Some months ago we were privileged to give a talk by this name for the Houston Young Lawyers Association. With the anticipated wave of divorces brought on by the COVID-19 lockdowns, we thought now was a great time to put our talk into article format to share.
For most clients, divorce is a calamity and a crisis unlike any they've experienced before. For you, their attorney, it is business as usual. It's easy to forget that for your client divorce is a personal, emotional, financial, and potentially life-threatening event (where domestic violence is a factor). As such, emotions are super-charged, and stress is high. So how can you do your job, maintain your own emotional health, and keep your client on track?
We feel that three focus areas are key: mindset, strategies, and tactics. Having the right mindset, strategies, and tactics will help you manage client expectations and behavior, get better outcomes, and stay in your lane with respect to expertise.
How you frame a client and their behavior in your mind will affect how you serve their interests and interact with them. We encourage you to start with compassion. You are meeting your client during what is likely the worst period of their lives. While you are handling the legalities of the divorce, your client is still a whole person with complex emotions. You ignore those emotions at your peril.
Approaching your client with compassion means making an effort to address their emotions. You can do this effectively by having a goals-oriented view. Take the time to listen and understand what matters to your client. Ask them what their goals are — the answers may surprise you. Once you know their goals, keep these top of mind so you can manage the case effectively. For example, if getting full custody is really important but getting every penny owed them isn't as important, spend your energy, their emotional capital, and their money on fighting the custody battle.
Viewing your client with compassion also means understanding decision fatigue. Decision fatigue happens when someone has made so many decisions in such quick succession that they lose the capacity to continue making good decisions — or any decisions at all. Be cognizant of this fact, and then be willing the help them differentiate between big decisions (custody arrangements) and small decisions (who keeps the couch), as well as permanent decisions (property division) and changeable decisions (custody arrangements). You sometimes see extreme decision fatigue in mediation. Know that most mediators will put mediation on hold if you ask, which gives your client the ability to rest, recharge, and come back to a recessed mediation with a clear head. Some lawyers will push through, taking a "now or never" approach; this is neither necessary nor wise.
Your client is making dozens of decisions in quick succession, some of which are life-altering and permanent. That's exhausting. Help them prioritize based on their goals, and know when to ask for a time-out.
Now that you know what a compassionate mindset can look like, let's explore some strategies you can use in your practice.
Your client doesn't know anything about divorce, and the process can be intimidating and frustrating. Educate them on what to expect. Help them see what is and isn't achievable. Disappointment corrodes trust and often delays the inevitable. It's also important to educate clients about their responsibilities in the process. They may not realize the amount of work they will need to put in. The most important thing is to help them be realistic and know when to put up a fight.
Most divorce clients will struggle with a variety of anxieties — some of which you are qualified to handle, and some of which you are not. The first step is naming their anxieties, so you can mitigate the ones in your wheelhouse while finding resources to deal with the ones that aren't.
Build the right team
You can't fix every problem your client has. Set clear boundaries with respect to what is and is not your job. You are not a therapist, financial advisor, or child psychologist — and you certainly can't control their spouse's behavior. Setting clear boundaries will help you keep clients from wasting your time and their money.
This isn't to say you should ignore any non-legal needs. After all, we just told you to assist the whole person. For items where you can't (or shouldn't) assist, meet your client on their level and help unlock the right set of resources.
If you know what the anxieties are, you can build the right team to deal with them:
- Do they need a therapist?
- Are there domestic violence/financial abuse/emotional abuse issues that need to be addressed?
- Do they need help from a financial professional like a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ (CDFA®), financial advisor, or tax advisor?
- Do they need to buy health insurance, auto/renter's insurance, or life insurance?
- Do they need a realtor to help them find a new home or sell a home?
In each of these scenarios, think about whether you can refer them to someone you trust. Remember, they are making dozens of decisions — try to make your client's life easier if you can.
Remember Client Goals
It's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day back and forth of a case. If you find your client spinning out or suffering from severe decision fatigue, remind them of their goals. Relate your recommendations back to those goals. This will help your client keep a clear head and make better decisions.
There are a handful of tactics that we've found very useful in managing our clients.
Acknowledge, re-direct, and re-focus
It's tempting for clients to spend their time with you grouching about their soon-to-be-ex or fretting over their future. This behavior isn't helpful; it wastes your time and emotional energy as well as their money. To get back on track, you must acknowledge, re-direct, and re-focus. To do so, first empathize, offer a helpful suggestion, and then move on. Useful phrases include:
- "That sounds stressful. Maybe your therapist can help you work through that during your next session."
- "You know, that's a really good question for your financial expert. Do you want me to send her a quick note on this?"
- "I understand how upset you are. But this is something that [fill in the blank] is much better qualified to help with. We should really be focusing on [topic at hand]."
If you consistently fail to acknowledge your client's distress, you may find that they shut down on you and the quality of your work suffers — because the flow of information will slow down or stop altogether. The pattern of acknowledging, re-directing, and re-focusing will both help them feel heard and keep you on task.
Focus on Facts
As you move through each case, it's imperative to keep clients focused on facts and what the two of you can control. Speaking from personal experience, the divorce process can make a client feel very much like they are not in control of anything — it's frustrating and feels terrible. Mitigate this by helping your client focus on what they can control. If the other side of the case does something provocative, help your client by offering a set of responses to choose from that includes the pros, cons, costs, and potential outcomes of each. One of those choices should always be "do nothing"… sometimes doing nothing is exactly what is needed to diffuse a tense situation. As much as having to make lots of decisions is tiring, having a choice feels much better than not having a choice.
Set up for Success
Just because the decree is written, signed, and sealed doesn't mean the crisis is over. Ask yourself:
- Does your client understand their divorce decree? Have they read it?
- Does your client have a plan for how they will implement the decree?
- Are they in therapy, or do they at least have a support system? (It's not uncommon for Sarah to see clients lurch from crisis to crisis in the years after their divorce is over because of the trauma of the process.)
- Do they have a financial advisor? If your client is about to have to administer a meaningful estate, they likely need help.
We Can Do Better
It's vital that you serve each client as a whole person — and that means recognizing all of their needs, flaws, anxieties, strengths, and desires. Your clients need you in their time of crisis, and treating them as a whole person is not only the right thing to do; it's the profitable thing to do. Happy clients refer others, and good client management means a more efficient practice.
Angela Oaks is not affiliated with Robert W. Baird & Co.
 I've published a handy Divorce Flow Chart, which you can use to give clients an overview of the process