I met with a new client the other day. He and his former spouse had reached agreement on how they would divide their assets between them.
Their relationship had been struggling over the last 18 months, and they had reached a crisis point in December last year, when they decided to end the marriage.
Over the last three months, both had worked very hard with individual counsellors (and in my client’s case, a life coach too) to get their relationship back to the point where they were friends again. They were then able to meet to discuss financial matters over a glass of wine. As a result of this they had reached agreement as to how they would divide their property.
Both spouses appeared horrified that so many family lawyers were so readily willing to agitate their agreement. He and his former spouse had consulted with a number of family lawyers (all specialists). In his spouse’s case, she consulted with three family lawyers. According to her, each of them had told her (in one way or another) that they could put some real pressure on the husband to get more cash and assets for her – but it would cost her.
I cannot think of a less rewarding role than one which creates new conflict between two former spouses who have just resolved conflict. In effect, opening up relationship wounds that had so recently just started to heal.
It’s also bad for business. The wife is now acting for herself, whilst we will be preparing the documents (on behalf of her former husband) to formalise the agreement they had reached.
In 2015, we need to reconsider our role as family lawyers – we need to be more flexible, more nimble, more aware of the need to meet our clients’ specific needs and be more in tune with the expectations of a modern user of professional services.
It’s an age where so much information is so readily accessible – it is said that more than 40% of “searches” are undertaken on mobile devices, and the trend appears to be for this information being released in an increasingly more digestible form – pithy blog articles summarising the legislation, “how to” videos showing lay people how to run a particular application and webcasts about how to prepare for and approach a private mediation! In this context, in a client relationship, we need to be providing something much more than just a rehash or interpretation of the law but pragmatic and commercial solutions as to how best navigate their particular circumstances.
By way of an example, in the same client’s matter, we should be able to be nimble enough to facilitate instructions from that client where we are simultaneously:
1. A sounding board only with respect to the children’s living arrangements, with the parents negotiating terms directly between themselves;
2. Providing advice to our client about the financial support of their children, but leaving them to negotiate things directly with the other parent; and
3. Negotiating the financial issues directly with their spouse’s lawyer, with the assistance of both parties’ accountant.
In addition, our mission must be to get the clients matters resolved as quickly as possible.
Sound counterproductive to the “business” of family law?
Imagine the number of future referrals you would get from a client who, having heard the horror stories from friends and family, has had their matter finalised, to their satisfaction, within three months.
All this would take is for two family lawyers, acting independently on behalf of each spouse, to commit to resolving the matter within this timeframe.
As practitioners, we must immediately put an end to some of the practices that have become commonplace:
Charging clients based on the number of words (or “folios” as some practitioners call them) – it promotes verbosity and rewards inefficiency. Our communications should be to the point and easily understood. We should only charge based on value and how our work has advanced the client’s matter.
Commencing proceedings based on the “size” of the asset pool, because there has been some minor delays or where you think you have run out of ideas as to how to resolve it. The only consideration for filing proceedings in Court must be if your client has specifically instructed you to do so after you have ensured they have clearly understood all of the implications for doing so. For example, he or she understands what the Court’s role is (i.e. it will not seek to “punish” your spouse); he or she understands the effect on the children; he or she understands the effect on the future of the co-parenting relationship; he or she understands the significant costs and delays in a Court system that is heavily under resourced; he or she understands that the result of having a Judge determine your matter carries an element of unpredictability. Spend the time having the tough, confronting and challenging conversations with your client. This is harder for you than just following their instructions but you owe it to them. They may not be in a position to be thinking as rationally or as logically as they would outside of the stress they are currently under. These clients will thank you in the long term.
Stop taking things personally. The client’s matter is not about you or your ego. Further, your personal opinion is irrelevant.
Before you seek to make a point in a letter to the other party’s lawyer, ask yourself firstly, is it relevant to the issue(s) in dispute? Secondly, is it going to help advance or resolve the matter?
Do not treat every matter from the start as though it is destined for litigation. Exhaust all opportunities to resolve the matter first. Exercise some creative problem solving initiatives. Call the other party’s lawyer. We are there to try to resolve issues between clients and their former spouses, not create them.
So, Best Wilson Buckley Family Law has come up with a list of core values, including behaviours we expect to observe and those we don’t expect to observe. The values that relate specifically to the services we supply to our clients are:
We ensure every client is fully aware of the impact of the law (and process) upon them personally.
We build a trusting relationship with our clients, we seek to understand and have an awareness of their experience and we engage empathetically.
We review our accounts to ensure that we have imparted value to our client.
We don’t judge our clients for their choices.
We don’t have a blind focus on only the legal outcome. We look to the implications of every decision, whether financial, emotional or practical.
We don’t undertake work that doesn’t need to be done
We guard against unnecessary aggression and antagonism in our communication with other practitioners and litigants in person.
Are you up for this?