Friday, July 24, 2015

Are Divorce Lawyers regularly violating the Civility Guidelines?

At a recent event celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council, one of it's founders, Rita Pollak, spoke about her reasons for joining the Collaborative Law movement.  Among those reasons was a recognition that the practice of family law in the courts was becoming less civil, and more hostile.  This is a sentiment that I have heard echoed by many, and have experienced myself.   Too many of the lawyers who handle family law cases fail to understand the importance of civility, and act without thinking about the true impact of their actions.  In fact, I believe many lawyers think they are acting in their client's best interest when in fact they are modeling bad behavior and bad habits which will harm their clients and their client's family for years after their case is over.

The Massachusetts Bar Association approved Civility Guidelines for Family Law Attorneys in 2006.  These guidelines should be required reading for all family law attorneys and we should refer back to them whenever we're unsure about our plan of action in a case.  Even small failures in a divorce case can have lasting impact on families and children.  Consider the following typical example:

A wife gets an e-mail from her husband asking her why her attorney hasn't responded to his attorney about the financial information they are supposed to exchange.  She calls her attorney upset that her husband is bugging her about this and complains that she doesn't want to talk to him about the divorce.  That's why she's paying the attorney.  What should the wife's attorney do?

"A lawyer’s incivility may unwittingly fuel already volatile circumstances or encourage a client to become hostile and unreasonable."

As a litigator, the wife's attorney sees it as her responsibility to solve all of these problems for her client.  So she writes a letter to opposing counsel with the requested financial information, and a demand that the husband "cease and desist" all communication with the wife except in reference to the child.

This might be an appropriate response to protect the wife, if the husband's e-mails were aggressive or threatening.  But if the husband simply happens to be in more of a hurry to get divorced than the wife, the lawyer's demand that they cease all communication will do more harm than good.  That demand takes a small discomfort by the wife and turns it into a highly contentious issue, pretty much guaranteed to make the husband defensive.  It also models a communication style for the wife that encourages all further disputes be stunted or go through the lawyers.  While that is advantageous for the lawyers financially, it is detrimental to the family, financially and emotionally.

The civility guidelines point out:
"Domestic relations cases are unique in that they center primarily around children, family members and interpersonal relationships. Divorce is often a painful and stressful process. Clients and other family members may be in crisis and emotions often run high when a couple separates or parties are involved in a court case. Lawyers, however, set the tone for their clients. A lawyer’s incivility may unwittingly fuel already volatile circumstances or encourage a client to become hostile and unreasonable. The best domestic relations practitioners are holistic in their approach and focus on their role as a counselor as well as zealous advocate for the client. Lack of civility may have devastating, lifelong personal consequences for the client, the client’s children and the client’s most important relationships." (emphasis added)
The wife's lawyer in this example violated the civility guidelines, by setting a tone of hostility between the clients.  That lawyer had an opportunity to help her client by having a conversation about the best way to communicate with the husband and how she might respond in a way that encourages more productive future communication.  The wife's lawyer also could have picked up the phone and spoken with the husband's lawyer, expressing how her client was feeling and encouraging the husband's lawyer to have a constructive conversation with his client about being patient in the process and how he can best communicate with the wife.

All divorce lawyers need to be thoughtful about how every part of their practice models good or bad behavior for clients in an emotional crisis.  When choosing a plan of action, practitioners should ask "Does this help my client and her family long-term?"  Answering that question will seldom result in sending an aggressive letter or e-mail.  As long as lawyers fail to model effective communication, more and more people will turn to mediation and collaborative practitioners to find a divorce process that respects families, instead of destroying them.

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