Your exit interview is your opportunity as a family lawyer to tell your client about the hard work you have done to get him or her the decision they needed.
Mark Chinn, Family Lawyer
It is important to finish your service with a ceremony and remind the client of the excellent job you have done. Simply stated, people may not fully appreciate what a fine job you have done for them if you do not tell them. One way to accomplish both ends is to conduct an exit interview after all of the work is completed. We like to hold it at about the same time the divorce is granted, if not the same day. The exit interview has four basic parts. In the first part I revisit everything that has happened, obstacles cleared, difficulties conquered, wins in court, and so on. I usually open up the file and start at the beginning, “Well, I see we opened your file last August 17. You were concerned that you did not have grounds for divorce and that your husband would challenge your custody of your children because of your alcohol use. We went right to work and got an alcohol evaluation, which proved negative, and then we filed suit and set the matter for a temporary hearing. We got custody of your children and then moved quickly to settlement talks. We ended up with an agreement and a divorce within four months. Not bad.” It is positive to go back over the difficulties and how they were overcome and to implant in the client’s mind the value of your work. This is good for you and for your clients. They need to feel they did well in hiring you.
The Exit Interview and The Feel Good Factor
Clients also need to feel good about themselves. Frequently, I will conclude the first part of the exit interview by saying, “You know, I want to tell you something: I am proud of you. You handled a very difficult situation, and you never let anger get the best of you. You never retaliated against your husband’s dirty tricks. You handled your divorce with class.” Or, “l know you didn’t want a divorce, and I know you are probably feeling like a fool for trying so hard to save your marriage, all to no avail. But I want to tell you that you should never second-guess yourself for doing everything you could to save your marriage. I am proud of you.”
The second part of the interview is a discussion of the elements of the agreement or order. Go through the agreement and talk about the various provisions, discussing what they mean. Discuss what the settlement talks were and how you tried to get a more beneficial provision but just could not get the other side to go for it. Discuss how you might have advised the client that a certain part of the agreement was not a good idea, but they elected to do it anyway. For example, “I advised you that you did not have to pay this much alimony, but you elected to do it anyway, saying that you wanted to make sure the mother of your children had enough to live on. You didn’t have to do that, but I salute you for that; things may work out best for you in the future because of your generosity.” This type of discussion cements the give-and-take of the negotiation in the client’s mind and gives a realistic remembrance of how things went. This will help both client and lawyer in the future if things do not go right.
The third part of the exit interview is the “advice and warnings” section in which the client is advised as to how the order may be enforced or modified, what to do and not to do, when to come back for advice, and how to protect himself.
The final part of the exit interview is the celebration and farewell. I got this idea from a real estate agent who sent my mother a bouquet of flowers when she moved into the home she had helped her buy. I thought, “I must do the same for my clients.” So, we give our clients a bottle of champagne at the end of the exit interview. I might say something like, “I know nobody wants to divorce, but we must view all adversity in our lives as an opportunity. Take this champagne as a token of our affection and gratitude and get together with your closest friends tonight and pop the cork and say a toast to your new life.” For some clients, we expand the idea. One particular client went through pure hell with his case, with his business partner and wife double-teaming him with conspiracy and litigation. He paid three times what he should have had to pay for his divorce because of the conspiracy. But he never complained and gave us all the resources to do a good job for him. After his exit interview, we threw a surprise party for him, inviting several of his close friends. Recently, we concluded a long and expensive battle for an oilman who likes to smoke cigars. Again, this client went through hell, but he never took his pain out on us. We presented him with two bottles of fine champagne and a set of fine Cuban cigars. We called all of the staff in and popped the cork on one bottle of champagne and had a brief firm party with him. I was advised just the other day that one of my associates saw this former client in the grocery store, and he said, “I miss seeing y’all. Can I come by to see you?” And then he jokingly added, “You won’t charge me, will you?”
The Exit Interview and the Divorce Entry Checklist
When the divorce is concluded, often many details remain to be taken care of, such as the transfer of property, preparation of QDRO’s, the closing of accounts, arrangements for insurance, and the transfer of automobiles. Great service to the client involves monitoring these details and assisting the client in tying up loose ends. The best job of closing a divorce file I have ever seen took place at the office of an opposing counsel several years ago. We were at his office and signed the papers. At the same time his secretary presented the agreement and order of divorce, she also brought out a series of documents and forms: a bill of sale for the boat that was being transferred, a tax form for the wife to sign allowing the husband to claim the children as dependents, a quit claim deed for the home, and a QDRO for the pensions. There were no loose ends! She had it all taken care of right then and there.
Many times it is not possible to close all of the details at the time the agreement is signed. For example, the parties might agree to transfer property after the divorce, or a payment of money is scheduled six months down the road. The service-oriented attorney develops a checklist for these matters and follows up for the client.
Service After the Sale
Most lawyers view the entry of the divorce as the end of the case. It may be the end of this case, but excellent opportunities for service present themselves in the post-divorce period. You might call this “service after the sale.” Service after the sale helps distinguish your firm’s service from others, it helps clients avoid pitfalls, and it provides excellent, continuing marketing opportunities with past clients.
Mark Chinn received his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in 1975 and his Law Degree from the University of Mississippi in 1978. He is admitted to practice in all courts in Mississippi, the Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the United States Supreme Court. Mark is a frequent contributor in periodicals such as the American Journal of Family Law, The Family Advocate, Small Firm Profit Report and Fair Share on the subjects of client relations, service and law practice management.
As a family lawyer, understanding the worth of the initial interview with a client carries the key to success in a case. Find out how it is done effectively.