If you're a divorce lawyer, chances are pretty high that you're an email away from getting dumped by your client. The "Dear John" email is likely already written and saved in your client's draft folder. She's waiting for the next time you blow her off or insult her to click send. Odds are, she won't have to wait very long.
Getting canned will come as a total surprise to you. You're actually doing good (or at least good-ish) work on her case. So, why are you about to be fired? Because your client doesn't like you. And why would she? You treat her like garbage.
You talk down to her. We all get it. You have a fancy law degree and tons of experience handling divorces, and your client has neither. But that doesn't give you a license to treat her like dirt for not knowing all the important stuff that you know. The fact that you have skills and qualifications that she lacks is exactly why she ponied up that hefty retainer and hired you to begin with. If she had your credentials and knowledge, she wouldn't need you at all. You're the store and she's the customer. If you want her to keep buying what you're selling, act like you value her business and make her feel like she's come to the right place.
Here's an exercise that will give you insight into how to treat her: Put your massive ego to one side for a minute and walk a mile in her shoes. Imagine that you're going through the scariest time of your entire life and that everything that matters to you hangs in the balance. Next, imagine that you've hired a super-duper expensive person to pilot you through the terrifying and confusing legal process that you have no choice but to go through. Then, the next time you communicate with your client, treat her the way you'd want to be treated if you were in that exact same position.
You don't keep your word. I realize that from your standpoint most of her questions don't seem very pressing or important. In fact, some of them are silly and annoying. So, what's the big deal if you promised that you'd call today with answers to her pesky questions, but you don't actually get around to calling until tomorrow? You're fighting a million fires and you have to prioritize.
The problem is this: She doesn't know her question is no big deal. If she did, she wouldn't have asked it. She also doesn't know that the reason you didn't call her is that you were so busy with other, bigger fires that you honestly could not come up for air. And she sure as heck doesn't know that you plan to call her as soon as you get out of that hearing tomorrow afternoon. You know why she doesn't know any of these things? Because you never bothered to tell her. All she knows is you didn't call like you said you would, and it's anybody's guess when she'll hear from you again. And she's left to wonder what else about her case you're ignoring.
She's not the only one who doesn't know stuff. There are things you don't know, too. And some of those things are important, like the fact that tomorrow afternoon is a terrible time to call because she'll be driving carpool, and she really can't talk about Daddy draining the bank account and taking that hooker to Hawaii when she has a minivan stuffed full of kids. So try your best to keep your word. And for the times you can't, at least give her a head's up rather than simply blowing her off.
You make her list of worries longer. When she doesn't know what's going on with you, that actually adds more items to the already long list of things she loses sleep over. In addition to tossing and turning over her life being turned upside down, she now has to worry about whether you're lazy, or unorganized, or forgetful, or too busy, or disinterested, or undependable, or unethical. She has to questions if her trust in you was misplaced. She second-guesses whether she's picked the right lawyer. She wonders if it's too late to fire you and hire someone else.
Her impression of how things are going with the legal end of her divorce is based on the updates you give her; and her impression of you is based on how you treat her when you're giving her those updates. Even if you're doing everything else right, if you botch these two things, your client's confidence in you will be seriously undermined. And it will be your fault, not hers.
You drop stuff on her at the last minute. You know that statement you told her to whip up over the weekend and email to you by Monday so you can have it for mediation? You've known for weeks that you were going to need that from her. You could have let her know about the assignment and its due date a long time ago. But you didn't. Why? Because in your view, it's a no big deal project. It doesn't take a law degree to write it. There's no research or careful drafting required. You routinely have to pull together projects that are a hundred times more complicated in a fraction of the time, and you don't come unglued.
What you don't get is this: The projects you drop on her without even thinking are actually much harder than anything that you have to routinely do for you job. You know why? Because to her, they're not routine. This is not her job; it's her personal life. Surprise divorce assignments at a time like this can completely derail her. If she has her kids, the assignment will cause her to be too preoccupied and stressed out to fully be with them. If she doesn't have her kids, she'll be too busy obsessing over the daunting last-minute assignment to relax. Either way, you've detonated a bomb that's totally ruined her weekend. And she's paying big money for that treatment.
You berate her if she misses a deadline. From her perspective, deadlines don't seem to mean much to you. You blow off calling her when you say you will. Court dates and various deadlines routinely get moved around -- often without checking with her, and sometimes even without telling her until the very last minute. But if she fails to get you something when you ask for it -- like discovery responses, for example -- you treat her like a she's a complete screw up. You drone on and on about how her irresponsible behavior is jeopardizing the outcome of her case.
You can't have it both ways. If you want her to respect deadlines, then you need to act like you respect them, too. Keep the deadlines you make for yourself; notify her when something has to be changed; and give her the courtesy of explaining why.
You treat her like she's both crazy and boring. Anyone who has ever worked with divorce clients knows that they are a not-so-charming combination of crazy and boring. They're crazy because divorce causes people to lose their minds. And they're boring because they all seem to lose their minds in exactly the same way. Crying jags. Screaming tirades. Public meltdowns. Ten page long emails to you at 2:00 a.m. Twenty page long emails to their ex at 4:00 a.m. You haven't just seen it all; you've seen it all a million times.
But here's the deal: This may be the millionth time for you, but it's not the millionth time for your client. This isn't just another divorce. This is her divorce. So if you can't be sympathetic and supportive while you charge her however many hundreds of dollars an hour to represent her, then it's time for you to find another job -- and preferably one that doesn't require you to be both a decent human being and a competent lawyer. I hear lobbying firms might be looking for your type. Your client may even be willing to write you a recommendation letter -- but don't drop that request on her at the last minute. She's got a lot on her mind right now.