You don’t have to pretend to be perfect

Posted Thursday, March 30th, 2017 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Litigation Strategy, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

A lot of family court litigants harm their cases because they don’t want to admit anything that makes them look bad. Confronted with such behavior they naturally feel shame or guilt. The natural reaction to feelings of shame or guilt is to shy away from it. In the context of being questioned about such behavior, most folks are evasive. Some even lie.

In any litigation context this lying and evasion is a disaster. If the litigant is being asked such questions, there’s a good chance the attorney questioning him or her has some solid evidence to corroborate the truthful answer. Lies and evasions make a “guilty” person seem even more guilty and make shameful behavior appear even more shameful.

Family court judges hate lying because it makes their job harder by hindering their ability to make just decisions. In contrast, family court judges expect the folks in front of them to be imperfect. What a family court judge wants to observe is a litigant who has lived a basically good life, who acknowledges when he or she falls short, and who tries to learn from his or her mistakes. Perfection is not required, or even expected.

A basically good person who can acknowledge a few shortcomings–and, even better, show how he or she has learned and grown from these shortcomings and demonstrates insight into these shortcomings–is likely to do well in family court. A basically good person who lies and evades any attempt to expose imperfections is likely to be considered dishonest rather than good.

Even a very troubled litigant who is willing to be truthful will tend to do better than a troubled litigant who lies and evades. The troubled but forthright litigant may convince a judge that he or she is on an upward path. The troubled litigant who lies and evades will simply convince that judge that the troubles will continue into the future.

Clients responding to pleadings and discovery, or preparing their testimony for trial, will often want to evade or lie if the answer isn’t favorable. A good attorney will work with the client to overcome this impulse. Getting clients to answer pleadings or discovery truthfully when the truth is unpleasant is difficult; it requires the attorney to make the client sufficiently comfortable in the attorney-client relationship that the client will not feel the attorney is judging the responses. Honest answers in pleadings and discovery avoid credibility problems at trial. Getting clients to answer unpleasant questions in a truthful, non-evasive manner is a skill that should be practiced before trial. Ideally, if such questions are certain to be asked, it is better to ask them on direct examination.

Clients do much better in the litigation process when they don’t feel a need to portray themselves as perfect. There are no perfect clients because there are no perfect people. Family court judges know this. Attorneys should inform their clients that family court judges know this.

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