Two renowned lawyers Bernie Rinella and Donald Schiller discuss how to be “gentlemen advocates” for your clients, particularly in high-stakes divorce cases.
Bernie Rinella Donald Schiller
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Bernie Rinella is the managing partner of the firm Rinella & Rinella, the oldest family law firm in the State of Illinois. The firm has focused exclusively on family law matters since 1932, and is recognized as one of the premier family law firms in the country. Bernie’s leadership and experience have been acknowledged with numerous awards and honours by his peers, including the AV Preeminent rating through Martindale-Hubbell and a citation in The Best Lawyers in America. Bernie was voted the 2004 American Academy Matrimonial Lawyer of the Year. Rinella & Rinella has represented a range of clients, captains of industry, television celebrities and sports stars, as well as business owners, professionals, and homemakers. Rinella and Rinella
Donald Schiller has been called a “gentlemen in a volatile profession.” In 2011, the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers presented him with the prestigious Judge Samuel Berger Award; the award is given to lawyers who exemplify integrity, courtesy, knowledge of family law, and possess an extraordinary ability to solve human problems. Schiller DuCanto & Fleck is the largest family law firm in the country. It focuses exclusively on family law and is internationally recognized as a model for firms practicing in the field. Schiller Ducanto & Fleck
What are the key factors that contribute to the respect you’ve both received from other family lawyers?
Rinella: Over the years, Don and I have combined over 100 years of practice in the family law field. We’ve treated opposing counsel and colleagues with respect; you earn respect by being respectful. Our body of work is probably one of the key factors in how we gain respect from our colleagues: what we have done over the years, our contributions to the legal profession, our work within committees, our positions of authority throughout the legal community – whether it be local, state, or national – earns you the respect of your colleagues.
If you’re reasonable in handling matters and approach things with the straightforward manner we all hope to have – no deception, and you restrain your advocacy, which sometimes is very difficult – your colleagues will respect such an approach, you will end up earning their respect too.
There are many methods of earning respect, but the mere fact that you have practiced law for this long is likely to mean to a newcomer that you must be doing something right. As far as I’m concerned, the key means of earning respect are preparation, experience, and reasonableness. These are very important; and knowledge, of course, which would assist in gaining the respect of your colleagues.
Do you have anything to add to that, Don?
Schiller: Bernie covered it very well. I would add that it’s important from the very beginning to maintain the highest degree of integrity. People must learn to trust you; you must keep your word. If things get bad and you’ve given your word, you shouldn’t change it. Trust is very important.
Also, helping the lawyers that practice in the community, lawyers that you may have had cases with. If they call to ask questions because you’re more experienced, let them pick your brain a little bit. Help them through CLE programs and show that you want to help the profession as well as advance yourself.
Is it possible for a family lawyer to have a successful career without upsetting or ruffling the feathers of opposing counsel from time to time? Or is this inevitable?
Schiller: It’s inevitable that you’ll upset opposing counsel. Not in every case, but lawyers are competitive people. They tend to identify with their clients and sometimes we all take it a little bit too far. Sometimes you have to take firmer positions because of the situation.
Remember that our main loyalty is to our client. Of course, the primary loyalty is to the profession and the justice system, but our job is to represent and do what’s best for our client – and do it ethically. If the opposing council knows you’re pursuing things that may be harmful to their client or upsetting to them, but you’re doing so ethically, they’ll understand. They’ll be mad at you for a while, but on reflection, they’ll know that they would have done the same thing.
Never try to be confrontational. It doesn’t get you anywhere; a settlement is better than a trial, and to attempt to irritate or agitate opposing counsel is a very foolish thing. You want to work together for the benefit of the clients, and to make it easier for both of you to resolve the case.
Bernie, was this how you acted from the beginning or was this something you learned as you went along?
Rinella: As Don has said, you owe it to the profession. I was fortunate enough to have a father who was a lawyer, and I learned from him the approach that we’re talking about today.
What about judges? What have you done to gain their respect? They’re an important component as well.
Rinella: If you can comport yourself appropriately in a judge’s courtroom, that buys respect. Also, the fact that you have practiced in the field as long as you have lends a credibility to what you say and do. Judges know from the get-go those lawyers who have good reputations and they seek out lawyers like this for various committees. We try to assist judges. Often a judge will not have the experience that we have and it’s wise to offer your services to assist the judge in making the case operate and run more smoothly.
It doesn’t take long for judges to learn which lawyers they can trust and whose word is their bond. It’s a very necessary thing when initially starting with a judge to show that you trust the judge’s thoughts. You may oppose or feel that you have a better position than what the judge is suggesting, but you must conduct yourself in such a manner as to show respect for the court. And that earns you respect.
Don, is there anything about preparing information for the judge that is important to help you gain their respect?
