I get called for second opinions a lot. Clients say things like: “My lawyer barely ever returns my phone calls.” “I’m not comfortable with my lawyer. When I raise a concern, she makes me feel like I’m being ridiculous.” “My attorney said ____________ (fill in the blank). Does that sound right to you?”
Your lawyer is one of the most important people in your divorce. They’re the person who is supposed to guide you through this process to the best outcome possible. You should feel comfortable with who you hire. And if you’re not, you’ve got to communicate that message.
Unless you let your lawyer know how you’re feeling in a clear and productive way, it’s not likely anything will change.
Many of us are uncomfortable expressing frustration or criticism to someone we don’t know that well. Especially when it’s in such a sensitive area of our lives, like divorce. The people who call me aren’t happy with their lawyer, but they also don’t know how to express that in a way that might improve the situation.
Here are 4 tips to effectively communicate your needs to your lawyer, and real words you can use to get the conversation started.
Tip #1: Write out exactly what’s bothering you.
Before you initiate any conversation with your attorney, write out the specific issues that you need addressed. Be as factual - rather than emotional - as possible. If you don’t have them written down, you might forget some of the points you want to make when you’re actually in the conversation.
Here are a few of the most common complaints I hear:
· My lawyer doesn’t call me back.
· Most of my emails are ignored.
· I don’t get clear direction of what to expect.
· I’m told what I’m asking for isn’t going to happen.
· I feel my concerns are minimized.
· He or she seemed unprepared in court.
Tip #2: Give concrete examples that support your concerns.
This is the place to bolster the issues you wrote down with actual examples. If you have documents that support your statements, like emails with your lawyer, print a copy and put it with your notes.
Examples might be:
· I emailed you on March 13, 15 and 16. I haven’t receive a response to any of those emails.
· I left 2 messages with your receptionist on Monday and no one returned my call.
· We have a court hearing in 2 weeks. I don’t know what will happen at it, and I haven’t received any information from your office about how to prepare.
Again, be as factual - and specific - as possible. Dates and details make a difference. “You never return phone calls” isn’t nearly as impactful as “I left you 3 messages last week that weren’t returned.”
Tip #3. Schedule a meeting, and consider sending an outline to your lawyer in advance.
Let your lawyer know that you have some concerns and would like a meeting to discuss them. Outline for your lawyer in writing what it is you want to address. You could use the notes you wrote down in tips #1 and 2 for this.
Sending your lawyer an outline gives them a chance to review your concerns without feeling ambushed. If you do send an outline in advance, make it clear that it’s only to help your lawyer prepare, and not intended to take the place of the actual conversation you want to have. A smart lawyer will come to the meeting with a game plan for how to address your concerns, and hopefully a strategy for your case.
Tip #4. Be open to another point of view.
Once you’re with your lawyer, do your best to be calm, factual, and also willing to listen. Be prepared that your lawyer might tell you that your expectations for the outcome of your case aren’t realistic, or that the frequency with which you want to communicate is more than they can handle. You might have to consider their feedback and be willing to make some adjustments of your own. Or you might find that you just don’t see eye to eye, and that another lawyer would suit you better.
Finally, if you’re still feeling unsure of what to say, here are sample words you can use to start this delicate conversation. Feel free to make them work for your situation.
· I’d like to talk about how we communicate about my case. I know this is second nature to you, but it’s new to me. As you know, it’s an overwhelming and uncertain time for me. It would help me to receive regular updates about my case - so I know what deadlines are coming up and what to expect. Also, when something comes in from the other side, if you can give me a brief explanation about what it is and how you feel it will impact my case, that would help. If there are things I can be doing to help you manage my case, please let me know.
· I know you’re very busy and can’t always respond right away. But this process is very stressful for me and I need to hear from you. When I have any urgent question, what’s the best way for me to communicate it to you? And what do you think is an acceptable amount of time to respond? It would help me to set parameters and expectations to help things run smoothly and reduce my stress.
· I realize that I'm the client and you're the lawyer, but I see things a bit differently than you do. Certain things are important to me (like how much child support I'll receive and that I keep the house), that you either don't think are important or don't think I can get. I need to understand the basis for your opinion, whether it’s because of similar cases you’ve been involved with or if there is something specific in my case that leads to your opinion. Also, if I want to go for an outcome that may be different than you think is likely, are you willing to do that? This is extremely important to me, and I need to know if we can be on the same page.
Would you like help in your most stressful divorce communications? Check out Divorce Scripts, where you’ll find over 40 actual scripts you can use in communicating with your (ex) spouse, kids, children’s providers, in-laws, and more.