1. They need to believe in you.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re the most competent attorney or CDFA or mediator around. When your client pays you a ton of money and they’re sitting in your office, they’re filled with a myriad of feelings, stress hormones coursing through them and lots of narcissism, self-doubt, and doubt about you and your ability to fight for them. Confidence in the very people they’re hiring is rare, especially when the process takes a long time, the language is archaic, and they’ve never been in an adversarial position before. You, as their advocate, are up against a lot of prejudgment, bias, and fear.
Your role—know your stuff. Have patience. Answer questions and be self-assured. The decision-making is up to the client (sorry, no you don’t get to live their lives when they walk out your door) however, your role is to be the authority on the law, finances, and budgets or the person that controls the antagonism during mediation. You are in charge; clients are paying you to show up and be the expert.
If you have a client calling and texting and emailing several times after a meeting, sorry, you’re not doing your job.
2. They need to get that you’re not their therapist.
This drives me nuts: attorneys who bill for empathy. Sure you get it, you got into this job to help people, to make moms’ lives easier or to prevent kids from being stuck in the middle. I hear this all the time. However your role is to represent and advocate for your client within the boundaries of the law, not to be a therapist. It’s really not fair for your clients to be paying you more than they’re paying their actual therapists for advice you’re not licensed to give.
The problem is that clients don’t know this and you do. It’s appropriate to explain your role to your clients—to strongly suggest they get a divorce coach and a therapist; to put boundaries in place so you have your own personal life and to keep to your side of the desk remaining in the position and doing the job you’ve been hired to do.
When you don’t, when you can’t pick up the phone or when a client can’t pay back their retainer and bill, ask yourself, ‘How many hours did I overextend myself?’ Your client, once accustomed to the empathetic courtship and nonstop speaking, will begin to encroach upon your weekends, your evenings, and your time with your own family, jeopardizing the one place you may have hope in a happy union. Resentments on both sides build up making your legal representation more difficult and the reputation of matrimonial attorneys, in general, awful.
3. They need to feel that you believe in them.
Clients who leave your office complaining they’re not being heard and understood hate their divorce and the time they spend with you. Way too often you take on a client you don’t believe in, and that doubt seeps into the relationship. The worst person in the world knows who they are. Your role is to work within the law and not pass judgment. They also need clarity: the law is in place for everyone, and manipulating the narcissist's position just because you can, doesn’t help them, their children, or your own place in the world.
When you go against your own moral compass, chances are, you’ll eventually get pretty sick, not only from the stress you’ve put on yourself on a daily basis, but also because of going against what you know to be right. If you don’t believe the person sitting across from you, don’t represent them. Interviews are for you to decide if you’re willing to spend your precious energy representing someone who goes against your integrity. In the short run, you might need to do your own filing; in the long run, you’ll get a great reputation and be known for what you do well.
4. They need to know they’ll be okay.
You could have the wealthiest person in town as a client, you could be with a non-working mom, either way when it comes to their future, everyone’s afraid on a certain level. We don’t marry imagining divorce. We’re also wired for intimacy and to connect. Your client’s swagger may exude confidence and a joie-de-vivre that rivals the most successful rock star. You may be amazed at their resilience, but let me tell you, it’s all a front. Inside, in the quiet moments of their life, they’re looking at their reflection and sucking it up. Everyone doubts that image.
Your role is to assure them. Let them know you’ve got their back. Suggest to all of your clients—get comfortable doing this—to go to therapy and/or to get a divorce coach. Tell them this is the rite of passage they’ve been needing and wanting. Put the process into perspective for them and do so with the wisdom you’ve gained from watching your clients go through it. Divorce stinks. Period. It doesn’t matter how much wealth, how handsome, how prosperous or young. Your role is to guide and lead your clients to the other professionals they need and assure them they’ll be okay if they take the steps the process requires of them.
New York, NY