Bluntness with clients is an act of respect

Posted Friday, February 24th, 2023 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants

If I am blunt with clients (and I often am), it reflects a belief that their goals will be more likely achieved if their behavior changes and that they have the capacity to change. Attorneys unwilling to challenge client behaviors they find problematic might appear kind but they are either cowards (fearful of challenging behaviors they know are self-sabotaging) or defeatists (unwilling to believe the client has capacity to improve).

I am deliberately blunt with clients (or potential clients) who engage in behaviors that undermine their goals.  This is especially true in custody litigation—where the client’s behaviors and demeanor at the time of trial is often more relevant than such behaviors and demeanor at the time of filing.

I routinely tell my clients, “I am not your therapist.”  That statement is intended to have them direct general gripes to someone trained to ameliorate their stress.  I will similarly tell them, “I am not your friend.” This is intended to let them know that their gripes are best expressed to folks who aren’t billing time while listening to them. 

Despite not being their friend or their therapist, I take great pride in being their advocate.  I truly care for most of my clients–and try to avoid representing litigants whom I find too annoying and to suggest clients who I no longer care about seek other counsel.  I want my clients to achieve their goals and I want my clients to become better people/parents.  A client who has obtained most of his or her goals but remains miserable and frequently complains to me is a client I try to avoid.  In contrast, a client who did not achieve many goals but is a happier, calmer person at the end of the process than at the beginning, is a client for whom I believe my representation was successful.

Thus, while I am not a therapist, I have goals similar to a therapist.  Often, especially in custody litigation, the best way for a client to achieve his or her goals is to become a better person or parent.  This involves changing behavior patterns that lead the client to negative interactions with his or her children or co-parent.  Yet, I differ from a therapist in three crucial respects.  First, I am not a trained therapist. There are a few child custody attorneys who are trained therapists and I envy their skill sets.

More importantly, a therapist is trained to ask questions that guide patients to determine the roots of their dysfunctional behavior and assist their patients in developing methods/strategies for modifying counterproductive behaviors.  My method involves determining which dysfunctional behaviors are impeding the client’s goals and then directing the client to fix those behaviors (often by working with a therapist).

Finally, a therapist has a luxury of time that I simply do not have.  If a patient changes behavior over a multi-year period, gradual progress is fine.  If a client changes behavior over a multi-year period, we may approach trial with these behaviors still causing problems.  Family court creates its own urgency.

Thus, I am blunt.  If a potential client shows up at my office and behaves in a manner that I know will make the attorney-client relationship stressful (evasive, hyper/belligerent, unfocused) I don’t shy away from noting it.  If the potential client is unwilling to acknowledge and address those behaviors, I’d rather not represent them. Not only will the representation create additional and unnecessary stress but the client’s behavior will undermine my efforts to achieve his or her goals.  Even for clients whose behaviors are less problematic, I will become blunt if initial attempts at gentle prodding don’t get them to focus on remedying negative behavior patterns.

As someone who is quite open about having found therapy useful at various points in my life, I believe everyone has the capacity to be better. I also believe that most people desire to become better versions of the roles they find meaningful, which for my clients often means better parents, better co-parents, and better potential romantic partners.  Telling clients how their behavior needs to change to achieve these goals is actually an act of respect: it reflects a belief that they have the desire and capacity to become better.

5 thoughts on Bluntness with clients is an act of respect

  1. Amen !!! But that skill (and thickened skin) mostly come from age and experience … I was much more timid and unsure 25 years ago than I am now!!!

    1. One insight I gained from resuming therapy in my early-50’s was to stop giving a f*ck about other’s opinions about me but give tremendous f*ucks about my own self-opinion—while putting great effort into (mostly) remaining sufficiently self-aware/reflective to acknowledge when my behavior didn’t meet my own high standards. It was extremely liberating and actually made my behavior towards others much better (although still nowhere near perfect).

  2. jess says:

    I found these comments from you hard to hear during the case, but invaluable after I saw the results play out at trial. As someone who fought, what felt like, a very uphill battle and whose ability for a favorable outcome at trial did not feel seen until trial, this blog post would have helped reassure me along the way that you were on my side. If the client is trying, a few positive affirmations or reminders along the way would be helpful to those clients who are emotionally fragile.

    1. You are absolutely right about my needing to do a few positive affirmations or reminders along the way. I will definitely keep that in mind for future clients.

  3. Mallory De Leon says:

    The best family law attorneys I know all practice this with clients. I have found myself in conversations trying to articulate just why it is so important to tell a client about themselves when needed. I love watching a client develop and grow throughout the pendency of their case. It is one of the reasons I stay. This was a great read and I will likely quote what I have read here many times over!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.




Put Mr. Forman’s experience, knowledge, and dedication to your service for any of your South Carolina family law needs.