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Do You Really Want a Mean Lawyer?

June 11, 2009

Over the years, a number of prospective clients have asked about how mean a lawyer I can be. I used to tell them that I could be as mean as I needed to be. Now, I prefer to discuss some other, related issues.

1. What is the client's overall objective in getting (or getting through) the divorce? Is it punishment for perceived wrongs? Is it to end up with adequate resources to be comfortable after divorce? Is it to have primary custody of the kids or to have a way to share time and responsibility for raising the kids? Is it to end up with certain valuable assets? Is it to come out debt free? Or something else? There's no right or wrong answer. It just helps the lawyer to know what the target is.

2. What kind of relationship does the client want to have with his/her ex-spouse? No relationship, a good one, best friends, neutral relationship or a bad relationship? Again, there's no right or wrong approach. The attorney just needs to know in order to work out the appropriate strategy.

3. What “mean” actions would the client want to take? Some actions are not permissible because they are illegal or unethical for a lawyer to do, and the client needs to understand that. Some actions are legal and ethical, but could be considered “mean” in some circumstances. Within that limited category, what would the client want?

4. How does the client think “meanness” will advance his/her cause? Some clients don't realize that being mean to the other side leads to more hostility and less cooperation. Will that help the client meet his/her needs or achieve his/her objectives?

5. Is the client willing to spend the extra money required to be mean? Unfortunately, for the client, “mean” isn't cheap. The attorney's fees increase dramatically when the attorney sends out numerous letters complaining or demanding action, files numerous pleadings complaining or requesting actions, sets hearings, conducts numerous depositions, demands voluminous discovery and so on. Also, the “tit for tat” strategy comes into play, meaning that whatever one side does to the other is returned again to the first party. The result: more letters, pleadings, hearings, depositions, discovery, etc. Being mean keeps the attorney busy, but it also increases the cost of divorce for both parties. Often, the desire to hire a mean lawyer is just the natural reaction to pain, anger or fear the client is experiencing. There are certainly times when an attorney must act aggressively and firmly, but most clients just don't need or want a really mean lawyer when they learn how that will affect the case and their lives. And many or most clients can't afford or won't want to pay for a mean lawyer. Having the discussion about taking the mean approach can really be surprising to the client, but it can lead to planning for a better divorce.