Your clients are human beings going through one of life’s worst experiences. Prepare them as best you can for the emotional roller-coaster they jumped on; don’t just focus on the legal process.
By Mary Ann R. Burmester, Family Lawyer
As attorneys, we see the stages of divorce from a litigation timeline perspective: petition filed, discovery, possible interim hearings, settlement negotiations, possible trial, and final decree. This is a familiar pattern to us and we also know it takes months or years to complete the process.
Clients, however, view the stages differently. We, as counselors-at-law not just attorneys-at-law, need to be aware of the emotional milestones from the clients’ perspectives and prepare them for getting through the stages. Based on almost 30 years of practicing law and the personal experience of being twice divorced, here are some frequent emotional milestones clients face when ending a marriage.
There’s not much you can do in advance to prepare a client emotionally for that first attorney meeting, but you can acknowledge that it’s a big step by saying something like, “I understand it’s difficult to talk to a lawyer about getting divorced. We’re strangers at this point, but know that anything you tell me in confidence will be kept private. Let me know if you need to take a break at any point during our meeting.”
Signing the Fee Agreement and Paying the Retainer
It’s a huge step to put your money where your mouth is. For some people, an event isn’t “real” until there is hard cash on the line. Paying a lawyer to represent you against your spouse sometimes feels like the death knell of inter-spousal communication. It may be necessary in some cases for spouses to stop speaking directly, but it’s still a major shift in the mindset of someone used to thinking and acting like a couple. If the family circumstances allow, I encourage clients to keep communicating directly about day-to-day matters, especially if they have children together.
Signing the Petition (or Getting Served)
In my state, the Petitioner has to sign the verified Petition for Dissolution of Marriage as well as the attorney. For some clients, it’s akin to throwing the first punch – some relish the opportunity, some tremble with the pen in hand because they don’t want to feel or be perceived as the one to break up the family, and some are simply numb. Again, it’s important to let your client know that they can change their minds and stop the proceedings if they have a change of heart.
Life is in turmoil. Emotions are raw. The kids are freaking out. The house is being packed up. And here comes 20+ pages of detailed financial questions and requests to produce mounds of financial documents. Some spouses have no clue about their finances, and now they feel really stupid that they don’t even understand the discovery questions, let alone know where the records are kept. Keep this in mind when your clients don’t get their draft responses to you in a timely few weeks. Also, tell your client in advance that discovery is going to happen and that the exchange of financial information is required by the rules of the court. Don’t let your client feel blind-sided by discovery requests they receive or that you propound on their behalf.
The Marital Residence Break-Up
For clients staying in the marital residence, the first night and subsequent days can be emotionally devastating. Half the furniture is gone, half the closets are empty, and blank spaces mark the walls where family photos used to hang. Similar to coming home after a burglary, you feel a huge pit in your stomach when you look around at familiar spaces that have been violated. As a lawyer, I hate it when clients fight over household goods and furnishings, but as a divorced person, I can relate to the shock of all the missing “stuff”.
Conversely, if your client moved out of the family home and is now staying in a temporary apartment, understand that it is equally disruptive to that client’s emotional well-being. Often there’s a major downward adjustment in the lifestyle, at least temporarily, that feels like a step backward or failure.
Let your clients know that the marital residence move-out process can be very difficult emotionally, and to feel sad, angry, depressed, numb, etc. is perfectly normal under the circumstances. Once again, prepare your clients in advance!
First Court Appearance
The first time you walk into court with your client is going to be stressful, no matter how much you prepare your client. Think about it. Two people married to each other are now sitting at opposite tables, with separate lawyers, and facing a person wearing a black robe who is going to make key decisions about their lives from that day forward, decisions that neither party is likely to be completely satisfied with. I’ve had clients tell me that they felt like they had stepped into a Twilight Zone episode, and I don’t blame them. Assuming you have fully prepared your client on the motion to be heard and how the hearing will flow, keep in mind the emotional aspect of the courtroom experience and show some compassion to your client.
Approving the Final Decree / Marital Settlement Agreement
The deal is done. The paperwork is prepared. Now your client has to read, approve and sign the Final Decree. For some clients, it’s an anticlimactic experience and they show no emotions. For others, it’s the final nail in the coffin and their tears blur the ink on the paper. Just be mindful that people’s reactions are all over the board, and you should be patient in going over the final agreement. Nothing about it is “routine” or “boilerplate language” to them.
Taking Off the Wedding Ring
This is a big “deep breath” moment. When to take off the wedding ring is a highly personal, and often grief-filled decision. It doesn’t hurt to warn your client that the indentation on the ring finger will remain for a long time. I can still see the indentation from the band five years after my divorce, and sometimes the sight catches my breath.
You don’t have to be divorced yourself to be a good divorce lawyer. Remember that your clients are human beings going through one of life’s worst experiences. Prepare them as best you can for the emotional roller-coaster they jumped on; don’t just focus on the legal process.
Mary Ann R. Burmester has been a lawyer for more than 25 years. She’s also been divorced twice (once with custody issues and once without). The founder of NM Divorce & Custody Law, LLC, Ms. Burmester practices state-wide in all areas of family law. www.nmdivorcecustody.com
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