Avoid unnecessary trauma and damage to your clients and their children: use these 5 strategies to help your divorcing clients through this painful transition.
By James Gray Robinson, Family Lawyer
According to “Marital Biography and Health at Midlife” (a national study of 8,652 people published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior), those who had experienced divorce or the death of a spouse reported about 20% more chronic health problems than those who had been continuously married. Other studies confirm the thesis that divorce can literally make you sick.
Divorce can be so traumatic to the mind, body, and immune system that it can lead to depression, anxiety, and psychological illness. Other studies suggest that divorced men are more likely to die earlier, have higher rates of substance abuse, have higher suicide rates, have more strokes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer and related illnesses than married men.
Divorce lawyers often unwittingly play a role in these negative effects of divorce. When clients are psychologically and emotionally traumatized by the breakup of their marriage, they may want to teach their ex-spouse a lesson. When clients become unreasonable in order to inflict pain, some lawyers become “junkyard dogs” to fulfill their client’s wishes.
Every divorce lawyer has had a client whose goal was to make their spouse’s life miserable. However, you should be aware that being the “meanest son of a bitch in the valley” has an effect not only on the opposition but on your own client as well; it also helps reinforce the public perception that divorce lawyers are unreasonable solely to maximize their fees without considering their clients’ needs.
5 Strategies To Help Your Divorcing Clients
However, there are steps you can take to help shepherd your clients through what will probably be one of the worst experiences of their lives. To avoid unnecessary trauma and damage to your clients and their children, consider using these five strategies.
1. Encourage Your Clients to Settle When it is in Their Best Interests.
One of the most damaging dynamics of divorce is that people are not inclined to settle when they are hurt or angry. The emotional cloud that hangs over the divorce process makes it extremely difficult for clients to dissolve the marriage rationally. Recommend compromise whenever possible, and explain why compromise and settlement are better for the client in the long run.
2. Encourage Your Clients to Get Counseling and Support.
Many people don’t realize how traumatic the divorce process is and so don’t make the effort to find emotional and mental-health support. You should be able to refer your clients to organizations or mental-health professionals that can support your clients to weather the emotional storms of divorce. You should also be aware of local divorce support groups where your clients can share and heal with their peers.
3. Encourage Your Clients to Get a Life.
Clients need to have something to think about other than the divorce: hobbies, sports, or other enjoyable activities remind them that life isn’t all bad. There is scientific proof that going for a walk in nature has mental as well as physical health benefits – and it could help people clear their minds and become more reasonable. Sitting at home obsessing about their divorce will only cause more depression and anxiety.
4. Remind Your Clients that Children Love and Need Both Parents.
Your client may feel like their spouse is their biggest enemy and become obsessed with protecting their children from that enemy. That is not how the children feel about it; unless there has been abuse, children love both parents and become conflicted when one parent tries to demonize the other. You need to find a way to train parents to work cooperatively to reduce their children’s distress and expedite the healing process. In a high-conflict divorce, children may need emotional and mental-health support more than the parents, so recommend counseling for the children.
5. You May Need to “Parent” Your Clients.
In nasty divorces, you have to take control to prevent your clients from acting like children and torpedoing the process. You can guide your clients through the process with as little conflict as possible, or you can get down into the mud with them and sling fault and blame. Except for children, there are no innocent victims in a divorce. A client who blames their ex for everything that went wrong in their marriage may want to litigate every single issue. You need to explain why this is not in their best interest or be prepared to face a bitter client who blames you for depleting the family’s resources in court.
I challenge you to find other ways to help your divorcing clients through the process without making their emotional trauma worse. Remember that clients come to us for advice and guidance, and we have control of the process. We need to be more farsighted in our approach to minimize the effects of divorce on families. We also need to be mindful that clients will remember us as professionals who made the experience much better – or much worse – than it could have been. Guess which one will lead to more referrals?
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004, when he became a business consultant. At the age of 64, he passed the Oregon bar exam and is once again a licensed attorney. www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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