Who would you believe more in a court case: a person who admits to his/her faults, who honestly discloses all of his/her relevant information (even the information that hurts his/her case), and answered questions with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” or a person who lied (even if just a couple times)?
One of the worst things to happen in a divorce case is for your credibility to come into question. If the court finds you lied about just one matter, it can cite that one lie as reason not to believe you on virtually all matters.
Simply put, to avoid damaging your credibility, always be truthful. This should be obvious, but I am amazed at how often clients of the firm I work for try to get away with lying (and how often they try to get away with lying about stuff that doesn’t really matter anyway, but I digress). The truth is learned and established by facts that are proven to be facts by the evidence in support of those facts. Your judge will not care much, if at all, about how you feel he or she should rule, the judge is (or should be) guided by the truth, by the facts, and then apply the law according to what the facts are.
To ensure your credibility is not questioned, admit when you are wrong. If you try to bend the truth about your sins and mistake or conceal the truth about them, you are a liar. Try to justify it any way you like, lying is lying. Whether by commission (expressly lying) or omission (withholding the whole truth, selectively disclosing the facts, shading the truth, spin, you get the idea), it’s all lying. While there are some situations in which you are not obligated to tell the truth about crime or possible crime you have committed (see the Fifth Amendment), questions of and risk of being convicted of crimes doesn’t arise very often in divorce cases. Honesty is the best policy.
I am amazed at how often client fail to understand that they lose credibility when they provide us with inaccurate information. While you may not be able to remember everything regarding your finances or your personal and family history, that doesn’t give you a license to fudge your answers or give incomplete answers. The “I didn’t understand” and “I don’t recall” excuses don’t inspire confidence in your credibility. They have just the opposite effect; they make you look lazy, scheming, and dishonest. Honest people are not forgetful people. Honest people aren’t afraid to produce their bank statements (all of them). Honest people aren’t afraid to disclose that side job. If you claim to have few or no records of things that normal people usually have records for, the default conclusion is that you have something to hide. While there are limits on what the opposing party can ask of you, when what they request complies with the rules, then answer questions completely and with complete honesty, produce all of the documents that are discoverable. Even if what you answer and what you produce may expose some of your flaws, it will also reveal you as honest and believable.
Once it’s damaged, credibility is hard to repair. Better never to do anything to call your credibility into doubt. Be honest. It’s the right thing to do, and if doing the right thing isn’t enough motivation for you, honesty tends to be the better “strategy” than lying and deception.
I have noticed three chronic problems with clients in just the few weeks I have been working as a legal assistant.
1) Most clients seem to have an almost allergic reaction to providing required information to the court and to the opposing party and to filling out documents required by the court. It does not merely surprise me how hard it is to get required information out of most clients, it’s shocking and demoralizing. It doesn’t seem to matter what information is required, how long or how short the document they have to fill out is, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are the petitioners or respondents in the case.
2) Most clients seem to have a blind spot for deadlines. They could be reminded weeks (even months) in advance of a looming deadline, then reminded every week, then every other day, then every day, then multiple a day, and still act surprised when we chew them out in the 11th hour for having little to nothing done and shooting themselves in the foot as result.
We get that a divorce case is gut-wrenching. We understand that it’s discouraging–even terrifying–to deal with the allegations and the costs. We understand the all too human desire to bury your head in the sand and hope in vain that it will all just go away. We understand why the temptation to procrastinate is so strong. Which is why you need to do the work, in full and on time. Avoidance will only make things harder, will only make things worse.
3) Many clients provide false and/or incomplete information to the court and to the opposing party in the course of a divorce case. Whether they outright lie or are simply being careless, the consequence is the same: credibility is damaged, (often irreparably) and the case is weakened (sometimes irreparably). The more honest and completely forthcoming you are, the stronger your armor is in the litigation battle. Truth be told, lying and deception can result in some big wins sometimes, but lying and deception are wrong (and despite their general reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth, there are some lawyers out there who take their oaths to be honest and just seriously). If being morally upstanding isn’t enough to inspire you to be honest, frankly the risks of lying and deception aren’t worth the consequences if you’re caught (and most liars get caught).
