Should your family law case be litigated or mediated? Who should move out of the house? On what days will the children change homes? How much support will be paid? Should retirement, change of career or re-entry into the workforce occur? Imagine if these questions, and the hundreds of other questions in your family law dispute, are answered by your lawyer – not by you as the client.
While the ultimate answers to these questions might be given by a judge, far before that ever occurs, a family law case should be strategized so you as the client – the person whose life is affected – have a say in what your own future will look like. No one would imagine building a house without blueprints; a sports team doesn’t walk onto the field without a playbook; a successful business does not operate without the guidance of a budget. Why should your family law matter – which begins the next phase of your future – proceed without a plan?
My perspective on any family law case – whether it includes a divorce, custody battle, child and spousal support or property division – is that it is a team effort between the client and the lawyer. Not every lawyer shares this vision of a case and many clients are unaware that there are lawyers who view them as part of the team. Here are some ideas for how you can be more involved in the strategizing of your family law case:
- Make a “Wish List”. A lot of time and money gets spent in divorce and child custody matters when a client’s goals are driven by the emotions of the situation and thus are unrealistic. This is not uncommon. If your lawyer has not asked you to do so, you should make a “wish list” of what you would like to achieve in the final resolution of your matter. Once this is done, make an appointment to meet with your lawyer and review your list. Your lawyer should identify those items which are likely achievable, those which are possibly achievable and those items which are unrealistic. Once this is done, you have a good map of what (if anything) to litigate and what to focus on settling in negotiations.
- Do Not Keep Secrets. Clients often fail to tell their attorney the whole story. There is no advantage to sugar-coating events, telling only half of the story or ignoring what the other side may think of you. It is better to tell your attorney everything – the good and the bad – before the information is exposed by the other side. There is nothing worse for an attorney (and his or her client), than learning about that damaging fact in the middle of trial and then spending money in an attempt to do damage control. Trust your attorney to strategize with you on how to deal with the good and bad facts in the case.
- Follow the Advice of Your Attorney. Trusting a family law attorney’s guidance will help you get through the process successfully because the attorney has seen many cases. By giving you the benefit of this experience, your attorney can offer guidance on how best to manage the legal and emotional issues to achieve your goals.
- Cost /Benefit Analysis of Financial Issues. Most, if not all, financial issues can be weighed by comparing the money involved against the cost of resolving the issue. This means the financial issues need to be looked at from a business perspective focused on your best interests. Believe it or not, you are in control of much of what your lawyer does in your case. Work with your lawyer to understand the financial issues, develop a range of possible options and then instruct your lawyer on how you would like to proceed.
- Remember, Custody is About the Children’s Best Interest. All custody and visitation issues are decided based upon what is best for the children – not what is best for the parents. Therefore, developing a strategy from the children’s point of view is immensely helpful. Most parents are not dangerous to their children. Despite the fact the parents are clearly not good partners for each other, this does not mean either one of them is necessarily a bad parent. Separating these emotions, accepting change will occur, being flexible and open to establishing new routines go a long way to helping you strategize with your lawyer to determine what your children’s new future will look like.
- Focus on the Future. Learning from the past is important but obsessing about what is done and cannot be changed is unhealthy and unproductive in working with your attorney to strategize your legal matters. Part of strategizing your case is to focus clearly on your future. This is often best done by seeking emotional support from a therapist.
Critically important decisions must be made throughout a family law matter. The sad irony is that clients typically are not in the best emotional or mental state to do so. Besides working with a therapist to gain clarity sooner rather than later, the process of strategizing the case with your lawyer – essentially visualizing what the future will look like after the matter is concluded – will often will bring reality and the necessary clarity. It can only occur if you are willing to trust your lawyer, who has the experience and insight to guide you through this process.