Hey Divorce Lawyers – You’re About To Get Fired!

It is my opinion, based upon 18 years of practice as a Utah divorce attorney, that the quality and competence of most of the Utah attorneys who practice in the divorce arena leaves—and this is being charitable—much to be desired.

I’m an excellent Utah divorce attorney. I don’t state this to brag, but to be honest, and honesty is a trait sadly lacking in the Utah divorce attorneys of poor quality and competence.  I am by no means a perfect divorce lawyer, and I know it.  I cannot be all things to all people, but I can always develop and improve.

I recently came across this blog posting, which I knew was worth sharing and commenting on because it caused me a great deal of personal discomfort.  You will benefit from reading this posting and my comments if and when you find yourself in the market for a divorce attorney.

Hey, Divorce Lawyers: You’re About to Get Fired!

by Christina Pesoli

Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
If you’re a divorce lawyer, chances are pretty high that you’re an email away from getting dumped by your client. The “Dear John” email is likely already written and saved in your client’s draft folder. She’s waiting for the next time you blow her off or insult her to click send. Odds are, she won’t have to wait very long. This was an unwelcome, but necessary reminder.  I don’t like to think about or admit to the fact that divorce lawyer clients see me primarily as a necessary evil.  It’s bad enough to go through a divorce.  Hiring a lawyer too often feels like adding insult to injury.  I know why you feel this way. Most divorce lawyers know why too, but shamefully, they often spend more time avoiding the subject than bettering themselves and the legal system.
 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
Getting canned will come as a total surprise to you. You’re actually doing good (or at least good-ish) work on her case. So, why are you about to be fired? Because your client doesn’t like you. And why would she? You treat her like garbage.

You make her list of worries longer. When she doesn’t know what’s going on with you, that actually adds more items to the already long list of things she loses sleep over. In addition to tossing and turning over her life being turned upside down, she now has to worry about whether you’re lazy, or unorganized, or forgetful, or too busy, or disinterested, or undependable, or unethical. She has to questions if her trust in you was misplaced. She second-guesses whether she’s picked the right lawyer. She wonders if it’s too late to fire you and hire someone else.

This blog postings author, Christina Pesoli, hits the nail on the head.  In a way, this paragraph has a double meaning.

Not to start out on the defensive here, but often the good work divorce lawyers do for their clients is confusing and thus feels wrong. Clients understandably interpret that uneasy feeling as a symptom of bad representation.

So while I am often surprised by how “ungrateful” clients are for the “obviously” good work I do, it’s my responsibility to help every client learn: 1) the difference between truly good and truly bad lawyer work; and 2) the limits of what an attorney can do under the best of circumstances, so that the client cannot only recognize good lawyer work, but appreciate it.

Because the legal system is so counterintuitive (even when it works well) and so dysfunctional, I owe it to my clients to educate them far more thoroughly than I have, or they’ll naturally remain confused, anxious, and resentful.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
You talk down to her. We all get it. You have a fancy law degree and tons of experience handling divorces, and your client has neither. But that doesn’t give you a license to treat her like dirt for not knowing all the important stuff that you know. The fact that you have skills and qualifications that she lacks is exactly why she ponied up that hefty retainer and hired you to begin with. If she had your credentials and knowledge, she wouldn’t need you at all. You’re the store and she’s the customer. If you want her to keep buying what you’re selling, act like you value her business and make her feel like she’s come to the right place.

Here’s an exercise that will give you insight into how to treat her: Put your massive ego to one side for a minute and walk a mile in her shoes. Imagine that you’re going through the scariest time of your entire life and that everything that matters to you hangs in the balance. Next, imagine that you’ve hired a super-duper expensive person to pilot you through the terrifying and confusing legal process that you have no choice but to go through. Then, the next time you communicate with your client, treat her the way you’d want to be treated if you were in that exact same position.

I never thought this would happen to me, but it has: I have been in practice for more than 20 years, and I can see that I am starting to forget how I perceived the legal profession and our legal system before I went to law school.

I don’t have the space to explain it fully here, but briefly: the way we intuitively believe and perceive divorce law should work is rarely the way it does work.  Some of this misperception is based upon a genuine ignorance of solid legal principles, but most of your ignorance of our legal system stems from naïve and misplaced trust in a system that does not work and, unfortunately, is getting worse. Knowing the difference is key.

The plain, disgusting, discouraging truth is that even the best lawyers can’t consistently get fair and reasonable outcomes for deserving people in divorce.  Most divorce lawyers won’t acknowledge this because they either prefer to exploit client ignorance or they are terrified to admit to their clients just how hard it is to get real justice from our defective legal system.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
You don’t keep your word. I realize that from your standpoint most of her questions don’t seem very pressing or important. In fact, some of them are silly and annoying. So, what’s the big deal if you promised that you’d call today with answers to her pesky questions, but you don’t actually get around to calling until tomorrow? You’re fighting a million fires and you have to prioritize.

