Author: Dr. Deborah Hecker
When it comes to choosing a divorce attorney, I have heard people say, “I want the meanest, toughest attorney I can find. I need a fighter, someone who’ll take out that shark my spouse hired.” That attitude always makes me shudder. A talented attorney doesn’t have to fight and sling mud to engineer a successful divorce. A successful divorce takes much more than a warrior mentality and the ability to shred an opponent. A client may want a warrior but what does the client really need from a divorce attorney? After spending hundreds of client hours listening to people’s experience, both positive and negative, it became clear that this is a topic that needs further exploration. In this post, I will summarize the themes that appeared over and again in these conversations with the hope of providing some “inside information” to those who can most benefit from it.
The Unique Complexity Of Working With Divorcing Clients
Few life events can match the emotional distress of divorce. It is a time of deep emotional trouble, a time when most people feel that they have lost their center of gravity. Divorcing clients present unique challenges to the attorneys who work with them; in part, this is due to the clients’ need to spend significant amounts of time talking about their personal problems and not the actual mechanics of divorce. Researchers have found that clients can spend nearly 40 percent of their time focusing only on their emotional needs* In order to move on as a single person, clients must mourn their losses. Throughout the divorce process, clients frequently express their raw feelings of grief, anger and depression. Unfortunately, lawyers can find themselves in the crosshairs as they sometimes become misguided targets for some of these feelings and frustrations.
Impasse in the divorce process can arise from several psychological sources, including a client’s unresolved emotional issues and pre-existing clinical disorders. While divorce itself can cause psychiatric disorders, in some cases it is helpful to be aware that psychiatric disorders may have existed prior to the divorce and perhaps even contributed to it. The complicated emotions of divorce present a minefield that can cause clients to regress and behave in immature ways that are far from their normal behaviour patterns. An unsatisfactory phone call from a spouse can set off a client’s feelings of failure, rage or depression. Client needs are often unclear and can change in reaction to events in the divorce process.
Like it or not, the pressing and intrinsic nature of the stresses that divorcing individuals face, coupled with their need to talk about them throughout the legal work, thrusts attorneys into a help-giving role. Learning to work effectively with clients’ heightened and often contradictory emotions is a necessary piece of the successful client/attorney relationship.
What Makes A “Good” Divorce Lawyer
Divorce clients present challenges to their lawyers that few other legal specialists face. The lawyer’s concrete goals for a divorce client are very clear and defined; to obtain a divorce and the best possible settlement. Accomplishing those goals require the attorney to be oriented to the business of the legal divorce process, not to the emotional needs of the clients. It is not the attorney’s job to help the client put his or her life together and attend to their feelings, but it is something the client very commonly demand of them. In order to create a less chaotic process and better outcome, lawyers feel they must separate the client’s emotional needs from their legal needs; however, in creating that separation they must also create a humanized legal process. The right lawyer leads his or her client through the divorce quagmire in an emotionally sensitive and respectful way, while attaining the best possible results. The wrong attorney can create actually more problems than they resolve, thus adding to the nightmare of divorce.
Using the information I have gathered from my clients, the following is a list of those qualities that they cited most frequently as defining a “good divorce lawyer.”
Proactive Problem Solving. Clients spoke of the importance of their attorney taking charge of their case, rather than reacting to the opposing counsel’s requests. This means the attorney has a strategy and can spot potential problems on the horizon
Assertive, but Amicable. Over and over, clients agreed that the assertive attorney is one who is confident, but not arrogant. They like to see their attorney be amicable and unemotional with opposing attorneys, thus creating a positive working relationship and efficient process.
Willingness to Compromise. Clients appreciate the benefits they derive from their attorney’s willingness to press forward with negotiations rather than being uncompromising and unwilling to bend, thus dragging out the divorce process.
Key Personality Traits. In addition to being knowledgeable, clients want their attorney to be competent, patient, confident and approachable. When clients use the word “approachable,” they are saying that they want an attorney who is easy to talk to and easy to reach. Clients are frustrated when phone calls aren’t returned in a timely fashion. They are frustrated when they feel that their attorney “just isn’t listening to me” - clients need an attorney who demonstrates good listening skills.
A Personality Fit. Clients have a strong need to like their attorney and get along with him or her. Since attorney and client will need to meet, communicate and reach agreement on many points throughout the divorce, it goes without saying that if they do not get along, the process will be more difficult than it already is.
They Respect Your Priorities. Some clients end up switching lawyers mid-divorce because they feel that they are not on the same page, resulting in too much frustration and conflict. Clients want their attorney to understand what is important to them. For example, if the most important part of the divorce to the client is getting a reasonable custody settlement, they will not be happy with the attorney who keeps emphasizing rapid financial settlements.
Empathetic and Responsive. A highly emotional presentation by a client must be meaningfully acknowledged by their attorney. Downplaying or ignoring those feelings leaves the client feeling abandoned, minimized, even patronized or stupid. A helpful response is one that acknowledges the client’s feelings, while providing them a productive way to channel those feelings toward achieving their goals.
Direct and Honest. Clients want a divorce lawyer who will be honest with them and not just tell them what they think they want to hear. They want a lawyer who is not afraid of telling them bad news: the family residence will have to be sold. There will not be enough money to maintain the current standard of living. Clients need to hear all of the facts, not just the ones that will support their cause or make them feel better emotionally.
Cost Conscious. Clients want an attorney who will respect their divorce budget and not spend their money on unnecessary legal fees. Clients appreciate an attorney who keeps them on track and reminds them to use their billable time wisely.
Proper Use of Power. Lawyers and their clients are often not on level footing with each other. Attorneys may be more educated, have a more secure income (at a time when the client’s is being threatened) and a familiarity with the issues and processes (which the client does not have.) Clients have no interest in pompous power-trippers.
Putting this Advice Into Practice
For clients, divorce is really about feelings. They are hurting and tend to focus on their partner’s shortcomings or on the reasons their marriage failed. They look to the legal system as the mechanism to make them feel better - but too often, the system makes them feel worse and they shift their focus to the shortcomings of the divorce process. Clients may feel as if they’ve suddenly been hit with a double whammy – they are upset with their spouse and then with the system they turned to for help.
What is the antidote? The answer, I believe, lies with empathetic and effective divorce attorneys who wield their power wisely. Directly or indirectly, each client I spoke with expressed a desire for an attorney who would consider their underlying humanity, the basis of their sense of justice and entitlement. They need to feel that they are being represented with respect and dignity.
According to my clients, divorce attorneys are not difficult to find at all; but, good divorce attorneys - now those are awfully rare.
About the Author: A respected psychoanalyst, Dr. Deborah Hecker has developed a cutting-edge relationship model she calls “Yours, Mine, Ours: Romantic Partnership Done Right.” Her innovative approach assists clients in simultaneously developing their individual identities while teaching them how to successfully integrate that unique identity into their partnerships. She integrates both inner personal dynamics with inter-personal skills for individuals going through separation and divorce. She also specializes in helping committed careerists and business people to negotiate boundaries for their work and their personal relationships.