Schiller: Yes. Part of earning the judge’s trust and respect is being prepared. You can’t just hip-shoot cases in court. Judges won’t trust you because they know you can’t be thoroughly prepared and be a reliable source of information because you can’t carry that all around in your head. It’s important to be well prepared every time you appear in court, to become the authority on what’s happening in the case, and to know all the details and the facts as well as the law. When the court asks questions of the lawyers, one of the lawyers might know the names of the children and the other might not. The lawyer that knows the names of the children might know what grade they’re in, and the other lawyer is still the one that doesn’t. Eventually, the court is going to go to the lawyer that keeps answering the questions and is more knowledgeable and better prepared.
Be honest with the judge. If the judge asks you a question, you have to answer it honestly. Don’t try to weasel out of things or you will not gain trust. If you’re prepared, you’re a source of information that’s reliable. Over time, you’ll earn the judge’s respect and they’ll listen more carefully to your arguments than someone else’s.
Do judges talk amongst each other?
Schiller: Yes, absolutely. They do.
So bad news can carry pretty fast within the judge’s community?
Schiller: Both good and bad.
What do you need to do to gain your client’s respect?
Rinella: You’re retained by your clients because you have a good reputation. As far as clients are concerned, you have to educate them from the get-go as to what the courts will do. What is fair, what is equitable, and what is attainable. Too often, clients try to shoot for the moon and, as their counsel, you must instruct them that their goal is not attainable. We try to be reasonable in our approach. Obviously, we will argue vigorously for our clients, but there’s a point of no return. Once you go too far and are sucked in by your client’s emotion, then you’re not doing your client any favors. Ultimately, they will not respect you when they hear the results from your petition, motion, or a trial where you have misled them by saying you could accomplish more than is possible.
You have to be professional in your handling of the case. You cannot argue needlessly to impress the client before the judge. Professionalism is very important and you gain your client’s respect by being straightforward and honest. If you are in court, they will trust you and your word once they see you in operation. Or if you are negotiating, they will have more trust and faith in you once they see you trying to attain the goals that you have said you can attain, rather than those unattainable goals.
Do you have anything to add, Don?
Schiller: The idea of giving your client reasonable expectations from the very beginning can’t be emphasized enough. It sets the stage for how they’re going to conduct themselves and how the lawyer is going to conduct him or herself. The danger with some lawyers is they’re so anxious to get a client and the case that they are tempted to over-promise. You’re never going to be able to deliver on that promise, so you’re laying a foundation for failure.
Another thing is that the client wants to know you’re working hard for them and you’re going to be responsive to them. Responsiveness – showing that you really care and you’re really working for them – is very important. Many lawyers work very hard for their clients, but the clients don’t even know it. If lawyers don’t keep their clients informed as to what’s going on, all the clients do is get a bill. However, if you continuously send the clients copies of things, such as letters of motions that are being filed, or orders being entered; keep continuous communication going by answering their phone calls the same day or in no longer than 24 hours; and tell them what is really happening because you’ve given them reasonable expectations and they see that you’re meeting those expectations – they will have respect for you, and send other clients to you.
When emotions are running high and the clients are demanding that you do something, are there any particular strategies you employ?
Rinella: I always think of these cases as similar to a hurdle race. You start with the first hurdle then work your way down the track to the final finish line. When people start out, they’re hot and they’re emotional; but as time goes by, if you handle the client properly and you listen to and respond to their arguments, you do take a lot of the emotion out of the case. Oftentimes, the longer a case runs, the more reasonable a client gets for numerous reasons, such as the fact that the bill is increasing, time is elapsing, and they want to get it over with.
There are also clients who are so enamored with their own case that you cannot, as much as you may try, convince them that they’re wrong. Those are the type of clients whose cases we ultimately withdraw from. We know there is a lot of emotion. You quell it by giving the client the opportunity to talk – catharsis is good – and rein the client in to get them to a position where it’s reasonable to think that this case could be settled. If not, you prepare them for trial as best you can with all the tools you have in your box. Try to be reasonable and suggest what will be obtainable, and hopefully, the client will go along with it.
I’m wondering what each of you thinks about winning. In legal practice, lawyers are trying to win a case. What does winning mean in a divorce case for each of you?
Schiller: For me, winning is meeting your reasonable expectations. If the clients asks what to expect, or is talking about all kinds of things that are not achievable, you have to tell the client what an achievable goal is – and winning is achieving that goal. The client can understand that you might ask for something greater than the goal – and you may appear to lose something because you didn’t achieve all that you asked for, but the client knows what the good result is. Even though you may seem, from the outside, to get less than what you asked for, you did get what the client wanted.
Do you have anything to add to that, Bernie?
Rinella: When I initially take on a case, I suggest a strategy to the client, and we try to follow it throughout the handling of the case. So the client knows there’s an agenda when we meet, and knows we are at a particular stage. Winning is sometimes losing if the case goes on too long. The client may win, but end up losing because of the cost and the emotional damage that has been done.
Schiller: Something Bernie said made me remember an old quote from a very well respected, now deceased judge at a federal court here in Chicago, Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. What he said was, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” If you school your clients in that, and you remember that yourself, it will go a long way in making sure cases that are competitive are not disagreeable.