The problem is this: She doesn’t know her question is no big deal. If she did, she wouldn’t have asked it. She also doesn’t know that the reason you didn’t call her is that you were so busy with other, bigger fires that you honestly could not come up for air. And she sure as heck doesn’t know that you plan to call her as soon as you get out of that hearing tomorrow afternoon. You know why she doesn’t know any of these things? Because you never bothered to tell her. All she knows is you didn’t call like you said you would, and it’s anybody’s guess when she’ll hear from you again. And she’s left to wonder what else about her case you’re ignoring.

While those who know me can tell you this is not true of me, it is true of most (not all) Utah divorce lawyers I have dealt with.  I am treated the same way they no doubt treat their clients.  E-mails go ignored.  When I call, their gatekeeping secretaries invariably tell me the attorney is always in a meeting, with a client, on the phone, in court, or some other nonsense.  Yes, some attorneys are very busy.  But they are never busy every minute of every day that you happen to call or e-mail.  You know this, but many lawyers think you’re too stupid to catch on and/or they think they have you over a barrel so that it doesn’t matter what excuse they give for blowing you off.

If your attorney does not return your email or phone calls within 24 hours or less, I can promise you that you are in for many other kinds of disappointment.  Do not hope or wait for things to get better; fire that attorney and replace him or her with a responsive attorney immediately.  One of the most important marks of an overall excellent attorney is how responsive he/she is to his client.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
She’s not the only one who doesn’t know stuff. There are things you don’t know, too. And some of those things are important, like the fact that tomorrow afternoon is a terrible time to call because she’ll be driving carpool, and she really can’t talk about Daddy draining the bank account and taking that hooker to Hawaii when she has a minivan stuffed full of kids. So try your best to keep your word. And for the times you can’t, at least give her a head’s up rather than simply blowing her off. This is one of my biggest blind spots.

I’m embarrassed at how hypocritical I am sometimes; there are days when I just want to focus on getting work done, not answering the questions of worried or confused clients.  And yet I get annoyed when I call a client at the office who tells me he or she can’t talk until after work.  Too quickly I misjudge clients coping with extreme demands on their time and their emotions as flaky.  I’m sorry.  I know better, I’ll do a better job to remember.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
Her impression of how things are going with the legal end of her divorce is based on the updates you give her; and her impression of you is based on how you treat her when you’re giving her those updates. Even if you’re doing everything else right, if you botch these two things, your client’s confidence in you will be seriously undermined. And it will be your fault, not hers. This comes back to taking twice or even three times as much time educating clients about what’s really going on in our legal system, warts and all.  This is hard enough for good lawyers to do, but impossible for the lousy lawyers because 1) they are lazy and don’t want to do the work; and 2) they fear that being honest with their clients about the sad state of our legal system and how little power they have to control the outcome of a client’s case will result in being fired.

Forgive me for tooting my horn a bit here, but I would rather lose a potential client who trusts me than obtain a client and that client’s money by playing on fears and/or selling false hope.  Whether you know it or not, when you’re going through a divorce you are highly gullible.  Check yourself.  Don’t let hurt, fear, vengeance, and greed cloud your judgment.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
You drop stuff on her at the last minute. You know that statement you told her to whip up over the weekend and email to you by Monday so you can have it for mediation? You’ve known for weeks that you were going to need that from her. You could have let her know about the assignment and its due date a long time ago. But you didn’t. Why? Because in your view, it’s a no big deal project. It doesn’t take a law degree to write it. There’s no research or careful drafting required. You routinely have to pull together projects that are a hundred times more complicated in a fraction of the time, and you don’t come unglued.

What you don’t get is this: The projects you drop on her without even thinking are actually much harder than anything that you have to routinely do for you job. You know why? Because to her, they’re not routine. This is not her job; it’s her personal life. Surprise divorce assignments at a time like this can completely derail her. If she has her kids, the assignment will cause her to be too preoccupied and stressed out to fully be with them. If she doesn’t have her kids, she’ll be too busy obsessing over the daunting last-minute assignment to relax. Either way, you’ve detonated a bomb that’s totally ruined her weekend. And she’s paying big money for that treatment.

