One of the most challenging aspects of being a family law lawyer is managing clients’ expectations as they go through a divorce. Often, it’s their first time dealing with a legal matter, and they need guidance and direction from their lawyer on costs, timelines and potential outcomes.
Most family lawyers I know work hard to ensure they’re serving their clients’ best interests, but now and again, you hear a story that makes you cringe.
In a recent Alberta case, the court ordered a family lawyer to pay his client almost $132,000 in damages after the judge found the lawyer had coerced her to settle her cases in mediation.
In his decision, the judge said the client was “coerced into a mediation she did not want or instruct on an informed basis. [H]ad she had proper legal representation, she would not have been at mediation, or not have been so ill-prepared and underinformed so as to accept a very compromised settlement, and instead would have proceeded to arbitration.”
Preparing clients for mediation is critical. I always conduct an extensive meeting to discuss strategy and give clients a sense of how the mediation will proceed, possible outcomes and ramifications. Only by understanding all of the relevant factors –– timelines, cost, risk –– can they make informed decisions about how to proceed.
Clients call the shots
As lawyers, we follow strict rules of conduct set out by our law societies. When a client signs a retainer for legal services, they should expect a lawyer who will:
- advocate on their behalf
- keep them updated on the progress of their case
- take the time to answer their questions
- advise them on courses of action throughout the process
- Follow their instructions.
To be clear, clients call the shots and can accept or reject their lawyers’ advice. If I recommend a course of action that my client disagrees with, that’s their prerogative. I may try to convince them, but in the end, I follow their instructions.
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But what happens if you feel your lawyer isn’t serving your best interests? Should you ditch them and hire a new one? That’s an expensive proposition and you should weigh the pros and cons before deciding to do so. It may be the best option in extreme situations, but often the issues can be addressed and resolved.
In that spirit, I offer the following tips to help clients work smarter with their lawyers:
1. Agree on the ground rules
Your initial consultation with a family lawyer is a great opportunity to set expectations. Ask your lawyer how often you’ll receive updates on your case’s progress and the best way for you to communicate relevant information. Like any new relationship, a successful one with your lawyer is grounded in clear communication.
In my practice, we regularly update clients as their case progresses, through in-person meetings, phone calls, emails and formal reporting letters anytime there’s a court appearance, mediation or other significant issues on their file.
2. If you’re not happy, speak up
If you feel like your lawyer isn’t responding to your questions or updating you on the progress of your case, speak up. If you don’t understand something, ask your lawyer to explain it. In my experience, people are sometimes intimidated by lawyers, but it’s important to remember that we work for you. The more you understand, the better equipped you’ll be to make decisions.
Give the lawyer specific feedback on what you’re not happy with –– lack of timely responses to questions, dismissive of your suggestions, not enough prep –– and the opportunity to make it right. If a client isn’t happy, I want to know so I can do my best to fix it. But I’m not a mind reader and it’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street.
3. Check your expectations
Separating from the partner you shared your life with is one of the most stressful experiences a person can go through, even if you know it’s the right decision. I know because I’ve been there.
There’s a grieving process with divorce, and I’ve seen many clients progress through the various stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Sometimes people get stuck in anger and look to their divorce settlement as a way of exacting revenge on their partner or providing them with validation, but that rarely happens.
4. Remind yourself: divorce is a transaction
Divorce is an emotional roller coaster because it impacts everything you care about most: your children, where you live, your financial health and your sense of security in the world. But you will be best served if you can keep your emotions in check and focus on the issues at hand. When cooler heads prevail, everyone wins.