Recently I have been thinking a lot about what happens when a client comes to meet with me regarding child custody. It is such a stressful and emotional experience for either party- the one who has the children or the person seeking more time with the children. Often times, I am serving as both lawyer and emotional counselor to the client. However, there is a distinction in what a lawyer does for a person in this situation and clients should understand that lawyers are strategists, advisors, advocates and information gatherers. The most important relationship one has during a child custody dispute is with their lawyer. I feel that I am protecting my clients from the situation by explaining to them the process of what will happen over the course of the case; i.e. what filings need to be made, what documents to obtain and more importantly how to handle their ex-spouse or other parent. The biggest part of what I do for my clients is providing them with a sense of trust that I can handle what they need. The communication between the lawyer and the client is paramount in making the case flow. I pride myself on making sure that each one of my clients knows that they can trust me with sensitive information and providing them with advise no matter the size of the issue.
Part of what makes family legal situations different from other legal conflicts is the high emotions that usually exists between the parties and how lawyers must understand and aid each client through those tumultuous changes. The other major difference is that although parents may not get along, lawyers have to examine and advise their clients on what a judge would see as the best interest of the children- and that is not always in harmony with what the client wants. Sometimes clients come in and they simply want me to tell them that I can get them exactly what they think they deserve and will only “settle” with a specific schedule or monetary amount. It is hard to explain to someone that although I can advocate as strongly as possible it is not ultimately up to me- a judge decides the fate of these disputes. I remind my clients that although at this moment in time things may look bleak- these people (the children, the other parent, perhaps grandparents) will be in their lives forever- and that it is not just 18 years of a court order but so much more than that- it is the birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, communions, graduations, weddings and grandchildren. Each event will be so much more pleasant if at the beginning of the journey the parties work past their anger towards each other and work together for the children- whether that means admitting that the other parent deserves sole custody, or whether the children can be jointly parented, or any other arrangement that parents can come up with. That doesn’t mean I simply settle all my cases- it means I realistically assess each case and advise my clients accordingly and give them feedback based on such an assessment. Lawyers must advocate for a client and help them navigate the emotional waters surrounding this dispute.
Stay Tuned for the next post: The First step of custody petitions.