Why You and Your Divorce Attorney Should Develop a Personal Relationship

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

I’ve always enjoyed the movie Jerry Maguire. Jerry is a sports agent representing Rod Tidwell, a bombastic, energetic, life-loving NFL wide receiver. Part of the appeal of the movie is the relationship between Rod and Jerry. Rod leaves no doubt about his professional goals (SHOW ME THE MONEY JERRY!!!!), but he has to navigate personal and professional challenges to make them happen. Rod is Jerry’s client, but his relationship with Jerry seems more than that. Throughout the film, Rod must rely on his relationship with Jerry to lead him to the promised land.

I’m not here to tell you that all of our clients are going to cry, yell at, and hug their divorce attorney, nor am I suggesting your attorney should model him or herself after Jerry Maguire. In many ways, however, a successful attorney-client relationship may look more like Rod and Jerry’s than many of your other professional relationships. Here’s how.

You need a personal relationship with your attorney

Speaking for myself and I am sure many others in my profession, we do this work because we actually want to help people. Yes, we are professionals, and we focus intensely on protecting the things our clients value most. But our jobs also often requires us to know the most intimate details of our client’s lives, facts that they may not share with anyone one else, ever.

Our clients come to trust and rely on us, not only to keep their confidence, but also to help manage the most difficult and valuable parts of their lives. A relationship like this doesn’t come into existence overnight, and it requires a personal investment, from the attorney and the client. The relationship takes time to build, through meetings, phone calls, emails, Zoom chats, court hearings, and more. Regardless of how you build it, a successful relationship requires effort, time, mutual understanding, and respect.

Trust and honesty are critical to a successful attorney-client relationship

Divorces are usually among the most difficult experiences of a person’s life, and they can sometimes take months or longer to complete. There is often a high degree of conflict, there are frequently multiple and simultaneous dispute resolution processes at work, and there are always unwanted or unexpected developments.

The twists and turns that occur don’t have to be disastrous for the outcome of a person’s divorce, but they will undoubtedly require trust and teamwork to overcome. The client should expect his or her attorney to be up front and honest about unwanted or unexpected developments, mistakes, delays, or bad results. These things happen in life in the best circumstances, and they happen in divorces too. It is critical to identify issues as they arise, communicate them openly and directly, and come up with a plan.

Good attorneys excel in these moments and clients should trust and rely on them to help move things forward in a constructive and positive manner.

Allow your attorney to help you define and pursue your goals

A divorce shouldn’t define you, but it is a milestone, and hopefully one that allows you to redefine your life direction and goals so that you can become the best possible version of you.

In order to move constructively through the divorce process and confidently on to a better life, it is essential to develop your life goals and objectives for the mid- and long-term. Without this direction, it is all too easy to become stuck in the morass of the divorce process, and to forget that divorce should be an event that you put in your rearview mirror as soon as possible. Maintaining focus on your goals will allow you to make the compromises in your divorce that are necessary to end that chapter of your life and move forward to the life that awaits.

Spend some time early in the divorce process discussing your goals with your attorney, and identify the key components you believe are necessary to accomplish your goals. Once you’ve done this, don’t allow yourself to lose track of your goals. Revisit them, and talk with your lawyer to assess your progress, and whether your goals remain viable and attainable. Don’t be afraid to adapt and adjust your goals as you go.

If you have developed the sort of attorney-client relationship I’ve suggested, you will find that your lawyer will be a valuable resource in helping you stay on the path to the life you want to live.

Litigation vs. Negotiation – Which Path Is the Right One for You?

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Most of us have seen one of those dramatic courtroom movies that glamourize the court process – perhaps Tom Cruise’s fiery cross-examination of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Gregory Peck’s moving closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird

But litigation, the contested court process by which parties resolve their differences, is nothing like the process we see in our favorite legal thrillers. It is a long, slow, and expensive process. Many people consider it the most painful, difficult process of their lives.

What does the process entail?

Unless the parties can resolve the disputed issues in advance of trial, litigation usually culminates in a bench trial, where a single judge considers the evidence and arguments presented, and issues a ruling. 

The process typically begins with a scheduling hearing, where the case is scheduled in calendar-like fashion, including deadlines for the completion of the discovery process, perhaps a date by which the parties must participate in mediation or another alternative dispute resolution process, and a trial date.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the process can take a year or longer. And it is invasive. Discovery alone can include dozens of document requests, written questions that must be answered under oath, and potentially depositions of the parties, which in Maryland can last as long as seven hours straight.

At trial, each party presents his or her evidence, including witness testimony and the introduction of documents. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge renders a ruling and, ultimately, a divorce decree.

So why would anyone subject themselves to this?

You might be thinking, “This process sounds terrible, why would anyone subject themselves to this?”

For one, it guarantees an end to the process. If your spouse or co-parent is unwilling to engage in an alternative process to resolve your issues, litigation might be your only option. The court process may be slow, but it moves predictably and inexorably to a final result, after which you can go on with your life.

In some cases, there are issues on which the parties truly cannot reach agreement. In the child custody realm, this could include child support, a parent’s relocation, mental health or substance abuse issues, or physical or psychological abuse of a child. In a financial context, there may be a dispute about alimony, a party’s actual income, the value of a party’s business, or whether a party’s trust interest or inheritance should be considered in the resolution of financial issues.

What are the alternatives?

Parties are always free to resolve their issues without resorting to a contested court process.

There are a number of alternative dispute resolution tools. Some of the more common approaches include:

  • A traditional negotiation involving attorneys, where parties develop settlement offers with the assistance of their counsel, who then negotiate on behalf of their clients to resolve the issues
  • Mediation, a voluntary process where the parties meet with each other and a neutral, third-party mediator, often with counsel present or advising them
  • Arbitration, in which a third-party decision-maker considers a presentation of evidence and argument from each party and renders a binding decision

All of these approaches are generally less expensive and quicker than the litigation process. And this is not an exhaustive list of the out-of-court approaches available to people to resolve their divorce or child custody issues.

Which process is right for me?

In almost all divorces, parties are well served in the early stages to consider an out-of-court process.

Which process will work best for you depends on a multitude of factors, including the dynamic between you and your spouse or co-parent, the substantive issues in the case, the financial issues and wherewithal of one or both parties, any external time pressures that might be involved, and the professionals assisting the parties.

Do I have to pick just one process?

No. Typically, it makes sense to stick to one out-of-court process at a time, and hopefully your first attempt at alternative dispute resolution does the trick. But if not, you can always move to another process, including litigation.

It is important to understand that you can continue in a non-litigation process at the same time a litigation is pending. In fact, courts encourage these continued efforts to resolve the issues out-of-court, even as the court process unfolds. Think of negotiation and litigation as running on parallel tracks. They are separate and distinct processes, but they are connected, and one process often can impact another, ideally in a way that benefits your position and hastens resolution.