What is the Role of the Client in a Family Law Strategy?

The ultimate dilemma for the client and his or her family law attorney involves control.  It is the client’s life and ultimately the client’s decision about how their family law matter is handled and resolved; yet, the family law attorney’s duty to advise and protect the client often conflicts with what the client thinks is best for his or her own life.  It is not uncommon for the family law attorney and client to disagree on what is best.  The client has the experience and perspective of what is right for their life; the lawyer has the experience and perspective of having seen many similar cases and how things often work out long-term.   So, what should be the role of the client in a family law strategy?  Here are five things you as the client can do to maintain a sense of control while helping your lawyer do what’s best for you:

  1. Start Off Right.  The initial client meeting is not the time to resolve your entire case and have all questions answered; rather, in the initial meeting you should have two main objectives. The first is to obtain answers to any immediately pressing questions (for example, should I move out of the house?).   The second to understand how your prospective lawyer thinks, and how well he or she understands the issues presented in order to manage the case.  The best way you can achieve these objectives is to be prepared.  That includes providing a summary of your family’s historical dynamics and current circumstances; defining what are your biggest concerns about the pending divorce or custody situation; stating your goals clearly; and having a general knowledge of your own financial circumstances in order to begin discussions about how to divide the assets and liabilities in a divorce and how the family income and expenses relate to the establishment of child and/or spousal support.
  2. Be Honest.  One element of a successful legal matter depends upon your honesty as the client.  Family law matters are deeply personal and many clients are embarrassed about events which have transpired.  It is critical that you work with a lawyer with whom you are comfortable enough to share highly personal matters.  The worst thing that can happen is for the lawyer to learn about a damaging fact or circumstance from the other side, so it is best for you to advise the lawyer of all facts and circumstances which might impact the case so the lawyer can anticipate and strategize for those facts and circumstances.
  3. Communicate.  Although it costs money to talk with a lawyer, that cost may be well worth it in order to avoid a costly mistake that could happen if you don’t communicate fully.  This takes a bit of instinct to know when to update the lawyer on what may be happening in your life, but you will usually acquire this instinct by gauging the lawyer’s reaction to your conversations.  The lawyer should be advised of major events such as large or unusual financial transactions, changes of employment or income, travel out of state or country with children, medical conditions of either of the parties or children, changes in your goals, events which could impact the valuation of assets involved in the divorce and significant changes or events impacting the children (such as a change in their school performance, emotional stability or coping skills).
  4. Be Realistic.  Realistic goals and expectations are often difficult to balance against the emotions present during most, if not all, family law matters.  Punishing the other person usually does not achieve your financial needs, and the conflict and anger usually associated with the desire to punish usually has a negative impact on the children.  Therefore, working closely with a family law attorney to determine which goals are realistic to achieve is far better than trying to figure out how to punish the other person.  Focusing on what you can realistically achieve for the future will make you more productive and will lessen the damage of the divorce or custody litigation.
  5. Listen.   Most lawyers like and genuinely care about their clients.  When lawyers give advice to their client, they do so not just to fulfill a legal duty, but also to have the most positive impact on the client and the children.  Do not mistakenly begin to believe your lawyer is against you – your enemy – if the lawyer does not agree with your actions or tells you that what you want to do will cause more harm than good now or in the future.  If you are unwilling to listen to, or even consider, what your lawyer states, you will often damage your case and even lose your lawyer in the process.  While the ultimate decision is yours, you are well advised to listen to what your lawyer has to say.  The family law attorney has seen hundreds if not thousands of divorces and custody disputes and can really help you to understand possible outcomes, but this requires that you listen to and consider all possibilities, even if you initially think they are not desirable.

The client and the lawyer are equally integral parts of a family law strategy.  It is a true partnership which achieves the best results through trust and open and continual communication.