the client. Even the simplest cases–agreements and uncontested divorces–require the client’s cooperation in gathering records, filling out financial declarations, and locating corroborating witnesses. Contested cases require such collaboration in greater depth and often under time constraints. My best work is typically done for clients who are actively engaged in the process. In helping me they allow me to help them. A potential client too unmotivated to seek out counsel is likely too unmotivated to provide me the information I will need to achieve their goals. Often part of my strategy in contested cases will involve counseling my client to modify his or her behavior to conform to the norms the family court expects in the given situation. An unmotivated client will be absolutely resistant to such counsel.
Legally competent adults need to actively participate in their case in order to achieve their goals. While friends and family can provide invaluable financial, emotional and logistic support, ultimately a client needs to work well with his or her counsel. Someone too unmotivated or intimidated to assist in the representation is unlikely to obtain successful results and is therefore likely to be unhappy with his or her lawyer.
There’s a hoary psychiatrist joke that is apropos of lawyers: Q: “How many patients does it take the change a lightbulb?” A: “One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.” A motivated client portends a successful attorney-client relationship. Clients who cannot even be bothered to call an attorney do not inspire such confidence. Deigning to spend much time discussing potential representation with friends and family isn’t a sign of rudeness. It’s merely an indication that, to help the client, the client has to want the help.