The following post was written by Russell Knight, Esq., Law Office of Russell D. Knight.
Family law is a notorious area of practice. On its face, it seems like an area of the law where a lawyer can do some real good in the world. Some even say we’re healing broken families. The truth is we’re litigating between people who once had a powerful bond and now have zero trust between themselves. What’s worst, they can never be rid of each other because they are raising children together.
This can often seem like an impossible situation. Every family law lawyer can tell stories to illustrate how difficult the practice can be.
There are, however, ways a family law practitioner can be more effective. Not just for their clients but for themselves.
#1. Be Solutions Focused.
Lawyers love to talk about the process. “First you file the case, then you begin discovery and then you exchange proposed final documents.” The client does not care about the process. What’s more, talking about the process just makes them more anxious about the process. If you identify the result your client is looking for and focus on the result, you’re likely to get that result instead of getting bogged down in the various details of the process.
After all, in family law, you can settle at any moment. Perhaps having an offer at the beginning of the case can serve as a backdrop to all the intermediate steps and cause the other party to say, “Do I really need to submit my bank statements from 2015? I’d rather just have this be over.”
#2. Listen…and Then Don’t.
Family law clients have a need to tell their attorneys the story of their divorce. How their marriage came to this. Their ex’s various flaws. How they love their kids above all. Clients deserve to be heard completely…once. After the client has laid out the facts and even the emotions behind the facts, you should feel free to remind them “you told me this already. I don’t want to bill you for hearing you out again because I definitely remember and appreciate your story.” These reminders may be curt but they also set a tone for your relationship with the client. You are there to move the clients on to the next chapter of their life not to be their therapist.
#3. Encourage Mediation.
Mediation in divorce or paternity matters is mandatory in virtually every district in America. Yet, we lawyers don’t emphasize mediation. We’re not mediators, we’re litigators. We fight and negotiate until we compromise.
Allow your clients to have that first attempt be civil through mediation. We all know that it doesn’t work in at least half the cases but it’s certainly worth it for the less than half of cases where mediation does resolve the issues. Worst case scenario, mediation narrows the focus of your clients to the issues for which they are actually in disagreement.
#4. Do a Hearing on a Temporary Issue.
There are a million issues that need to be resolved in a divorce. Those issues usually get resolved in the final divorce decree and the accompanying final documents.
There are still issues that need to get resolved immediately like temporary child support, temporary alimony, contribution to joint household expenses and temporary parenting time. This is an opportunity for your client to introduce themselves to the judge. First impressions matter. Whether you are the sweet destitute housewife or the warm dad who misses his kids, you can start framing the story to the judge at a hearing.
First impressions also matter in the other direction. Your client may realize that the judge is not prepared to hear his or her story. Or your client may finally feel heard by a third party and see that they do not need to be bullied any longer.
#5. Bill and Bill Often.
For whatever reason a good deal of people enjoy wallowing in the divorce process. Divorce court is an arena where you can ask for justice but that doesn’t mean you’ll get justice. Oftentimes, you just get more process. There has to be some kind of outside pressure for the client to settle so they just don’t keep waiting until the judge “understands” or an expensive trial takes place.
The solution to this is monthly billing. You worked for the money. You are owed the money. You should be paid the money. The fact that the client is now supporting two households on one income may affect his or her ability to pay but it does not affect what you are owed. The client needs to know this. You are doing the client a disservice by not sending regular invoices that let the client know the divorce process has a cost.
Family isn’t easy on anyone, but please observe just a few of these steps and you’ll find that you and your clients will finalize the case sooner and easier than otherwise imagined.