With Ten Years Under My Belt as a Divorce Lawyer, Here's What I wish a Young Carl Taylor, Esq., Knew About New Jersey Divorce Law
This December will be the 10 year anniversary of my passing the New Jersey bar exam and becoming a lawyer in the State. Like all careers, I have had ups and downs and at times growing pains, but I couldn't be happier with what I get to do every day and how I get to help real people with serious issues. In this blog post I'll talk about what I wish I could tell myself as a new divorce lawyer ten years ago. I believe this blog post will help any new divorce lawyers reading this but it will also help anyone going through a divorce, as you can't be any more fresh to the divorce process than that.
Why Divorce Law is Unique
The old lawyer joke is that criminal lawyers generally deal with bad people acting their best and divorce lawyers generally deal with good people acting their worst. Emotion is an inescapable part of a divorce. Ultimately, nobody gets married hoping to be divorced and there are many feelings and emotions involved in a divorce, which by its very nature is an ending, and perhaps even viewed by some clients as admission of failure.
In my years of practice I have seen lawyers who have (in my opinion) done everything they can to make a case more litigious. I always try to be polite and say it's rare but the truth is it's not all that rare even if it is not the norm. I’ve also had clients whose emotions harmed their cases. I’ve tried to limit such situations but we can only help those who wish (or can) help themselves. My ten years of experience have helped me to become less emotional about my client's cases, although my passion for the law and my true desire to help them and to do a good job remains as strong as ever.
The Most Sane Person in the Courtroom
In family law, the goal should be to appear the most sane and logical person in the room aside from the judge. This is a concept my first boss pointed out to me and was great advice I have tried to keep in mind (sometimes unsuccessfully). As a new lawyer I was initially skeptical of this approach and thought that theatrics and adjective-laden oral arguments and motion papers had to be the better approach---time has since demonstrated the wisdom of my former boss. I now believe that judges are tired--even exhausted--by the equivocations, aspersions, and half-truths in most oral arguments and court papers. I believe people today, including judges, are desperate for truth and authenticity. Although our firm still tries turn a good phrase or to write persuasively, we are more than ever committed to admitting flaws in our client's cases. A bit of realism goes a long way in the sometimes magical land that is the family law courtroom.
It's the Client's Life - and Ultimately the Client's Decision
We cannot make decisions for our clients. We can tell them the pros and cons of their approach, but if they wish to waive alimony, for instance, that is ultimately their decision (provided they fully understand what they are doing and knowingly make such waiver). This was hard for me to stomach as a new lawyer (sometimes it still is).
Every client will also have different goals. One of the key jobs we have as divorce lawyers is to figure out our clients true goals. We do this by listening to our clients and by educating them about the process. That way the client can make an informed decision based upon their desired outcome for the case---not yours.
Be a Better Listener
Look, I admittedly like to talk. I have a lot to say and even my hundreds of blog posts on this website (not to mention my Podcast - Happily Even After)demonstrate that I have opinions and I like to speak and be heard. But divorce and family law clients really want---no need--to be heard. They are also experts on their own lives even if you are an expert in your field. Your clients will like you even more and your results will be even better if you follow the classic rule of listening more and speaking less.
Leave the Imposter Syndrome Behind
Ten years in and I still worry every day that I'm not the best lawyer I could be. Perhaps it helps keep my sharp, but the anxiety I felt as a new lawyer (and sometimes still do before a big trial) is exhausting. I mean, it's evident when I look at photos of myself in my first year as a lawyer (that guy looks at least 18 years younger, somehow, not just 10) that stress takes a toll. I would say that if you passed the bar, if you care, and if you are willing to actively learn throughout the career then you should focus less on your self doubts.
You Can't Really Win a Divorce Case
We litigate all day but there is no big trial win for us divorce lawyers. We settle cases in the margins, we save clients tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars through negotiating or we help them get custody or parenting time, but there are no jury trials (just bench trials before a judge) and the results will never be like something out of a classic movie. We do not get the innocent person off of a murder charge and we will never win a million dollars for the injured. There are small victories every day though and sometimes big ones even if few will ever hear of them. Savor those moments. The victories will never taste as sweet as the defeats taste sour. That is the nature of the job. You are a New Jersey divorce lawyer.