A strange question I know. Should You Shit on Your Family Law Attorney?
I’ve been a California family law attorney since 2009, and before that I was a civil litigator at two civil litigation firms – one a huge international firm and the other a smaller boutique firm. I’ve been a Family Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California since 2015 and have handled about 1,500 family law cases of all sorts. . . Yet, I have been shitted on plenty of times by my clients.
What do I mean by shit on?
I mean clients who don’t pay their bills, who threaten malpractice or state bar complaints, who yell in a barrage of abusive language and curse words that I “did nothing” for them. I’ve had several clients threaten to kill me or to offer to swing by the office to see who has a bigger dick. Recently a client told me that I live in a delusional fantasy-world and am plagued by grandiosity of thought and failed legal theories.
It’s not just me though. I’ve had colleagues need bailiffs to escort them to their vehicles after court. I have received middle of the night phone calls from scared and crying colleagues whose clients are stalking them. Other colleagues refuse to bill their clients (and therefore work for free for years) for fear of reprisal. In short, there is a lot of shitting on family law attorneys by their clients.
Of the 100s of lawyers who I have known personally and professionally, I cannot think of a single one who has not done their best job in the courtroom. It is rare that an attorney is the reason a client’s case went sideways. Sure, I have heard all the horror stories from people who want me to take their case from their current attorney because “they fucked it up,” or “they missed a deadline,” or “they weren’t a bulldog,” blah, blah, blah.
The reality is that virtually all family law cases are won and lost on the facts, and your attorney has no control over the facts. In fact, you often have no control over your facts, either, because by the time you get to Court (against the person who knows you best in the world and. thus, knows all your bad facts), your facts have already happened. Your family law attorney can try to minimize your bad facts, but they cannot make them go away.
Another major reason you don’t get what you want in family court is your personality. If you do not believe judges are people too, believe again. If a judge doesn’t like you, there really isn’t all that much you can do about it, except, again, try to minimize the amount of time the judge spends with you. Or try to rehabilitate yourself quickly. When I come into a case as a second lawyer, normally the party firing the first lawyer is unhappy because the judge is ruling against them. I tell my potential client that we are going to try to rehabilitate them with the judge and see if we can turn that bad feeling around.
But that does not mean I will be successful.
By the time the judge-as-person has already gotten a first impression of you, it can be very difficult to make them second guess themselves.
Also—and this is really worth considering because most of us don’t really like to be honest with ourselves about how we carry or present ourselves to the world—it is possible that you, the client, are unlikeable. If you are always angry, or write nasty or demanding texts to your spouse (which will be blown up 300X and put on a huge projector screen in the courtroom), if you withhold or alienate your children, if you are controlling, if you cry all the time, if you are trying to fight about something that happened five Christmases ago, if you are withholding the kids from the other parent or forcing unhappy kids to come see you for every minute of “your” time, there is a chance that you are not very likeable. Perhaps your lawyer is doing you a huge favor by even representing you since no one else will.
And even if you are generally likeable (as in you aren’t always, angry, demanding, rude, abusive, controlling, sad or incorrigible) it does not mean that divorce has not turned you into one of those things. Divorce is incredibly stressful. There is an old saying that “criminal lawyers meet their clients at their best and divorce lawyers meet their clients at their worst.” Any divorce lawyer who has done this for more than a hot minute knows that how stressful this is for their clients. I can take a hell of a lot of yelling, crying, anger, madness falling into depravity, fear, insecurity, guilt, shame, and any number of additional array of emotions from a client without a hiccup – I get it. This crap is awful, so I try to be calm and reassuring.
The reality is that even though your divorce is unique to you, most divorces are not all that different from each other. I almost always know how a case will turn out from 15 minutes into the first consultation, and within a given margin of error I am almost always correct. I tell my potential new clients this in that meeting. I tell them they can spend somewhere between $5,000 and $50,000 on their divorce, depending on how willing they are to make deals and work toward resolution…and how willing their spouse is to do the same.
The point is this: if you are looking for lawyer number three (or God forbid, number four or five) or if you are thinking that your family lawyer “did nothing” for you, take stock in yourself. I had a call with a potential new client – referral from a dear friend – who said her lawyer won’t do anything for her. I asked if her billing was caught up and she said “No, he’s supposed to ask for fees from my husband.” OK, but that’s not really the point, is it? You want work done now. You demand work done now. You haven’t paid your bill or even tried to pay your bill and now you want a second lawyer to step in when you are stiffing the first lawyer . . . and essentially work for free? Why should a lawyer who you owe money to do anything for you until you have caught up on your billing? Would you keep working for a boss who wasn’t paying your paycheck each week?
It is incredibly rare for a family lawyer to do “nothing.” Highly unlikely. Just to get into Court there is an apparatus of financial disclosures, written pleadings, declarations, witness preparation, reviewing the other side’s financial disclosures, pleadings, declarations and witness declarations, developing a strategic approach to how the lawyer is going to present you to the court, including minimizing all your bad facts (which assuredly you never told your lawyer about completely and your lawyer is only learning about now while standing in front of a judge). You say, “Well, I did all of that myself.” Doubtful, but hey, maybe YOU are your own best advocate, and you don’t need a lawyer.
For those of you who are not your own best advocate and who know you should not shit on your family law attorney, in my next blog I will discuss what you SHOULD do as a client.