The treacherous waters of the family law attorney-client relationship

October 23, 2014

Family law gavelLast week’s installment discussed the ways in which the practice of family law differs from the practice of other areas of law.  The subject matter of the post, however, was largely limited to approaches to advocacy in the practice area.

There are more differences that distinguish family law from other legal practice areas beyond just how an attorney should advocate for her client, though.  One important such distinction of which to be aware are the attitudes and behaviors of your family law clients.

Specifically, your clients are generally going to be far more emotional in a family law dispute than in virtually any other area of law.  It’s just the nature of the beast: these cases almost always cut to the heart of their personal lives, and there is naturally going to be a lot of strong feelings about the familial relationship and any potential actions of family members (typically, the former spouse) that may have caused emotional suffering for your client.

It’s easy to understand where your client is coming from; after all, in a divorce proceeding, your client is looking at the end of her family structure as she has known it.  Perhaps it is ending because her spouse was unfaithful.  Or perhaps it’s because of physical abuse.  Whatever the reason, divorce is never easy, even without children.

But the existence of children in the proceeding will almost always make your client that much more emotional.  With the family splitting apart, each parent will likely be fighting to get as much time with their children as possible.  The prospect of “losing” time with their children is enough to get most parents emotionally agitated.

In short, emotions almost always run high in family law disputes.

Your job as the attorney is twofold: first, you need to make sure that your client’s emotions and concerns are addressed.  Sometimes, a client only needs to have an open ear that sympathizes with his or her personal plights.  He or she may even (or, rather, will likely) go on at lengths about the terrible things that his or her former spouse/the other parent has done.

It’s perfectly fine to let him or her vent, and it will even serve to better foster a closer attorney-client relationship if your client feels as though you are on his or her “side” (you technically always are by virtue of the attorney-client relationship, but sympathizing with your client’s woes will help your client feel this connection on a much more emotional level).

That being said, your other job as the attorney is to keep a level head and prevent both you and your client from making rash emotional decisions.  Naturally, if you’re doing things right, you aren’t getting emotionally invested in your client’s personal affairs – but it’s still good to have that reminder.

But your client has no such obligation to become emotionally detached from the events in his or her life, and as I’ve already mentioned, the issues that you become involved with as the family law attorney are those that are often causing the most stress for your client.  And it’s your job to keep your client from doing anything rash that will only end up damaging his or her case.  You’ll know these types of rash, emotional acts when you see them.

The trick is to get your client to be open enough with you that he or she will discuss his or her plans beforehand, such that you can talk the client out of taking that course of action.  As discussed above, your client is far more likely to open up to you if he or she feels that you two are in emotional solidarity.  And the best way to talk the client down from his or her rash decision is to explain just how badly the client will firebomb his or her case by going through with it.

I have never seen a client make a rash, emotional decision in a family law case and it actually benefit him or her.  It just makes the attorneys do a facepalm (I know I’ve done more than my share of them).  So don’t let your client convince you that whatever he or she is planning is a good idea or that it won’t be a big deal.  It’s not a good idea and it will be a big deal.

Hopefully, you’ve developed a close enough relationship with your client that he or she will open up to you about everything and will actually respect what you have to say about it.

But this brings me to my final, arguably most important point: maintaining the proper attorney-client relationship.  Or, stated differently: get close to your client, but not too close.

Family law is notorious for attorneys becoming romantically involved with their clients, and it’s obvious why: these clients are often exiting long-term romantic relationships, and you as the attorney are acting as his or her strongest advocate to fight for him or her in the dispute with your client’s former partner.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, emotions are already running high, and the attorney-client relationship that you share in the dispute may cause your client to develop romantic feelings for you that may not otherwise have emerged.  In fact, if you practice in family law long enough, you will more likely than not encounter at least one client who makes romantic advances toward you, no matter how subtle.

You cannot begin a romantic relationship with your client, plain and simple.  Even if rules of professional ethics didn’t explicitly prohibit this (which they very much do), becoming romantically involved with a client is a good way to sour the relationship very quickly.  If things don’t go your way in the case, your client may be more likely to blame you for what went wrong, and it makes you more emotionally involved in the case, which is always a bad idea.  Even if that somehow doesn’t happen, you’ll face disciplinary action and perhaps even sanctions from the court if the relationship were ever discovered (and these things have a strong tendency to become discovered).

This is perhaps the most difficult tightrope to walk in regards to client relations in family law cases: becoming close enough to your client that he or she trusts you enough to be open with you, but not so close that romantic feelings emerge.

If you’re ever in doubt, though, always err on the side of not being close enough rather than being too close.