What to Do When the Attorney-Client Relationship Begins to Break Down: Changing Divorce Lawyers

I have a friend from another jurisdiction that has called me a few times about a divorce.  When I told this friend that I could not provide legal advice (because it was a different jurisdiction and the friend was represented by counsel), the friend asked if I could merely listen to her situation.  In sum, she wanted to know whether or not to change divorce lawyers. My friend described the following issues, from their perspective the lawyer was:

  • Slow to respond or communicate;
  • Dismissive of ideas;
  • Sent bills that were difficult to understand and seemed overly expensive;
  • Failed to push the case forward and seemed to be dragging it out;
  • Did not educate my friend about rights and responsibilities or what the game-plan was moving forward.

I listened and when my friend was done I asked whether they had told any of this to their attorney.  The answer was “no.”  My friend had been unhappy for perhaps a year but had dutifully paid the invoices each month, replenished the retainer, and not communicated any outward signs of resentment or unhappiness (other than with how the case was proceeding generally). Lawyers have a general ethical requirement to communicate with our clients, but (retainer language aside) there is no such requirement for clients to effectively communicate with us.

This was a great lesson for me because I was able to see a divorce through a client’s perspective without any prior history or my own opinions or emotions being involved.  I have had clients advise me they are not satisfied with the process and at times not happy with some of my advice (sometimes emphatically so), but I could always brush it off as the client being the type of person that would not be satisfied with reincarnated Clarence Darrow representing them.

But now I know–as management books teach us–that there is also likely (for any professional services firm) a group of seemingly satisfied (on the surface at least; if not overwhelmingly so) clients that are in fact quite unhappy.  So what can we do as attorneys and clients to better communicate?  The mission state of my firm has been to educate clients about the process and to have my clients never be afraid to communicate with me. I am an attorney that gives my clients my cell phone and tries to answer their calls even if their on a weekend.  But that’s not sufficient–because some people do not like conflict. There are some clients (I hate to admit to myself) that may not be satisfied with me but I will never know. They may be searching the web right now, learning about changing divorce lawyers.

In some ways, trying to build a successful brand and name for myself that is even worse.  These are the clients that are not so unhappy as to fire me as their attorney (at least not yet) or to sit down with me to air my concerns, but instead present a pleasant facade while likely becoming more embittered at the costs, at the results (or lack thereof), etc. If you buy a bad slice of pizza it’s $2.00 down the drain and the next day you’ve forgotten about it.  If you hire a lawyer you’re not satisfied with you will spend at least thousands of dollars with no guaranteed result.  So what can we do to try and improve these situations:

  • Lawyers and clients have to always endeavor to be honest with one another.  If a client has a weak argument or is about to file a Motion that will cost thousands of dollars without a great chance of success then this is a discussion that should be made from the outset. Likewise, if a client does not understand a legal concept or does not understand why a lawyer took a specific action then they should bring this to the lawyer’s attention;
  • Lawyers should follow up with clients regularly to ensure the client understands the process, is satisfied (or not) with the status of the case and the services rendered, and should consider using client surveys or other anonymous methods to improve service quality to clients;
  • Bad news in a client’s case should be brought to the client’s attention immediately and honestly presented;
  • Lawyers should encourage being challenged by clients.  My clients have found errors in my agreements or misunderstandings of what I thought they wanted and their speaking out has assisted the case in moving forward.  It’s in many ways a team-effort and although lawyers have greater training and are considered the “expert” in the matter (that is why they are being paid), everyone is fallible and today’s clients are more sophisticated than ever thanks to technology and the internet;
  • Lawyers and clients should not be afraid to walk away if a case is not a good fit.  I’ve had cases or clients where I’m simply not a good fit.  A long initial consultation hopefully weeds these cases out but sometimes it only becomes apparent after a few weeks or months.  It is a situation that rarely improves and can be harmful to both parties. The initial consultation is a mutual vetting process.  There should be no hard feelings on either side if one party or the other decides not to work together.
  • Lawyers should provide resources to clients to advise them about the process and should not sugar-coat the process or the likely results. I provide many blog posts, a NJ divorce E-course program/email subscription, and a free NJ Divorce E-Book on the process so that clients may learn as much or as little as they wish on their own.  This saves clients time and money and helps make discussions between attorney and client more productive. Many other lawyers do the same. I would rather a client seek resources through my website (that I have drafted and/or vetted) rather than from the internet at large, which may contain information that is inaccurate or relevant to other jurisdictions.

But When Should A Client Change Lawyers?

Enough dancing around the issue though, at what point should a client change lawyers in the middle of a divorce? The answer is nuanced and nobody can make the decision except the client. Changing divorce lawyers in New Jersey may also require certain court procedures such as entry of a substitution of attorney. Just like I advised my friend, here are some considerations to determine whether the attorney-client relationship is beyond repair:

  • When you hire a new lawyer in the middle of the divorce, you will likely have to pay money (sometimes a substantial sum) for the new lawyer to read all the prior pleadings, correspondence, and other documents and to get up to speed.  This should be a consideration in determining whether to make a change.
  • Some attorneys see a perspective client with multiple attorneys as a potential red flag.  It is the policy of some attorneys to never accept cases they do not start.
  • But beware the sunk cost fallacy: a bad bargain or bad relationship may not improve in time (things tend to get worse, if anything) and staying in a bad attorney-client situation just because you already paid a lot of money may not improve your situation.
  • You only get one shot at a divorce – once you have a global divorce agreement, that is it.  Although you can often modify terms post-judgment, if you are dissatisfied it’s best to take action before the divorce trial or before signing off on a binding agreement.
  • Be honest about the situation: is your lawyer really incompetent or acting inappropriately or are you merely upset about the case in general? Even with a great divorce lawyer the results may not be all you hoped, the case may take longer than expected, and may cost more than you desired to spend. There are many factors at play in a divorce, some of which are out of our control.  Consider therapy to help you deal with the stress of a long, drawn-out divorce.
  • Does your lawyer communicate with you on a regular basis?  Does the lawyer quickly return you calls? Explain your invoices if asked? Answer your questions?  Seem to know what they are talking about? These are the baseline requirements and may even be ethical imperatives.  If these questions are not in the affirmative then it may be worth considering new counsel.

Conclusion

Only you can determine whether an attorney-client privilege is worth continuing. I hope the above assists you in considering the unique nature of a New Jersey Divorce Lawyer/Client relationship.

Your New Jersey Divorce Lawyer:

If you’re considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact me to discuss your options.  You can schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 908-237-3096 or by scheduling your own divorce consultation online by clicking here.