Why Your Divorce and Custody Lawyer Isn’t Your Best Friend
Over the years my office has handled a lot of divorce and custody cases. There have been many clients that I have become very close to and whom I have stayed in touch with long after their divorces and custody matters were finalized. I have gone to their weddings after their first divorce, gone out to dinner with them, been to baby showers for their newborn children and even friended them on social media. However, becoming close friends with my clients always occurred after their divorce proceedings were over. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be friends with my clients while they were going through their divorce or custody case. Instead, in handling hundreds of family law cases, I have learned that being a client’s friend first, and lawyer second, during their case, inhibits my ability to be their strongest advocate which is what they hired me to do. This article explains some of the pitfalls becoming best friends with your lawyer can cause during your divorce or custody proceedings.
1. A good custody and divorce lawyer needs complete transparency with their clients.
As your divorce attorney, I usually need to know everything. Did you have an affair with your co-worker and spend your savings on hotel rooms? Did you use drugs while leaving your kids alone in next room? Was your ex abusive? Do you have a criminal history? These can be tough questions and sometimes clients are afraid to share this type of information with even their closest friends. I have found that if a client considers me their friend first, as opposed to their lawyer first, they don’t share this information because they are afraid, ashamed or embarrassed about why I might think as their friend. For me to do my job as your advocate, there can’t be any secrets. I need to know the answer to these questions and more in order to effectively represent you. Eventually, the truth will come out and to provide the best legal representation to my clients there cannot be any secrets whether you consider me your friend or not.
2. At some point I am going to give you advice you don’t want to hear
In the years of being a divorce and custody lawyer, I have had some clients behave incredibly poorly while going through their case. I have found that this behavior is usually not the true actions of the client but instead is usually because a friend or co-worker told them they could and should behave in a certain way. As your lawyer, my job is to give you legal advice. My job is not to be your cheerleader when your actions violate the law. Many times, this involves giving you advice that you don’t want to hear like “yes, dad can also take the children on vacation for two weeks” or “no you cant quit your job to avoid paying child support.” If a client considers me their friend first, as opposed to their legal advocate, they often become angry, feeling like I am not on their side, and this feeling could not be further from the truth. It is my job to give you sound legal advice so that you can achieve the best outcome for your case. I am considering how the judge will react and the impact it will have on your long term relationships with your ex and your kids which is my job as your attorney. It is not my job to support you in actions that violate the law or that could leave you vulnerable in your legal case.
3. The dreaded conversation about payment
I would love to help all of my clients for free but unfortunately, and I know this may come as a shock to you, I am not independently wealthy. At the end of the day, my profession is that of attorney. I love being a lawyer but it is also how I pay my bills, feed my children and keep a roof over my head. Sometimes, when clients consider me their friend first, and their lawyer second, they forget that this is how I make my living and that I need to be paid for my time and advice. They also forget that if they don’t pay me, at some point, I am going to have to end our relationship. When a client considers me their friend first, and not their lawyer first, they lose sight of the fact that I do require payment for my time.
4. Clients who consider themselves friends forget that there are boundaries.
Technology is both a blessing and a curse to those in the legal profession. Usually, I am pretty generous with my clients as far as providing them my email, cell number and even friending them on social media. However, when a client considers me their friend first, and their lawyer they second, they tend to forget that I too have a husband, children and a life outside of being a lawyer. My life usually happens on the weekends and between the hours of 6 pm and 9 pm at night. My “friend” clients have no problem texting me or calling my cell at all hours of the day and night to tell me their problems and ask my advice. The line between attorney/client becomes blurred for them because they see me as their friend and they are just asking advice from a friend. They forget that this is time I am spending with my family, away from my work. When I have to remind my clients of this, they become offended or hurt when they see me as their friend instead of seeing me as a professional with regular business hours.
5. The Rules of Ethics Govern Relationships With Clients
The State Bar has a set of ethical rules that attorneys must live by. Included in those rules, is a discussion about appropriateness of relationships with clients. It is easy for clients to feel a particular closeness with their attorney because as we have discussed, as your lawyers in your divorce/custody case, we know your deepest, darkest secrets. Likewise, as attorneys, we are placed in a position of having a fiduciary relationship with our clients and the State Bar takes this seriously. Lawyers are precluded from developing romantic relationships with clients during the pendency of their case. Having a romantic relationship with your lawyer, during your case, is a bad idea for a lot of different reasons and probably the subject of a thousand other articles. In this article, I will simply state that when a client believes they are a friend first, and client second, it is easy to see how a slippery slope can be created. Keeping it professional may not only be necessary for the attorney and client, but is required by the State Bar.
As you can see, its not that we don’t want to be friends with our clients, but rather, we have found that keeping the lines of attorney-client relationships clear creates a set of expectations and boundaries that are clear for everyone. It avoids hurt feelings in clients and allows us, as your legal advocates, to do the best job we can for you, as your attorneys. There is always time for friendship after your case is over.