Civility In Family Law: 5 things that can keep your clients on the right side of the line
Set Reasonable Expectations by Educating the Client:
Clients need to know the likely outcomes of the parenting and financial issues based on statute and case law. It is much easier for a client if they know what is likely to happen at the beginning of a case rather than being surprised in court when the judge makes a ruling. It is also more efficient to negotiate final settlements if the client knows the parameters of the possible outcomes at trial.
Client education should begin at the very first meeting and does not end at the conclusion of your case. Completing your job sometimes requires follow-up on important issues that the client likely has no idea how to predict (e.g., opening a file with the Office of Child Support Enforcement so that support payments can start; or completing a Qualified Domestic Relations Order and what to expect when awards from a former spouse’s pension finally pay out).
Lastly, an educated client is easier to work with and more likely to return. If clients recognize your advice as being valuable, worthwhile, and easy to follow, they are more likely to follow your lead as you shine a light on the best path. If you are in the practice of sending out newsletters to keep clients up-to-date, or establishing your social media presence and brand, identifying yourself to your clients as a trusted advisor, (hint hint) during the representation is an important place to start.
Avoid Dramatic & Over-the-top Pleadings:
It can be tempting to turn on the dramatics when drafting a pleading, especially with a set-of facts that get you fired up or maybe where you feel a need to embolden a less assertive client. I rarely meet a client who isn’t on board with being aggressive in pleadings. But coaching clients to maintain a civilized tone in a Family Law case can reduce conflict between the parties and enhance your client’s image before the court. Focus on the facts and thoroughly explain the facts to the court without too many negative opinions, assessments and judgments.
I like to remind clients that their pleadings are a matter of public record and that potentially anyone can get their hands on them I the future. I ask them if they really want their business “out in the streets” and impress upon them that litigation is a process with a time and place for everything including detailed storytelling, which is best done in the courtroom in front of the trier of fact.
In submitting statements to court, a civil attorney should ask their client to simply tell the court what the person did without all of the pejorative terms. For example, accusing someone of having “violent tendencies” when the person has never engaged in violent behavior is inflammatory. Courts also find unpersuasive extreme statements, like calling someone a “liar” when there is no clear proof of this and stating opinions, such as saying “he doesn’t really care about our children” or “she is a psychopath.”
But what about when these kinds of statements are hurled at your client instead?
Lead By Example -Take the High Road:
One of the most difficult aspects of family law arises when the opposing party or their lawyer engages in high-conflict behavior, such as making insulting statements in court or in pleadings, involving the children, spewing misinformation to third parties, repeating unfounded accusations, providing details of indiscreet behavior to others, calling a person’s workplace, and/or not complying with court orders. The client’s first reaction might be to demand that the attorney make the opposing party or the other attorney stop or perhaps to retaliate by engaging in the same sort of behavior. It is always better to advise a client to “take the high road.” To reduce conflict and keep matters civil, the Family Law attorney should advise the client that those behaviors do not assist in settling their case and usually make things worse. In addition, those tactics and choices will greatly increase their attorney fees.
Explain and Encourage Alternatives:
Explaining the alternatives to trial can bring a huge sense of relief to the client. Clients should know about these alternative processes so they can make informed choices. Often once the legal process starts, communication between the parties deteriorates quickly and the client has a hard time focusing on where they want to end up.
Parties can participate in a collaborative law process or use early mediation to resolve their family law disputes. The parties can also jointly hire or consult with neutral financial and/or parenting experts. Some options may not be advisable if there has been domestic violence or other issues that would make a cooperative approach unworkable.
Limit Family Input:
To be able to proceed in a civil manner, the family law attorney should limit declarations and involvement of grandparents, parents, and new romantic interests unless absolutely necessary. It is important for clients to understand that when we ask a family member to write a declaration or testify in court for our client, we are likely jeopardizing that person’s future relationship with the other spouse or partner, and as a result their relationship with the children when the children are with the other spouse or partner.
By, Sahmra A. Stevenson, Esq.
S.A. Stevenson Law Offices, LLC