This is the time of year when it is still somewhat dark out as I walk into my office — which only makes the blinking voicemail signal seem more ominous as it annoyingly flashes in the dark corner of my desk. What is the blinking light warning me about? Is the father of someone’s child being "unfair" and not consenting to a non-emergent medical procedure without getting a second opinion? Does someone want me to file an expedited custody petition because the mother of someone’s child kept them away on vacation an extra day? What does the blinking light have in store for me today? Who wants what now?
In February, I wrote an article focusing on how we, as family law attorneys, could behave better and more civil when interacting with our adversaries. This month, I want to focus on how we, as family law attorneys, must also rein in our emotional clients by being better with them.
Not everything is an emergency. In fact, most things that family law attorneys face are not emergencies, but it is hard for our clients to realize this because their situations are emergent for them. I have a few basic practice rules when dealing with all of my clients, which makes them happier clients, and, in turn, me a happier lawyer:
• Walk a day in their shoes. When I mentor young lawyers, most of whom have never been married, never owned a house and never had kids, I explain that a family law matter, and particularly a divorce, is like an atomic bomb exploding in the middle of the client’s universe. Different people experience different levels of harm; but, in essence, their entire world is shattered. I tell mentees to keep that in mind every time their blinking light has a panicked voice on the other side. Try to empathize with their situation. Be understanding about their concerns, but explain to them the legal pros and cons of whether pursuing that emergency petition is the right thing to do. Using the common example above, missing a day of school for vacation is not that big of a deal, and not an "emergency" to the court, even though it may be deemed an emergency to your client and his or her child’s perfect attendance record. Sometimes, explaining to a client that filing a petition is not always going to resolve the situation in a favorable way (i.e., the child’s attendance record cannot be retroactively corrected) and letting him or her know the ballpark costs involved in filing the petition so that the client can determine whether the costs justify the likely outcome puts the situation in better perspective. The bottom line here, though, is to never, ever undermine the degree of emergency with which a client has labeled his or her situation — even if you don’t think it’s a big deal.
• Return telephone calls/emails within 24 hours. Before clients hire me, they know a few things about me from our initial consultation. First, they know that I work part time and generally not on Mondays. Second, they know that even though I may read emails on the weekends and while I’m on vacation, I generally do not respond. Third, they know that, on the days I do work, generally Tuesdays through Fridays, I am theirs, and only theirs, and that I usually return emails/telephone calls within 24 hours, if not sooner. I tell clients at the initial consultation that I will keep my end of the deal if they keep theirs. In nearly 13 years, I have never had a client tell me that they had problems getting in touch with me. Do yourself and your clients a favor: Set parameters of the time that is theirs, respect it and respond accordingly, and they will respect the time that is yours. Most of our clients are sifting through atomic rubble as their divorce case moves on; you are their lawyer and their guide through this process. Respond to them promptly and help them relieve some of their emotional stress by answering their questions.
• Teach clients to be their own filter. When I explain my communication expectations, I generally hear, "But what if I really need you?" I tell clients, if it is a true emergency, that they either need a physician or a police officer — someone that can really help them. I explain that, as a lawyer, the best thing I can do is get out a pen or power up my laptop. I cannot provide medical assistance or throw anyone in jail, so unless the "emergency" can be solved by writing something down quickly, I’m not your girl. The clients usually laugh, but understand and appreciate someone grounding their reality. Now, there will always be a few who cry wolf and who cannot filter any situation. For them, you need to follow the rules above to get them through their emergent situation. Most clients learn to filter when something is truly an emergency requiring immediate legal action and when it is not.
So, as you enter your office and stare at the blinking light on your telephone with the hope that it might actually stop if you stare at it long enough, remember to treat your clients in the same manner as yourselves. You will be a happier lawyer and have even happier clients.
Lisa Shapson is a family law attorney with Berner Klaw & Watson and co-chairs the divorce/equitable distribution committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Family Law Section.