It happens sometimes that an attorney and a client don’t seem to be able to see eye to eye. Obviously it’s not a best case scenario for anyone involved, but it certainly has happened before. When things go wrong with your attorney, what should you do? It’s a pretty stressful situation, of course, especially because it throws your whole future into question. You thought you had this particular line item handled, and then later you start to wonder whether you wouldn’t be better off with a different attorney—or even with no attorney at all.
A lot of times, the issues that come up between clients and attorneys are the result of a miscommunication. You’re under a lot of stress, and that can affect the way you hear and process information—especially if it’s technical, complicated, overwhelming, or out of your range of experience. It makes sense, of course. Whenever I go to the doctor, it seems like I have trouble articulating what was said once I leave the office. For people who aren’t familiar with the law, it probably works pretty much the same way when they leave their attorney’s offices.
Miscommunication happens. Misunderstanding happens. But before you do something crazy—like fire your attorney right before a hearing, jeopardizing your case—follow these steps. It may be that you can’t fix the relationship, but it also may be that you’ve overreacted a teeny bit. So, if you’re starting to wonder whether you’ve made the right decision to hire your attorney, what should you do?
1. Talk to your attorney.
Seems obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how many people don’t talk to their attorneys and then say that they were upset that something didn’t happen the way they expected it to happen. All too often, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation—but it’s hard to explain and discuss things when you don’t have an open and honest dialogue with your attorney. We’re good—but we’re not omniscient! You’re going to have to talk to us, because we definitely don’t read minds.
Say what you’re feeling. Pinpoint your concerns. Give specifics. And then, follow step number 2.
2. Ask questions.
Yes, you heard right! If you don’t understand something after you’ve started talking to your attorney, ask more questions.
A lot of times, we find that there’s a breakdown when it comes to the client’s specific expectations. It happens fairly often that a client has expectations that are unreasonable, or not supported by Virginia law. Then, they’re unhappy when we express skepticism, or say that’s not something we’re able to do. Don’t misunderstand me, though—we always press for our client’s best advantage. Even though we try to make sure our clients go into negotiations, conferences, and court hearings with reasonable expectations based on what Virginia law allows us to do, we always push for as much as we can get for our clients.
Still, there are some things that are written in black and white in the code, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Can we ask the judge for it? Sure—but, sometimes, even asking makes a judge mad, especially when we know full well that the law doesn’t support what we’re asking for and, if the law doesn’t support it, the judge can’t order it! Nothing makes a judge quite as cranky as being asked to do something that he knows (and that he knows we know) he can’t do. And remember how I said we’re always looking for your best advantage? We want to make sure the judge isn’t cranky with you, because oftentimes they’ll remember that when they’re issuing their orders at the end of the case.
Ask questions like, “Are my expectations reasonable?” “Is this something that I can get?” “What does Virginia law allow me to receive?” “Do you think it’s possible that you can get more?” “Why or why not?” Make sure you understand the full and complete picture. Don’t get upset with your attorney if her limitations are what the law allows—though it may be unfortunate, it’s not something we can change.
Ask your attorney, too, “If I can’t get ________, where do you think there’s more wiggle room?” “What are your goals for your representation of me?” Get the attorney to articulate what she would like to see, and then make up your mind how you feel about her.
3. Talk to a therapist.
Sometimes, attorneys have to say things to their clients that are unpleasant to hear. Most of the time, we say what we have to say to make sure that you’re in the strongest position possible when it comes time to negotiate your agreement or litigate your case in front of the judge.
Did your attorney tell you that you need to get a job? Focus on something other than what you feel is the biggest issue? Manage your feelings so that you don’t have angry or emotional outbursts? Often, especially in custody cases, attorney advice is frustrating to hear.
Deal with your feelings effectively. Of course, you’re feeling a lot of things—a divorce or custody case is an emotional thing, and you’d be inhuman if you didn’t feel a little frantic, panicked, or emotional at different points.
An attorney, though, is not a therapist. An attorney is a person you’ve hired to represent you to the court or negotiate your best interests to opposing counsel. An attorney is pragmatic, results-driven, and focused on the ultimate outcome. Though we deal with emotional situations all the time, we may not be the best equipped to give you advice for how to handle everything you’re feeling—and we don’t take insurance, either.
If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, don’t blame it on your attorney. Talk to a therapist or someone who can help you navigate your feelings, develop effective coping mechanisms, and deal with your case day by day.
4. Get a second opinion.
If you’re still unhappy, talk to another attorney. Explain your situation, and get their advice. Are they telling you the same thing as your current attorney? It may just be that your situation is one where there isn’t a good answer. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes, the law just isn’t fair. There may not be a legal remedy for what you’re experiencing.
If, on the other hand, the second attorney gives you different advice, and it sounds better or makes more sense to you than what you heard before, consider moving forward with new counsel.
It’s never a bad idea to talk to someone else, if only to get their take on the issues. It may make you realize you have a newfound respect for your attorney. It may, on the other hand, make you decide to fire your current attorney and retain someone new. Either way, you’ll feel better and sleep easier at night, knowing that you exhausted your options and asked all the right questions.
There are very few things quite as anxiety inducing as feeling like you may have hired the wrong person to represent you in something as important as your divorce or custody case. Still, there’s no reason to feel that way! If you’re wondering whether your attorney is making the right choices for you and your case, follow these steps to figure out what your next steps should be. Need to hire a new attorney? That’s okay, it happens sometimes. Were you just confused? That happens, too, and your attorney definitely won’t mind sitting down and taking some time out to explain things to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get more information. It’ll help you in the long run.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys (maybe to get that second opinion!) give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.