Guarantees When Working in Family Law

Posted on Posted in Administrative, Divorce

Judy Stouffer, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

What happens over the holidays doesn’t necessarily end with the holidays. While some of it winds up on social media, the rest often winds up in a family law office.

I am extremely fortunate to have worked for the same employer for 20 years. Although I have observed many things, one thing is certain: family law practice phones are guaranteed to ring off the hook with potential new client inquiries each January. I often refer to it as the “I’m not putting up with her (or him) one more minute” syndrome. You would be astonished by the number of potential family law clients who, upon their first call to the firm, cannot wait to share intimate details of their lives. The emotive train clearly overruns any sense that the person answering the phone is probably not an attorney.

The most popular question is how much a case will cost, with questions about pet custody and visitation growing in popularity. While pets are considered chattel in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, each has addressed the issue of pet visitation. (See DeSanctis v. Hurley Pritchard, 803 A.2d 230 (Pa. Super. 2002), and Houseman v. Dare, 966 A.2d 24 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2009).) As for how much a case will cost, that is difficult to assess in family law. When asked about potential legal fees, I always start by informing clients that I am not an attorney and not allowed to set fees. But, my bosses know that I also tell potential clients that the common-sense approach is to work out as many details as possible on their own to keep fees to a minimum, which is easier said than done in many cases. Clients have represented that their spouse will be cooperative and that all details have been resolved between them, and the next thing we know, they are cross-filing protection from abuse petitions.

What causes a person to end a relationship—and whether he or she is able to act civilly and reasonably throughout the legal process—is unique to that individual. Although affairs, addictions and financial issues top the list of “angry” separations, people who are victimized seem more willing to compromise, even to their own detriment, to end the union as quickly as possible.

Some people just like to fight, or attempt to make their not-soon-enough-to-be-ex-spouses as miserable as possible during the legal process, somehow justifying that spending their children’s college education funds on legal fees is OK. My ex went through eight attorneys before we got divorced; my theory was that he kept getting a new one every time he was told that a court would likely order him to split everything with me.

It can be quite challenging for family law attorneys to convince clients who are hell-bent on fighting that it’s just wrong on so many levels. I’ll never forget an opponent’s equitable distribution list that included the shower curtain liner. Really. She also broke our client’s nose.

Refusing to compromise and continued fighting only adds to higher fees. Some clients seemingly hold their opponent’s behavior against their family law attorney. It’s bad enough that family law attorneys are threatened by irate opponents after a loss; we have actually given our building security team photos of opponents who have made direct threats, asking them to refuse entry.

An airtight prenuptial agreement is a great way to alleviate fighting. The most interesting one included a $1 million payment to the aggrieved spouse if the other was caught cheating. Another involved a second divorce for parties who had remarried each other, which was a much smoother process given their prenup.

One key thing to remember with potential family law clients is that it is very important to enter client and conflict names into a database as soon as a client calls, especially if a consultation is booked, and to regularly circulate those names among all employees of the firm. It is not uncommon to have both parties calling for an individual consult simultaneously or within hours of each other. You never want to find two attorneys in your firm booked for separate consults with opposing parties.

Working in family law should involve training on the “poker face”—not for the initial call, but for the client meeting. I am not sure how attorneys keep it together during consultations when being told that children were conceived during a neighborhood orgy or of the potential client’s deviant addictions—certainly not from a judgmental standpoint, but from the “OMG” factor.

So, that covers January in a family law firm. Since a client’s marital status on the last day of the year dictates his or her tax filing status for the entire year, evaluating divorce cases each fall to determine which clients are eligible to be divorced by year-end is prudent. In December, contacting family court prothonotaries to follow up on cases that have not been processed is also good practice.

Throughout the year, it is not uncommon for clients to insist that they want “their” attorney to represent them in a practice area the attorney does handle. I explain it like this: You wouldn’t go to a dentist for a podiatry problem or vice versa; the same thing applies to the practice of law. And, a nonfamily law attorney going through a personal divorce or custody split may have trouble practicing in unfamiliar territory or separating the emotional battle from the legal one. Attorneys who need personal family law representation are smart to adopt physicians’ ethics: never serve as your own practitioner.

An additional family law guarantee is that as long as there is marriage, there will be divorce, and as long as people continue to reproduce, there will be custody and support disputes. It takes a great deal of emotional fortitude to work in family law—especially when your client or client’s children are subject to abusive behavior—but it is extremely rewarding to help clients through some of their greatest tribulations. A client’s heartfelt thanks is the greatest return, although referrals from particularly contentious opponents run a close second. The greatest compliment my highly litigious ex paid to our firm was referring several cases once things had settled. Even though he often referred to our firm’s attorneys as barracudas and pitbulls, the truth is that they are simply great negotiators and litigators who excel in their field and were able to effectively represent my interests. Those qualities combined are what makes an exceptional practitioner, no matter the area of practice.

By now, can you guess yet another family law practice guarantee? Never a dull moment.

Reprinted with permission from the JANUARY 21, 2016 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.