Open Letter from a Divorce Lawyer
I am pleased that you have hired me to represent you in your divorce. I'm pleased because I need the money you and others like you pay me. I'm tired of working with people like you who are always fighting and never happy, and often unhappy with me, but I feel trapped now and don't know how I could change my practice at this point in my career without a huge financial setback, so I hang on and do the best job I can, the best way I know, for clients like you.
If you're like most people going through divorce, you've heard a chorus of voices -- from your mother to your neighbor to the person who cuts your hair -- warning that you better get a mean "junkyard dog" lawyer. I don't like being a junkyard dog lawyer, and I don't think it would be in your best interest for me to be, but I have to give you the impression early on that I am so you will hire me. I don't like doing it, but you demand it, so I do it.
That means that when we met in our first consultation, I talked about how experienced I am. I gave you an optimistic assessment of what you would give up and what you would get working with me. If your spouse had come the same day instead of you and presented the very same facts, I would have given your spouse an equally optimistic assessment from their perspective. I learned long ago not to lose any sleep about doing this. You demand it, and I'm going to give it to you so you will hire me.
You can see what happened now, can't you? I gave you an optimistic assessment of your case from your perspective, then one of my colleagues gave your spouse an optimistic assessment of the case from your spouse's perspective. Together, we worked knowingly or unknowingly to convince both of you that the other is being unreasonable and that you each needed us to win you a better deal.
I told you in our initial consultation that you should avoid communicating directly with your spouse about anything other than parenting of your children. I did this because nothing is so important to me as client control. I want to be the gatekeeper of all communications between you and your spouse, so I can decide how much information to provide to you and what "spin" to put on it. This will make you and your spouse more suspicious of each other, and it will make you more dependent on me. I like that, at least in the early stages of divorce negotiations.
I required you to pay a large retainer when you hired me. I told you that I have a fixed retainer for all divorce clients, or I may have told you that I set your retainer after carefully considering the complexity of your case, the time I expect to put in, and the risk that my estimates might be too low. In reality, though, my technique for setting your retainer was far simpler: I charged the highest retainer I thought I could get. The reason I did this is that the retainer is often the only money I ever see for representing someone in a divorce case. I may try to bill you and get paid later, but many of my clients don't pay me anything after the initial retainer, even though they owe me a great deal of money, and I hesitate to sue them for fear they will counterclaim for malpractice and drive up my insurance premiums. The fact that I have so much trouble getting clients like you to pay me what they owe me is another reason my work is so unpleasant for me.
I also will work to appear successful. I may drive a luxury car and maintain a sumptuous office, because I want you and my colleagues -- especially my colleagues -- to believe that I am earning lots of money. In one sense, I am earning lots of money. I charge a high hourly rate, and I have a great deal of business, so I have high billings. I also have a high overhead, however, and I have trouble getting paid. In reality, I have financial struggles just like you do.
There's more than a 93% chance that your case will settle before trial. Nevertheless, I will prepare your case as if you were going to trial. This will be wasteful and expensive. I will conduct lengthy discovery, including interrogatories, requests for the production of documents, and depositions, charging you a great deal of money to prepare documents that I simply have printed from my word processor with minor changes.
I will do this not because it's in your best interest but because I'm afraid of being embarrassed in front of other lawyers and judges and because I'm afraid you will sue me. The result is that you and/or your spouse will spend a great deal of money preparing for a trial we know will almost certainly not occur. I've heard that much of this could be avoided by simply exchanging documents and affidavits, but that's not what I'm used to doing. If there's a better way, I don't know it, and even if I knew it, I probably wouldn't do it. The way I practice law is what I know and understand, and it's safe for me.
I live my professional life in and around the courthouse. I gauge my schedule and my priorities to make sure cases that have an imminent court date are ready to present. This means that if your case doesn't have an imminent court date, it will be hard to get me to focus much attention on it. Your case will move much more slowly than you would like.
When we are at the courthouse, there will be huge blocks of time when I will leave you alone while I negotiate or just swap stories with your spouse's lawyer. Every now and then, I'll report back to you on progress and tell you how negotiations are going. You probably will find it jarring that I'm so friendly with your spouse's lawyer. Remember, you and I have a temporary relationship.Your spouse's lawyer and I have seen each other several times a week for years, and our relationship will continue long after you're gone from my life. It's not surprising, then, that I'm more attentive to that relationship than I am to the one with you.
Early on in our relationship, you are in emotional distress, you believe that no one in the world has ever faced the problems you are facing, and you view me as a savior who can protect you from all the cruel insults you are facing. Over time, however, you will begin to stabilize emotionally, you will begin to view me and my services more realistically, and you will begin to realize just how expensive all this is becoming. You may begin to resent me, and you may place a lower priority on paying my fee. You will also begin to hold me accountable for producing results that I know are unrealistic.
Although at the outset I stated an optimistic assessment of your case, over the term of our relationship I will become increasingly pessimistic with you about your chances. I will do this because, by then, I will become tired of you and tired of your case. I will want you to become more flexible in negotiations so I can reach an agreement with your spouse and your spouse's lawyer. By then, I will have spent enough time on your case to justify keeping all the retainer, and I will be afraid that I may never see any more money, so I will press you to reach agreement with your spouse.
Also, as our relationship continues, I will be increasingly harder to reach. I may fail to return your phone calls, or I may call you back but be evasive about giving you useful information, always seeming in a hurry. I will do this perhaps without even realizing I'm doing so, primarily because it will be unpleasant for me to deal with you when you become increasingly unhappy.
Often an agreement will happen because you and your spouse meet over the kitchen table or on the phone and work it out, then communicate it to your respective lawyers. This agreement may be remarkably similar to what the two of you could have agreed had you been willing to cooperate with each other at the beginning through mediation or negotiations, but you won't think about that by then, because to do so would be to admit to yourself that you've wasted several thousand dollars on legal fees. Even though I told you at the outset not to talk to your spouse, I will by then be secretly glad that you did and will work to help your agreement succeed (if I can avoid spending much time on it). Remember, by then, I will want out.
I have learned that most of my business comes by referral from other professionals, so it's more important to me that referral sources feel good about me than that clients feel good about me. I devote lots of attention to my relationships with judges, other lawyers, and other professionals. On the other hand, I have over the years become quite comfortable with unhappy clients, even clients who complain about me to the bar association. This bothered me in my early years of practice, but I've become jaded to it now. The bar association knows as I do that clients of divorce lawyers are often unhappy. I know the bar association is accustomed to receiving these complaints and taking them with several grains of salt, so it doesn't worry me much that you might complain about me.
I like you, and I'm a caring professional who wants to do a good job for you. I've learned not to trust you, though. I wish I could trust you, but I've been burned too many times by clients like you. I'm going to keep my guard up. Now that you know the way this works, let's get started.
Your Divorce Lawyer
To read a different perspective on this letter, see the Alternate Version from John Ballew in Lincoln NE.