Imagine a divorcing mother so desperate to control her own case that her conduct in the courthouse hallway results in her loss of custody of her children. Imagine a husband losing his most valuable asset in the divorce because he was so desperate to “win” his case that he lies to the judge and is caught. These stories are true and are examples of how clients – not their lawyer, not the judge, not the system, and not their spouse – are sometimes their own worst enemy.
Family law clients are often so desperate to prove they are right and their spouse wrong, that their emotions take control in the litigation thereby marginalizing their lawyer’s efforts to protect them. There are many ways clients knowingly or unknowingly sabotage their own case often leaving their lawyer unable to pick up the shattered pieces. This may sound absurd, or a remote possibility, but trust me, it is not. Below are five ways I have seen clients sabotage their own cases:
- Lying in Court. Lying in court is perjury and is a crime. If a lawyer knows his or her client is going to lie while testifying under oath, or discovers they are lying while the testimony is transpiring, the lawyer must take steps to be relieved as that party’s lawyer because it is also a crime for a lawyer to knowingly promote the perjury of his or her client. By lying in court, not only does one risk criminal charges – if the lie is exposed, that client’s credibility is likely destroyed for the remainder of the case. This will make “winning” on any issue incredibly difficult because the judge simply will not believe anything else said by that client.
- Making a “Scene” in The Courthouse Hallway. Clients fail to appreciate that if they create a loud enough, and/or big enough “scene” in the hallway, outside the courtroom, that the court staff will report the behavior to the judge. The courtroom staff are the “eyes and ears” of the judge. I have seen the judge use the information learned from the bailiff, who witnessed the “scene” in the hallway, as a basis to remove custody from a parent because of the lack of judgment that parent showed in the hallway, while her child was present.
- Failing to Tell Your Attorney The Whole Story. Different than a lie, this is just where a client keeps important facts or details from his or her attorney. What inevitably happens is that the omitted information comes to light at a time, such as in the middle of trial, that catches the lawyer off guard, unprepared and often unable to skillfully protect the client from the damaging story the client kept secret. It is critical that clients tell their lawyer the “whole story,” even if it is embarrassing, so the lawyer is prepared to manage the negative aspects of the story at time of trial.
- Refusing to Follow Your Attorney’s Advice. Clients often think they know best. They claim to know best because it’s “their child,” or it’s “their business.” While a client may generally know best about their child or their business, when it comes to litigation and the courtroom the lawyer actually knows better. Lawyers who are seasoned veterans at practicing family law have a strong understanding of how a situation will be viewed by the judge. The wisest course of action is to listen to the attorney and follow his or her advice, which may differ from how the client would have handled the situation without knowledge of the courts. In litigation, the lawyer inevitably knows best.
- Arguing With the Judge. Time and time again I have seen clients, who have lawyers standing next to them in the courtroom before the judge, “go rogue.” The client has not been asked a question but instead starts arguing with the judge. Lawyers know how, and maybe more importantly, when to argue with judges. Any arguing should be left to the lawyer. I have rarely, if ever, seen the rogue client improve a situation; rather, they usually sink the boat which was already leaking before they decided to act like their own lawyer.
Many people who have experienced family law litigation will tell stories about how their lawyer, the judge, the system, or their spouse is to blame for a bad result in their case. Sometimes those other people are responsible; but often, it is the client him or herself who is to blame. Such clients often never admit, or recognize, that they, themselves, sank their case. The best advice I can give a client is to be honest, open and to trust your lawyer to guide you through a process which the lawyer understands far better than you.