When I was a trial lawyer, just starting out doing divorce work, my first question to the potential new client, as I grasped his outstretched hand warmly in both of mine, was, “How are you? What’s going on in your life that’s brought you here?” Thus, they knew that I was warm and caring. Clients responded to me by pouring out their most intimate concerns, their doubts, their suspicions, their innermost thoughts, and their deepest fears. It was a great opener to establish that I was one of those lawyers who truly listened to her clients’ stories, and to establish that special lawyer/client rapport.
However, now that I am a courtless divorce lawyer, I have realized the error of my ways. Why did I focus my client on the stressful circumstances in which he sought my counsel? Why did I ask him to tell me all the different ways and reasons why he hated his wife? Why did I ask him to detail the motives for why he should go to war? I already knew that he was here to talk about getting divorced, didn’t I? Is this really the best way to set the table for discussing his choice of divorce process?
No, it is not; it’s a big mistake!
Set the table correctly for the meal you intend to serve; ask the right questions!
The question I should ask is “How do you see your life in a year? Can you visualize your life two years from now, five years, 10 years? What do you want your life to look like?“
Know that, as the client focuses on how much better her life will be when she’s divorced, all the good things that will come to pass, what her home will look like, what her friendships will feel like, how much improved her life will be, how much less stressed her restructured family will feel, her attitude mirrors that improvement. She now puts on her rose-colored glasses. Her outlook becomes more confidant. Her vision is enhanced. She is naturally more optimistic. And her decision-making is impacted positively by this upbeat perception. According to a study performed by Science Daily in 2009, the more upbeat and positive people are, the more they perceive around them. “Rose-colored glasses” enhance the perception; people who view the world optimistically, see more and see better.
If she has trouble doing this, take her back to when she was married. How did she imagine her life would look back then? Clearly, her life has gone awry, but it’s not too late to set things straight. Most importantly, ensure that she is in a happy place before asking her to make her choice of what divorce process she wants to use.
I had a client who was the perfect illustration of this concept and who turned out to be a visionary. She was in the middle of a conventional courtroom divorce. Her husband was a trial lawyer, who had (naturally) retained a trial lawyer to represent him.
Despite that she had made the choice to leave the marriage, and had hurt her husband deeply, she focused on ensuring that she and her husband would be able to co-parent when the divorce was over. As a result, she retained a neutral professional to help both of the clients deal with their financial disputes, which were huge. When she suggested this impartial expert, her husband accepted, because she had purposely chosen someone he knew well, and trusted. As it turned out, this expert had been collaboratively trained.
“Ensure that she is in a happy place before asking her to make her choice of what divorce process she wants to use.”
When she approached me to handle the divorce collaboratively, despite that they were already in court, I immediately reached out to her husband’s attorney. He, just as quickly, however, informed me that her husband was not willing to sign the collaborative participation agreement. But he did not reject my involvement either. In fact, he welcomed my contribution.
My client was such an idealist that she did not give up! She instructed her trial lawyer to ensure that I had a place at the table at mediation.
When I arrived at mediation, she introduced me to the mediator, whom I had known for years, and who also was a peacemaker. When I put my hand on her arm and quieted her down so that her husband could have his say and she could hear him, because she was focused on her image of the perfect future after the divorce, she immediately stopped and listened. Later, when she was overcome with emotion, she ran out of the meeting and hid in the stairwell. I found her there, sobbing. It was easy to remind her of that perfect future which she had envisioned. Her dream calmed her and re-centered her so that she was able to come back to the table.
Ultimately, they settled. And I attribute that success entirely to that woman’s infectious optimism. As unhappy as he was, I saw her positivity reflected in her husband’s face, when he saw her re-focus on his concerns, when he saw that she listened to and heard his issues, and when he realized that she cared as much about his apprehensions as her own.
The collaborative process is an optimistic approach to severing your intimate relationships. It is selected by people who desire a better future and who are hopeful that their spouse or significant other can engage in a positive process, a constructive process, rather than the destructive route that is the conventional courtroom divorce.
Critical to a client’s choice of process is your approach when you first meet them, during the time when they are still doing their homework and researching how divorces are accomplished. It is when they first see you that they are most vulnerable to your direction. It is up to you to equip your client with the tools to make his divorce a success. With the proper table settings, optimism, positivity, vision, and hope, you will enable him to choose this course appropriately.
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About this week’s author: Joryn Jenkins.
Joryn, family attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law while also serving as a full-time professor in 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.