How I Care for Divorcing Clients

   
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    On Caring by Milton Mayerhoff is one of the most personally important and impactful books that I have ever read, and probably will ever read. It is a summary and explanation of what it means to care for oneself and others, both philosophically and practically. I had been practicing law for over a decade before I found the book.  But, one particular passage succinctly described the guiding principle that I had developed for my representation of, and caring for, clients:

When I care for an adult…I try to avoid making decisions for him.  I help him make his own decisions by providing information, suggesting alternatives, and pointing out possible consequences, but all along I realize that they are his decisions to make and not my own.

To my mind, this passage is the foundation for effectively helping clients through a divorce. Some attorneys have trouble allowing clients to make their own decisions, and feel compelled to “guide” clients to making whatever decision the attorney himself would make in that situation. And, while it is not always easy, remembering that a client’s decisions are hers to make and not my own, is the key to effectively helping her make those decisions.  And, that, so far as I have come to understand it, is the key to truly caring for clients.

Why Smart People Can Have Dumb Divorces

Left brain = logical thinking Right brain = emotional thinking

Left brain = logical thinking
Right brain = emotional thinking

Working in Research Triangle Park (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) a region renowned for its education level, I have the privilege of working with a lot of very smart people.  Doctors, professors, business executives, entrepreneurs, nurses, techies, and domestic geniuses all bring healthy IQ’s to the collaborative divorce conference, mediation or negotiating table. Certainly raw intelligence helps in a divorce.  The ability to learn, process and analyze complex legal issues and numbers is immensely helpful to efficiently resolving a divorce. But, in my experience, it pales in comparison to the ability to recognize, understand, process and deftly handle the emotional component of divorce, both in yourself and in your spouse.

Why Arguing is So Expensive in Divorce

In divorce, time is money.  Most divorce attorneys charge by 6 minute increments.  That means that you are going to pay anywhere from $2.50 to $7.50 or more per minute for your divorce attorney’s work. Legal BillI would be greatly concerned about using my attorney efficiently.  I would want more money going into my pocket, my kids’ college, or my retirement than to attorneys. To be sure, skimping on an attorney for a divorce is not a good idea.  That can lead to very expensive mistakes. But, paying more than necessary for your attorney can be avoided. In my experience, the number one factor in the legal fees in a divorce is not the hourly rate of an attorney.  Rather, it is the amount of time that a client pays an attorney to do things other than help resolve their case.

Don’t Confuse Arguing for Negotiating

Arm WrestlingDoes your attorney argue or negotiate? Arguing is not the same as negotiating. Negotiation, at its root, is problem solving.  It is the act of solving joint problems. Arguing, by contrast, is at its best the act of trying to persuade someone to adopt your point of view. It is the act of trying to convince someone else that you are right, and they are wrong. At its worst it is trying to convince someone that that you are worthy and they are not; they are bad, and you are good. Negotiating involves a consideration of the other party’s perspective, and what they need from the negotiation.  It involves some degree of effort to meet the other party’s needs in a resolution, in recognition that resolution is a two way street. By contrast, argument ignores the other party’s part in a resolution.  It treats the other party as if their agreement is not required for resolution.  It says to the other person “You are an obstacle to me having what I want.”  That may be true, but

In Divorce, It Pays to Be Nice

When trying to influence someone, as in a divorce negotiation, respect and politesse go a long way.

When trying to influence someone, as in a divorce negotiation, respect and politesse go a long way.

I often have conversations with clients about “catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  Angry people are not very generous or considerate.  So, if you can try not to anger your spouse in a divorce negotiation, then your outcome is almost always going to be better. This short musing inspired by Richard Pryor makes the point nicely, I think.

What Hostage Negotiations Teach Us About Divorce Negotiations

As it turns out, a divorce negotiation is a lot like a hostage negotiation.   Just not in the way you probably think.    I never would have thought about that.  But, a recent interview with a former FBI hostage negotiator in Men’s Journal made it apparent.  Gary Noesner’s interview in the April issue of the magazine gave six keys to effective negotiation under high stress situations.  Not coincidentally, these are the same rules that good collaborative attorneys and mediators follow when negotiating a divorce settlement.  Anybody going through a divorce would do well to keep these in mind, and to find an attorney who understands these techniques:

Autonomy Buckets

One frequent topic of co-parenting discussions is how much autonomy each parent will have when making decisions about the children.  How will decisions be made by the parents to benefit the children now that interaction and communication between parents is less frequent and maybe more difficult?

I like to talk to clients about “Autonomy Buckets”, a concept I learned from Cat Zavis, an attorney, mediator and expert communicator in Washington state.

Is Your Divorce Attorney Wearing Two Hats?

Some clients wonder why their collaborative divorce attorney cannot represent them in court if collaborative does not resolve their case.  Some clients find it difficult to find the nerve to talk to one divorce attorney; the thought of having to meet two of them is daunting.   One reason is that North Carolina law requires a collaborative divorce attorney to withdraw if and when a lawsuit is filed.

Flexibility and Predictability in Your Separation Agreement

 There is a point in many of my divorce cases, whether collaborative, mediation or otherwise negotiated, at which the parties ask, “How many of these details do we need to figure out, and how many can we leave open?”   The general answer is that there are some items that need to be conclusively determined, but many that do not.  But, the more useful answer is that what you nail down in detail and what you leave open to future determination or adjustment is largely a matter of personal preference. 

Knowing Your Divorce Attorney’s Bias

Everybody has a bias. 

 

 

 

That’s not bad or wrong.  It just is.  No one can be completely objective. (Don’t believe me? Read “Thinking, Fast and Slow”!)

 

 

 

The challenge, then, is to understand the bias so that you know how to more accurately interpret information from that person.

 

 

 

Nowhere is this more important than in choosing and communicating with your divorce attorney.   Contrary to popular belief, divorce attorneys are people (at least that’s my working hypothesis).  And, as such, they have biases.  One of your jobs as a discriminating client is to figure out what that bias is, and then interpret the advice, information and counsel you get from your attorney accordingly.