4) It’s amazing how often clients get in legal trouble over the course of their divorce proceedings. They’ve been stand-up and law-abiding citizens their whole lives up to that point, but then they “miraculously” are accused of domestic violence, stalking, substance abuse, tax evasion, DUI, child molestation, etc. Now, clearly there is a difference between committing a crime and being falsely accused of a crime by a spouse who is trying to use the false allegations as leverage in the divorce action, but it is surprising how often divorce causes good people to snap. Whether they end up in jail (or picking up trash along the Interstate to work off their community service) or passed out on the floor drunk or high or both, many good people are pushed over the edge by divorce. Remember that when a divorce case is filed, you may find yourself reaching your breaking point. Be prepared. Swallow your pride. Keep your judgment clear. Don’t be afraid to find the occasional listening ear or shoulder to cry on. Find safe and non-incriminating ways to deal with the despair, fear, anger, and anxiety by spending time with family and friends, fellow church members, or, if need be, a good (a good, not just any) counselor or therapist.
The reason someone retains the services of an attorney in a divorce case is to get the help they need to do what they cannot and should not do themselves in the divorce case. A good lawyer is a good value. But the best lawyer in the world is not a wizard. Your lawyer shouldn’t be spending his time and your money saving you from yourself. Do yourself a favor and keep this in mind (and avoid the chronic missteps I see clients engage in far too often).
Law from a legal assistant’s point of view, week 46: Simplify, but do so Elegantly
By Quinton Lister, legal assistant
As a legal assistant to a divorce attorney, I find that one of the most difficult things to do in the law is to take a legal concept and simplify it without dumbing it down. A good lawyer has the ability to simplify, but can do so in an elegant way.
The best way to help a client, is to help them understand enough about their case so that they feel empowered. That doesn’t mean that the client will understand everything about their case (any divorce case can get complicated quickly), but if a client can feel empowered and that they can do something then that will make the attorney’s work more effective. Legalese is a real phenomenon and any uninitiated individual would feel overwhelmed by too much lawyer speak. However, if you simplify legal concepts too much, then that same uninitiated individual can be misled because they do not understand enough about their situation.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
The practice of family law takes a thick skin. I haven’t been at the job long (and I’m just a legal assistant), but it’s obvious that you got to be tough to do this job well, even as a legal assistant. Divorce and domestic relations cases are by their very nature very contentious things. I was surprised at how few divorces are amicable divorces until I learned that my boss, Eric Johnson, is a go-to attorney in high-conflict cases.
So how does family law require toughness? Emotionally. That’s a big one. I have always struggled with other people saying unkind things to me or in my presence. This likely makes me seem weak or like I am complaining. That is not my intent. I realize now more than ever that 1) when people are “mean” it is likely because they are under some type of distress and/or they are upset about a crisis or hardship they are experiencing; and 2) for some reason I respond by feeling as though it is my fault that they are upset, even though both they know and I know that I have done nothing wrong.
Emotions run high in family law and it is easy to get caught up in someone else’s bad mood. I am learning that I have to be “tough”, in that I cannot let other people deter me from getting what I need to get done, done. I need to remember that when the clients lash out at me that it’s not really me they have a problem with. That is easy to say but proving difficult for me to implement in my work. It seems that I slip into letting the particularly difficult clients treat me as the whipping boy without even noticing it or realizing that it’s perhaps the worst thing I could be doing, under the circumstances. Not taking the clients’ distress and anger personally, and not letting angry clients or other people I work with—like court clerks and opposing attorneys and their staffs push me around—that is probably the toughest thing for me right now this week, but the practice of law requires that I change.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
Nothing. When I am tempted to feel irritated over the questions people ask about lawyers and legal matters, I remember that the questions–though recurring–aren’t being asked by the same person over and over again, but are coming from different people who are asking them for the first time.
What I do find irritating are client gripes masquerading as questions that start with “I don’t understand….”
For example, the client knows why the case is taking as long as it is taking, why the client’s case is weak, why the fees are as high as they are, etc., but believes that by feigning ignorance and saying “I don’t understand…” it all falls on my shoulders to “fix” problems (free of charge, of course) that are not of my creation and/or not within my power to control.
If you are frustrated and anxious about your case, just come clean to your lawyer about it. If your lawyer is a good one, he or she will be much more responsive to candor than if you cloak your fears and concerns with “I don’t understand” statements.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277