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How to Help Your Client Handle the “Friends and Family” Chorus

By Joryn Jenkins

In stressful times, it is normal to lean on your friends and family for help and advice. But what happens if their expectations for your divorce, the most stressful of times, are unreasonable?

I’ve had numerous cases in which the proceedings limped along unnecessarily for years because a friend or family member constantly short-circuited the progress that the clients and their professional advisors were making in reaching agreement.

The Story of the Retired General

In the most extreme example of this, my client’s father-in-law, was a retired army general and attorney who made his son’s divorce his hobby. He recruited attorneys who filed whatever pleading he requested of them (he hired 12 different attorneys over the five years of litigation), regardless of their merit (or their formatting – we could always tell when he had crafted the document).

He even filed a baseless appeal, asking the appellate court to rule in a way not legally possible, a point made by the annoyed judge to the poor junior associate who was sent to the oral argument as “cannon fodder.”

The proceedings dragged on for years and cost my client her life savings (and sent her into bankruptcy). The most frustrating aspect of the case was that we would finally get somewhere in the negotiations, only to have the husband discuss it with his father, and then refuse to agree to the settlement that he had been considering.

On one occasion, during negotiations at the courthouse, he called his father (who was in a hospital somewhere) and immediately afterwards backed down from the agreement we had all nearly reached.

Client Expectations and “What Karen Told Me...”

I hear clients talk about what their friends got in their divorces all the time. What they don’t understand is that every family is unique and so is every divorce. Just because a neighbor received permanent alimony (Karen) doesn’t mean the client should or will. But it’s hard for some clients to ignore what those around them are whispering (or yelling!) in their ears.

So how do you get your client to ignore those voices when they are not helpful?

There’s no question that it’s important for clients to mull these important decisions over with their trusted love ones, but there have been times when I have asked clients to ignore their advice. Unfortunately, many people just can’t do that, to their disadvantage.

What You Can Do to Make it Easier

Sometimes it’s best to have the client seek a second opinion from another professional so that she can trust that what you are telling her is correct. Or, show her specific case law that supports your advice to her. Be sure to be candid about the repercussions of listening to the unrealistic expectations of those around her. And, if your client will allow it, consider having the toxic friend or family member sit in on your meeting so that he understands how he is actually subverting his loved one’s best interests.

If you do that, it also enables you to directly counter his arguments with your legal explanations, instead of dealing with him through hearsay.

Although your client would be waiving her attorney-client privilege as to anything discussed during that meeting, sometimes that’s the only way to move your case along.

When a client’s support system is guiding the client in an unrealistic way, it can cause increased stress, longer proceedings, and higher legal fees for the client. If you see that happening, it is best to put an end to it as early as possible.

Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, 2 of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed upon those who have provided exceptional leadership to The American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.

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