By Paula J. Gardner, Paralegal, and Robert M. Worster, Family Lawyer
When you consider the sphere of influence we have over clients, our effort to improve their lives is an investment in them and in ourselves. It is worth it.
Signing a final order of divorce does not signal the end of a client’s challenges. Those of us who interact with clients while they proceed through one of life’s most traumatic experiences—divorce—encounter many non-legal issues and have unique opportunities to make a significant difference in their lives. It is helpful to remember whom we are dealing with. Once we know the law and our way around the courtroom, our next challenge is to provide the next level of representation by serving our clients’ greater needs.
As you consider the ongoing challenges that various divorce litigants may face, it becomes clear that the entry of a final order of divorce is far from the end of our clients’ needs.
Clients who Suffer from Addiction and Mental Illness
While many point to disagreements over finances as the single largest cause of divorce, I find that unaddressed mental health issues are far more common. The complaints vary from uncontrolled rage and depression, alcohol over-consumption, compulsive use of pornography either with or without physical infidelity, prescription and street drug abuse, and the refusal to seek treatment for these and other issues.
When our clients or their spouses suffer from these issues, we are often keenly aware of it since we may take the brunt of their dysfunction. For example, some clients can only be reached in the afternoon because they are recovering from the previous night’s activities during the morning hours. Or maybe they are facing criminal charges as a result of losing control of their emotions or engaging in compulsive criminal activities. Or, sometimes, they are institutionalized during litigation as the result of suicide attempts or other physical manifestations of their inner disposition.
As attorneys, we may choose to surprise our clients by offering something they would never expect—time to vent “off the clock.” Offer to listen, just listen. Being heard is priceless to your relationship with a client and can be the difference between a good and great experience for them. Since you are making the gesture, you also get to set appropriate boundaries of when to talk and for how long.
What many of our clients do not know is the range of assistance for and solutions to these issues. They often feel unique, but are rarely alone in whatever is challenging them. We can and should help them find the right help, such as: referrals to inpatient or outpatient treatment centers; affordable counseling; psychiatric services, including prescription management; and locations of the hundreds of twelve-step meetings available for every conceivable issue.
Knowing what resources exist and how best to help clients can be a challenge. Consider developing relationships with therapists and counselors in order to brainstorm ways to address “extra-legal” issues. This can not only generate referrals, but also provide us with someone who can help develop a template of suggestions to give to a client during the initial interview.
Clients who Feel Shunned by Ex-in-Laws & Former Family Members
While every family dynamic is different, it comes as no surprise when a parent stands by his or her child regardless of who actually deserves more compassion and support. Yet, we don’t always think to warn our clients to be cautious and understanding as former family members also try to navigate relationships post-divorce. We have the ability to predict these kinds of challenges and to offer preventative advice.
Clients who Lack Experience Making Financial Decisions
Many people, married and single alike, never buy a house, execute a will, or seriously consider their financial future. Whether because of avoidance, fear, or procrastination, these important issues are often left to chance. While interacting with our divorcing clients, we have a unique opportunity to either advise them ourselves or to put them in touch with those better qualified to address their legal and non-legal needs. Issues like estate planning, insurance services, and basic home repair can be overwhelming at first. Our clients want to avoid making mistakes and may appreciate our assistance.
Clients who Feel Unable to Begin New Relationships
While some clients may have begun new romantic relationships before their spouse was even aware that the marriage was in trouble, many others wonder where and how to find companionship after years of marriage to the same person. Although attorneys are not dating services, navigating the next chapter of a one’s romantic life deserves a few moments of discussion if for no other reason than to spare our clients the despair of post-divorce isolation.
There are now dozens of singles’ activities, websites, and exercise and sporting groups, but it takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there. Staying social can help divorcees keep themselves healthy post-divorce.
Keeping active helps clients avoid isolation: the darkroom where one develops his or her negatives. However, others find that solitude is the answer and look to meditation, yoga, and nature for solace.
Married couples often engage in the same activities, dine at the same restaurants, and are involved in the same religious and social groups. It can take effort to discover individual preferences and how to meet them. As attorneys, we can help if we get to know our clients as the people that they are.
The Value of Forging Long-Term Relationships with Clients
Whether these topics are outside the role of an attorney representing a client in a divorce action is debatable, but I have found that not ignoring suffering and misery based on some notion of what is or is not part of our job is particularly important to my clients. While we all know how difficult it is to deal with clients who have mental illness, many people going through divorce share similar traits and exhibit comparable behaviors.
I recall hearing about a family member who went through a divorce 40 years ago. At the time, she had four children under the age of ten and she had a very low income. Her divorce lawyer gave her practical advice and charged her a small fee. Over the next 40 years, that lawyer’s name, skill, and kindness were on her lips whenever anyone needed a lawyer. She will likely be at his funeral (or vice versa). Without a doubt, his small investment in her life created dividends that far outweighed any single fee that he could ever have expected to recover.
More recently, I spoke to a suffering soul for a few brief moments about her situation. For various reasons, we decided that I was not the best person to help her and gave her a referral to a different practitioner. Days later, I received my first referral from that woman. She became a “force multiplier” for my firm, despite having never been an actual client. This only occurred because of a few moments invested in a person in pain. Compassion is good business.
When you consider the sphere of influence we have over clients, our effort to improve their lives is an investment in them and in ourselves. It is worth it. As Theodore Roosevelt quipped, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Take the time, make the extra effort, and reap the dividends and personal satisfaction.
Paula J. Gardner has worked primarily in the field of domestic relations law as a paralegal since earning her degree in Paralegal Studies in 1991. She has worked in Colorado, New York, and Virginia. She joined the domestic relations law firm of Cooper Ginsberg Gray, PLLC in 2012.
Robert M. Worster III, Esq., has practiced family law in Northern Virginia since 2005 and handles all aspects of family law cases. He became a partner with Cooper Ginsberg Gray, PLLC, in 2013. He is a member of the Virginia State Bar and inactive member of the Pennsylvania State Bar. www.cgglawyers.com