Great Expectations: Tips for a Healthy Family Law Practice

Posted: March 26th, 2016 by

Lisa Shapson, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

There is a lot on the Internet and social media about healthy relationship splits and mediation, but what about the attorney in the middle of all this? How do we, as lawyers, keep our sanity without wearing our clients’ struggles on our sleeves, especially with the brutal topics of ending a relationship, dividing property, custody of children and domestic violence?

Here is a list of best practices that, if followed, will enable you to have a healthy practice, regardless of the conflict levels in your cases.

During the initial consultation:

  • Give it to them straight. Set the tone with clients up front. Make sure clients know which goals are attainable and which are unrealistic. Explain the law and how it applies to their case, but don’t sugarcoat it. So the saying goes, “It is what it is.” Clients need forthright honesty from you, even if you think it is something they do not want to hear.
  • Set expectations. When giving clients an estimated budget, remind them that they can help keep some fees to a minimum. Clients should provide all requested documentation needed to help you represent them effectively. They should always keep their current contact information up-to-date—some family law clients move several times throughout the case—and be responsive to emails and phone calls.
  • Advise of your expectations. This is a step many attorneys do not take even though they should. The majority of family law clients have never hired an attorney before. It is important to provide instructions for their new relationship with you. For example, I make it a point to advise clients that I am only available in the office from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. daily due to child care responsibilities. I also inform them that my cellphone is private and that email is something I do not read on weekends. I reiterate that I am available every workday unless I am in court and that I return telephone calls and emails within 24 hours except over weekends.

You must be thinking “What?” How are you in business? How does this sit with your clients?

Availability is a two-way mindset. Attorneys should remember that clients do not need to get ahold of us 24/7 just because today’s technology provides that capability. Remind clients of what a true emergency is: something that requires either a police officer or medical professional, two important jobs that family lawyers generally don’t transition from. Reassure them that whatever the issue is or how emergent it seems to them, it can probably wait to be addressed during normal business hours. I always suggest that clients email if it would help make them feel better when something “urgent” comes up, with the understanding that I may not respond to or call to talk about the issue until the following workday.

Another important factor in family law cases is to caution clients about speaking in front of others and especially children, no matter their age. Family law clients often get caught up in emotion when dealing with their exes. Setting this expectation is not only in the children’s best interests, but can also help to minimize conflict overall.

  • Ask for and listen to clients’ expectations of you. Although family law is not the highest paying practice area, clients are customers paying for your service. The best compliment is having made clients feel as if they are your only one, even though that is far from reality. Remember that family law clients are dealing with some of the highest of life’s stressors and, especially during the first few weeks of representation, they may feel more dependent upon you. This usually resolves by the time they see their first bill, which should reflect all communications, even if no-charged as a courtesy.

During your entire representation of the client:

  • Meet expectations. How many times have you heard clients complain that their former lawyer never called them back and were never available to answer questions? Lawyers should abide by the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.3(3) states: “A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions. … Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance, however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.”

Part-time availability does not mean part-time commitment to cases during regular business hours, so never treat it as such. Be available to clients when in the office. If they need a face-to-face meeting, give them one. If they just need a call back, call them back. If they need emailed questions answered, email them back. If you practice these tips, you should never hear complaints about your availability. No one expects to be able to order Chinese food when the Chinese restaurant is closed, right? So why should clients expect to be able to call you personally at all hours of the day if they know they can just call your office five days a week and talk to you right away? The answer is, they don’t. And for this reason, I have never once, in 16 years of practicing family law, been bothered on the weekend or at night by clients.

  • Meet deadlines. Emergencies do occur. Our children get sick. Things happen and clients will understand if we cannot meet self-imposed deadlines as long as you keep them informed of their case status. Email or call to give clients the courtesy of letting them know if you cannot meet a deadline and why. Clients understand and are more forgiving when kept in the loop. Remember, family law issues are akin to an atomic explosion on the family, one in which many clients feel as though they have lost all sense of control. Give them some control back by setting a strategy together with deadlines for the case and meeting them. Clients will be a lot calmer and handle day-to-day incidents more appropriately with a plan to resolve the overall issues and regain control over their lives.
  • Give staff your daily schedule. The worst is when a panicky client calls, cannot get ahold of you and then proceeds to tell off your staff for what sounds like a host of reasons when the true underlying reason is that you are simply unavailable at that moment. Regardless of whether you are in court or on vacation, it is important for your staff to let clients know when you are expected to return. Instruct your staff when you anticipate being able to return emails or calls, making sure to get numbers where clients can be reached at that time. Again, this is about giving the client some control. Attorneys who routinely practice returning emails and phone calls when they say they will are more highly regarded by clients. But if you haven’t been following this protocol, your word may mean nothing and not being available when clients call may be a source of constant upset. It’s never too late to turn over a new leaf—try being more responsive, starting now.

Clients are important people. Most have jobs and families, so they understand the importance of work-life balance. Prospective family law clients will appreciate and want to put their families’ issues in your hands if you demonstrate prioritizing your own family first during family time and your clients first during work time. Discussing mutual expectations up front and meeting them throughout the representation is the best recipe for healthier attorney-client relationships.

Reprinted with permission from the MARCH 23, 2016 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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