Law school teaches us how to “think like lawyers.” After three years of legal analytics, law school graduates know how to review the facts, identify the issues, and make the arguments from every angle. Generally speaking, however, law schools don’t place a large emphasis on teaching students how to practice law. What fees do I charge? How do I file a document with the Court? How often should I contact my client? How do I manage my client’s expectations? How can I keep my client motivated throughout the case? These are just a few of the basic questions all lawyers face, and no matter the level of intelligence, a lawyer’s failure to adequately answer these questions can lead to an unhappy attorney and a frustrated client.
Whether innate or learned, these skills are important to all areas of the law – estate planning, probate, business, and so forth. However, there is perhaps no greater need for these skills in the legal field than in family law. Family law encompasses a wide range of issues, from divorce, child support, and child custody. The more emotions involved in a case, the more important is client management and understanding. And, whether you’re a family law lawyer, or just someone who is going through a divorce or has a friend or loved one involved in a family law battle, it’s critical to understand the emotional stages a person involved in such a case experiences.
The Swiss American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, was inducted to the American National Women’s Hall of Fame for her theory on the five stages of grief:
Many of my divorce clients start out in a stage of denial. More often than not, one spouse is more ready for a divorce than the other, leaving the less prepared spouse in a state of disbelief and outright denial. Denial can be a useful coping mechanism, as long as it doesn’t prevent the person from moving to the next stage.
Nearly all divorce clients I’ve encountered have experienced some level of anger during their divorce. The client may be angry their marriage failed, that their spouse is making things difficult, that they’ll have to share their time with their children, that their spouse has moved on to another relationship – the reasons are endless. At the end of the day, a client involved in a family law matter generally has the right to be angry. Like denial, the anger stage is expected and actually healthy for the person’s eventual healing. I recall a family law trial which took us three days to try. Midway through the Judge spoke to the parents off the record and said, “Now that you’ve each had the opportunity to testify and speak your peace, you might try and settle this matter.” The Judge’s point was clear – once people are able to release their anger and be heard, they’re in a better position to move forward.
People in the bargaining stage will try to undo the damage that’s been done. This stage is generally the result of the person feeling they’ve reached their emotional breaking point and just want life to get back to normal. I’ve seen a few people in this stage reconcile and call off the divorce. Most others, however, eventually progress to the next stage of emotion.
A state of depression is to be expected for anyone involved in a divorce or child custody matter. People may find themselves unable to sleep, watching infomercials and eating Oreo’s well into the early morning hours. It’s important for people to cry and talk through these emotions to anyone who will listen. There is also nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling and guidance when battling depressive episodes. I’ve recommended this to many clients and seen the person come out much stronger and happier.
This stage is the light at the end of the tunnel. Here, people finally accept what has happened (or is happening). There will still be times of sadness, anger, etc., but a person who has reached the level of acceptance understands he or she is a survivor and life will go on – not as he or she originally imagined, but it will go on and there will still be many good times ahead.
The next time you encounter a friend or loved one dealing with family law issues, it will serve you well to be mindful of the five stages.
The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. You should not act or rely on any information herein.