Probably because of my military background, I am a huge believer in formalities and boundaries. Entering my career as an attorney, I saw a rigid line between acting in my capacity as an attorney and acting as a friend, a therapist, and a life coach for my clients. I believed my job was solely to give answers to legal questions and advocate for my client in the legal system, not discuss my client’s anxiety, life goals, and failures with them. And then I took my first family law case.
There is a lot that a family law class in law school will not teach you, and I have learned a lot of lessons over the last few months about how to handle clients in domestic relations cases, mostly through abject failure and frustration. Every client is different and, in order to effectively communicate with them and settle a particular client’s divorce case, an attorney must enter the situation with a completely open mind. However, I have learned a few helpful tips since becoming licensed that can help with every case, whether the issue is communicating effectively with your client or trying to stay sane in the midst of a messy case.
Have a proactive introductory package ready to send to the other party.
I know that those of you who have practiced family law for many years are probably astounded that this is something a young lawyer didn’t inherently know to do, but it is a very helpful strategy in getting the ball rolling with a divorce case, especially when dealing with a pro se party. I have learned that when I call an opposing party and leave a voicemail, it can be very intimidating and inhibit effective communication with that person because they are freaked out about lawyers being involved. However, when I send a warm letter explaining the process, asking if the other party is represented and presenting the case in a proactive and positive way, communication with the other party starts off on a good foot and generally stays that way.
Connect with other professionals who specialize in collateral issues.
Again, this may sound common sense, but it is immensely helpful for your sanity. The most important business card I carry when meeting with a potential or current client is that of a psychologist. When conversations with your client leave the legal arena and step into the personal realm, it is very helpful to suggest the client see someone who specializes in those issues and to have someone to recommend on the spot. Real estate agents and insurance brokers are also invaluable resources, because most divorce litigants need a new place to live and need to set up new insurance policies. I even recently reached out to a rabbi after fielding a question about Orthodox Jewish divorce customs from a client. I find that clients look to me as a resource for knowledge about all things related to their divorce rather than simply answers to their legal questions, and having a good network of outside professionals helps me resolve divorces more quickly and keeps my client comfortable.
Pick up the phone and call opposing counsel.
This should be the first thing taught in family law classes. However, it’s something that far too many family lawyers don’t do. When I take a new case that involves another attorney, the first thing I do is call that attorney to introduce myself. I firmly believe that communication is the key to efficiently and effectively settle a divorce case, and I always try to set the tone of cordiality and openness from the minute I take a case. I strive to collaborate as much as possible with opposing counsel because, in the end, collaboration saves both attorneys time, money, and frustration. This is especially true in cases where one party controlled the accounts, bills, taxes, and other financial items throughout the marriage; in these cases, it is nearly impossible to gather information without communicating effectively with the other side.
Maintain your hobbies.
Work–life balance is especially important when you are dealing with divorce cases. The emotional nature of these cases can make client contact very stressful at times, more so than other practice areas. Whatever it is that keeps you at peace and keeps you centered, do it. And do it regularly. And leave your smartphone at home. Being outdoors hiking or skiing at least one day per week keeps me centered; I feel completely reset and calm after a day in the mountains. It’s easy to let your hobbies and your interests slide to the back burner while working as a solo practitioner handling all aspects of a law practice, but keeping your sanity is paramount if you want to be an effective divorce attorney.
Almost all of you have more experience than I do, because I’m at the beginning of my career. What would you add to this list? What do you find to be the most important qualities of a divorce attorney? Comments are always welcome!