You berate her if she misses a deadline. From her perspective, deadlines don’t seem to mean much to you. You blow off calling her when you say you will. Court dates and various deadlines routinely get moved around — often without checking with her, and sometimes even without telling her until the very last minute. But if she fails to get you something when you ask for it — like discovery responses, for example — you treat her like a she’s a complete screw up. You drone on and on about how her irresponsible behavior is jeopardizing the outcome of her case.

Now in fairness to lawyers, including the lazy, crooked, and stupid ones, even the best clients often put off dealing with any aspect of their divorce until the last minute.

Divorce law is very much time-sensitive and deadline driven. Take deadlines seriously.  You could lose an important argument you otherwise would have won but for your failure to file documents with the court by a given deadline.

So while attorneys who make last-minute requests are annoying (I’m not one of them, by the way), I’m not going to fall all over myself too much in apologizing for those attorneys because frankly no matter how much advance warning they get, most clients procrastinate.

Still, I am amazed at the number of lawyers who don’t even try to give their clients advance notice.  Most divorce hearings in Utah are scheduled at least 28 days in advance.  If your lawyer is telling you about a hearing three days in advance, your attorney is fatally disorganized and incompetent.

That stated, if your lawyer is good about giving you as much advanced notice as possible, do yourself and your lawyer a huge favor by using all of that time to analyze, organize, and prepare as best you can.  You bear responsibility for the consequences of dumping everything on your lawyer at the last minute.  I know it’s hard enough to manage all the demands on you without the added pressure of divorce, but procrastinating only makes matters worse.  Help your attorney help you by making sure you understand each other’s schedules and accommodate them.

 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
You can’t have it both ways. If you want her to respect deadlines, then you need to act like you respect them, too. Keep the deadlines you make for yourself; notify her when something has to be changed; and give her the courtesy of explaining why. I repeat: how quickly your attorney responds to emails and phone calls is not merely indicative of how concerned he is about you and your case, it is a highly accurate gauge of that lawyer’s competence.
 Christin Pesoli’s article:  My commentary:
You treat her like she’s both crazy and boring. Anyone who has ever worked with divorce clients knows that they are a not-so-charming combination of crazy and boring. They’re crazy because divorce causes people to lose their minds. And they’re boring because they all seem to lose their minds in exactly the same way. Crying jags. Screaming tirades. Public meltdowns. Ten page long emails to you at 2:00 a.m. Twenty page long emails to their ex at 4:00 a.m. You haven’t just seen it all; you’ve seen it all a million times.

But here’s the deal: This may be the millionth time for you, but it’s not the millionth time for your client. This isn’t just another divorce. This is her divorce. So if you can’t be sympathetic and supportive while you charge her however many hundreds of dollars an hour to represent her, then it’s time for you to find another job — and preferably one that doesn’t require you to be both a decent human being and a competent lawyer. I hear lobbying firms might be looking for your type. Your client may even be willing to write you a recommendation letter — but don’t drop that request on her at the last minute. She’s got a lot on her mind right now.

Tough, but sensitive is a hard combination of traits to find in a divorce lawyer.  I don’t tell you that to excuse the way lawyers treat their clients, it’s just a fact of life.

And so a lot of lawyers, in an effort to have their cake and eat it too subscribe to, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

A good lawyer cannot be a good lawyer without giving his clients tough love, so be prepared for a lot of bad news; good lawyers care enough to be honest with you.  But if dealing with your divorce lawyer makes you more miserable than going through the divorce itself, AND if you are a reasonable person, you can probably do better.  Don’t fall prey to “better the devil you know” thinking when it comes to who your lawyer is.

I’m nothing if not honest, even brutally honest (which can come across as ludicrously honest since I’m a lawyer).  Unless I come right out and tell you I’m exaggerating, however, don’t presume that I am exaggerating.  So if what you are about to read offends you, know that that is not my intent.

I’ve tried to deny it, but I can’t deny it and be honest at the same time:  a significant number of divorces occur because one or both of the parties is mentally and/or emotionally unstable.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that anyone and everyone who gets divorced is mentally/emotionally unstable.  Nor am I saying that one of the two spouses in a divorce action is nuts.  I’m going to tell you what most attorneys know but are too afraid to share, and that is that many a divorcing person is his/her worst enemy.

Candidly, I am not the most naturally empathetic person, but I’m not without feelings.  Still, it’s quickly apparent quickly with some of my divorce clients that divorce was inevitable.

So before (or possibly around the same time) you make an appointment to speak with a divorce lawyer, I ask you to do something scary and even potentially humiliating:  schedule a session with a therapist.  Find out if there are serious flaws in you psychologically that are making your marriage fail.  If you are wholly or partially the cause of the strain in your marriage, divorce won’t solve your problems, and may actually worsen them.

Follow Christina Pesoli on Twitter:  Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277



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