Why Lawyers Should be Working to Reduce Conflict

23 December, 2010 by Lawrence in Divorce, Representation style

Since we’re well into the season of brotherly love and peace on earth, I thought I’d share a recent case where the attorneys were scolded by the court for creating disputes and contributing to the “environment of animosity” between the parties.

Wait, aren’t attorneys supposed to take up their mighty pens and zealously fight for the rights of their clients?  But these attorneys get their wrists smacked for too much conflict?  Has the world suddenly gone crazy?  Will cats and dogs start living together?

I don’t know about the cats and dogs, but as I’ve written before, some lawyers have a hard time with the difference between being assertive and just being aggressive.  Aggression can have it’s place, but often outright aggression serves little purpose beyond causing delays, more conflict, and more expense.  Believe it or not, attorneys are bound by ethical standards which require us to move your case along and keep fees reasonable.

Then what would you say about a divorce that lasted three years and cost nearly a million dollars in lawyer’s fees?  I’ll tell you what the court said about it: “Such cost is a mark of the failure of the legal system to effectively deal with and minimize the emotional and financial conflicts inherent in ending the parties’ marriage.”  Also, “Any neutral observer of legal proceedings would be appalled by the attorney’s fees in this case.”

So what went wrong?  The full opinion would be difficult to summarize, but here’s a short quote to give you an idea how intense the battle was:

“The ensuing months, nay, years, brought a nearly never-ending succession of disputes, large and small. Some were essentially property issues, such as disputes over whether the parties’ expansive home should be sold. Many disputes involved parenting issues, with the parties’ only child as the unhappy pawn. The disputes ranged from the substantive to the trivial, including Husband’s consumption of alcohol while Son was with him, which parent should assist Son in preparing for tests, whether Son should attend an “away” summer camp, whether Son’s clothes sent to Husband’s home were returned to Wife, and on and on.”

Finally, in late 2008 this case went to trial.  The parties essentially kicked each other in the shin for five days in front of the judge, who finally arrived at a fairly straightforward settlement.

There’s lots of blame in this situation to go around.  Part of the problem is the wife went through several lawyers, and the husband had changed attorneys as well.  Of course, if you’re unhappy with what your lawyer is doing you have every right to fire them and seek other representation.  However, doing so can really slow down your case as your new lawyer tries to catch up.

Certainly some things are worth fighting for, and it’s hard to put a value on time spent with a child.  However, at some point your counsel needs to advise you to stop.  For example, these people weren’t really arguing over how much time each would spend with the child, they were arguing over nonsense like which night during the week the father would have visitation.

You’re paying your attorney to do a lot of things for you.  Attorneys are expected to fight for your rights to the fullest extent of the law.  However, we also have an ethical duty to resolve your case with a minimum of conflict and expense, if possible.

Part of that is advising our clients to keep their expectations reasonable.  In this case, the wife was asking for an excessive and unreasonable amount of alimony, and according to the appellate court she “resisted compromise on even minor parenting issues”.  Her attorney should have told her she was being ridiculous.

(Some of them probably did, which may be why she kept firing lawyers)

It’s worth taking a long look in the mirror and asking yourself whether you’re fighting for something worthwhile, or if you’re just trying to “win” (whatever that means to you).  Sometimes “winning” means resolving your case in a way that preserves your mental and financial health.

Your lawyer should always be looking for, and advising you on, ways to solve your conflict sooner rather than later.  We have plenty of opportunities to fight without having to invent new battles.  Contact me to find out how I can help you resolve your battles, rather than find new reasons to wage war.