Getting the family law client to behave

A large but unsung part of a good family law attorney’s role is to get clients to behave well towards the opposing party. Not only is this role unsung, it often makes the attorney extremely unpopular with the client–especially in the early part of the representation. However being cognizant of this role is often vital to a successful outcome.

Getting a client to “behave” has two components. The obvious component is getting a client to follow the court order. Oftentimes the client will have numerous complaints about provisions of a family court order and will be resistant to follow those provisions. Meanwhile the client will have complaints about the other party not following the court order–often regarding the same provisions the client is not following. Such clients always have reasons their noncompliance is reasonable or necessary while refusing to consider the other party’s explanations for noncompliance. They demand that the order be enforced against the other party and demand that the order be modified to be more to their liking.

There are limited circumstances in which one can counsel the client not to follow a court order. Otherwise, clients need to be strongly encouraged [prodded] to follow the court order. Often the attorney will be resented for this. However such clients need to be reminded of the court’s contempt powers for not following court orders: up to a $1,500 fine; up to 300 hours of community service; up to one year in prison; or any combination thereof. They also need to be reminded that family court judges are unlikely to modify orders in their favor when they won’t follow the existing order.

The other component to getting a client to behave is getting the client’s attitude to reflect the tenor of the court order. Clients need to be reminding that some family court judge determined the custodial provisions of existing orders were in the child’s best interests and it is not their role to unilaterally overrule that judge’s decision. Often clients will do the bare minimum required and with a bad attitude. Family court judges expect–or at least hope for–better. A custodial parent who is never flexible with the other parent’s visitation may be following the court order but is not behaving in a manner that a family court judge would find in the child’s best interests. Similarly for a custodial parent who never allows the other parent more visitation than the court-ordered minimum (unless that parent already has substantial visitation), or a custodial parent who “fulfils” a duty to consult by merely telling the other parent what he or she is doing before doing it and who summarily rejects the other parent’s input without explanation.  While a court order might not require a non-custodial parent to return the child’s items at the end of a visitation period, a family court judge expects that parent to do so.

Generosity or flexibility towards the non-custodial parent does not prevent a custodial parent from setting limits on the other parent’s contact with the child when such limits are designed to protect the child. However, demonstrating a flexible and generous attitude towards the other parent impresses a family court judge by showing that parent is able to put the child’s best interests ahead of the parties’ rancor. If that parent then needs to ask the court to put further limits on the other parent, or otherwise modify the order in his or her favor, such a parent will be more likely to prevail in that request.

My experience is that some family law clients in contentious cases want to focus on the other party’s misbehavior and make excuses for their own misbehavior [this is probably a major factor in making the case so contentious]. However it is better for such clients to focus on their own behavior–and behave in a manner that a family court judge would approve of. Their own behavior is something they actually have control over. Further, demonstrating appropriate behavior is their best [only?] chance of resolving their conflict in a manner that leaves them satisfied. Oftentimes, a positive adjustment in a client’s attitude is sufficient to reduce the conflict. Further, family court judges are much more likely to modify orders in a party’s favor if that party is complying with the existing order and demonstrating a good attitude towards the other party.

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  • Amen. Counseling a client to turn the other cheek (within reason) and not engage in tit-for-tat behavior is often met with the client questioning whose side you’re on, and they often don’t realize just how important it is.

  • Maybe I’m too blunt, but I tell clients that Family Court judges are people (not robots), and people don’t like assholes. I also explain that my expectation is that they not engage in assholery on my watch.

    • James

      Family court lawyers in SC are all in bed with one another and do very little to actually protect the child. Court orders mean nothing and are rarely enforced in the manner they should to get the violating parties attention. It is ALL about money, you pay a retainer, you pay a GAL who is another lawyer, you pay a mediator who is a retired lawyer or judge who used to be a lawyer. It is all one giant scheme to take as much money as humanly possible from the client.

      I had 3 different lawyers and everyone of them WERE SO AGGRESSIVE sounding before they got my money and ALL of them turned into play along to get along while the opposing party’s lawyer hammered my ass down tight. I could careless about your experience, I want YOU TO FIGHT LIKE YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR YOUR OWN DAMN CHILD when you represent someone, if you are not doing that you should quit tomorrow.

      Being a bad parent should be grounds for TPR, leaving your child when he was a baby should be grounds for TPR….yet lawyers say oh let’s give them another chance, then they screw up again, and oh give me more money, and let’s give them another chance…ALL ABOUT MONEY in YOUR POCKETs…not about doing what is best for children or your client…

      • James

        In reply to my comment, no one should be allowed to practice family law if they do not have children. There is no way they can fathom what it is like to be a parent and the love you have for your child. I had one lawyer who had NO CLUE because she was not a mother.

        Fight for your clients instead of this play along crap.

  • I would say it’s not just family law clients who want to focus on the other party’s misbehavior/make excuses for their own misbehavior. People in general often try to justify their misbehavior by point to the other party’s misconduct.

  • Very nice article. Family law is the term set to the division of civilian law that a family attorney or family lawyer covers containing the lawful interactions amongst family participants, comprising spouses, wives, fathers, mothers, kids, and home companions. A family attorney signifies individuals going through separation, guardianship variations, supervision problems or problems involving to kids with respects to separation or protection, and if you are looking for a lawful representative associated with this field, then you should have to keep an eye on particular phases which would support you to catch capable and suitable family attorneys who can realize your matters and can help you so that you can acquire what you ask for.

  • Absolutely with you on this one. There are times I would love to slip a client an anti-attitude pill.

    • James

      There are times I wish lawyers would step up and be more aggressive. I bet you 90% + of the clients who have attitude problems are those who feel the lawyer they TOOK OUT A LOAN TO PAY is NOT representing them effectively. You folks can blame it on the client, but I have been there firsthand.

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    Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job!

  • Some sound advice here. I’d say this is a problem that isn’t just exclusive to family law, but family law has its own unique challenges with this sort of thing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Great work! This is pretty spot on advice. Sometimes just a simple conversation about why it’s important for everyone to just relax. Thanks for the help.

  • James Watson

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