As I get further into middle age, I spend a lot of time taking stock of where I am in my life. Am I a good father, husband, son, …friend? I also spend a lot of time thinking about my career as a Matrimonial Lawyer, and how I can best connect with my clients both as a professional and a person. I started psychologically putting myself on the other side of that conference room table during a first meeting, trying to imagine what it feels like to be the fragile and nervous person at a place they really don’t want to be, meeting me for the first time.
I think about the endless list of questions running through their head, “How is this going to impact my children? How much support will I get and how is that determined? When did she acquire an interest in her business and what does that mean? What is commingling? This could take how long? Your hourly rate is what again?” And on, and on, and on.
I imagine the feeling of “this is all too much; I can’t possibly think straight and process all of this information at once.” As a divorce lawyer, it’s my job to understand you in that overwhelming moment so that I can help you process this barrage of information amid your emotional turmoil.
Your relationship with your divorce lawyer is so personal. They should know how to communicate with you, learn what you care about, and understand your goals and values. After all, you tell them details of your life that hardly anyone knows. With all this swirling around, not to mention you just shared intimate details of your life with someone you just met, how do you know you’ve chosen the right lawyer? You must ask, almost above all else, does this prospective lawyer have the “EQ” to be “your person.”
EQ is the intangible quality of someone understanding “you”, and what you need. It isn’t defined by a specific dollar amount, parenting schedule, or whether an asset is marital or non-marital; it’s understanding you as a person, what makes you tick, and what you need to get through this difficult process.
When it comes to selecting the right counsel, don’t judge a lawyer on the fancy words and legal advice you receive during those initial consultations, take the process a step further and analyze the attorney by asking yourself the following questions:
Question: Did the attorney ask me if we tried marriage counseling, or if I would be willing to try it now?
Answer: They should. If they didn’t, it demonstrates that attorney may be pushing you into a process you are not ready for. My clients need to be certain when the actual process starts, because I need them to be engaged and invested.
Question: Do you regularly see the attorney’s name in the media disclosing sensitive information on their own cases and clients?
Answer: I hope not. That person is thinking about themselves and not you. You need someone who isn’t looking to boost their own ego, you need someone who wants to bolster your ego and sense of self-worth.
Question: Did the attorney try to make you worry about things that you know you shouldn’t be worried about?
Answer: That’s someone looking to instill fear and dependency not confidence. You know your spouse and you know your life. Don’t let a lawyer convince you they know otherwise.
Question: Did the attorney talk more about potential problems and “conspiracy theories” than solutions?
Answer: Lawyers get paid by the hour. The more problems they create, the more money they can make. It’s a counter-intuitive business model, and maybe one day I’ll figure out a better way to do it. In the meantime, choose someone that looks for answers, not one creating problems where none exist.
Question: Did the attorney offer a strategy to keep you out of a courtroom as opposed to in one?
Answer: Litigation is chaotic, unpredictable, and expensive. Predicting costs, outcome, and timing is virtually impossible. If a lawyer’s first strategy (barring an emergency) is to run into court, that’s not someone who is looking to fix things. It is very difficult to lower the temperature of a case, but only takes a minute to elevate it. You want the temperature low to the extent possible and staying out of court helps.
Question: Did the attorney tell you some things you didn’t want to hear?
Answer: I hope so. Managing expectations with honesty, while still making people feel comfortable and cared for is the optimal balance, and something an emotionally intelligent lawyer should know how to deliver. Leave the attorney’s office if you don’t hear some unpleasant things.
Question: Do you and the prospective attorney appear to have similar values and world views?
Answer: If not, find someone different. Your relationship with your lawyer is a partnership. If your values and outlook are not in sync, it just won’t work.
Question: Did the attorney talk about “winning” and “losing”?
Answer: It sounds cliché, but there are no winners or losers. Delete those words from your divorce vocabulary. Anyone that thinks you need to create a “winning” strategy is using words that do not apply to the process and is just telling you what you think you want to hear.
Question: Did the attorney talk about the team of professionals that work with them?
Answer: No attorney works on your case alone. Did the attorney explain that to you and demonstrate that your “team” will share the values of your attorney? The attorney should be instilling full confidence in the caretaking team that is going to get you through this time in your life, showing they possess the quality of empathic leadership. If all the lawyer talks about is herself without praising or acknowledging others, you may want to move on.
Question: Did the attorney provide you with a clear, balanced and realistic vision of what the end of the process may look like?
Answer: That’s a lawyer who doesn’t promote chaos and wants you to see your life’s next stages. That’s someone who is looking to get you out of this in one piece. That’s someone you should consider hiring.
Question: Did you get the sense that other people like and respect this person?
Answer: You generally catch more flies with honey. Most of the time, lawyers do better for clients when they get along with other people. You should “like” your lawyer, and you should want other professionals to work with and respect your lawyer.
Question: Would you feel comfortable enough with this person to “hug it out” during good and bad moments of the divorce process?
Answer: You and your lawyer are co-pilots throughout the process. You are as much of an advocate for yourself as is your lawyer. There will be sad moments, liberating moments, frustrating moments, and angry moments. If you don’t feel you can share these experiences with your prospective lawyer, pick a different lawyer.
These questions are intended to help you go beneath the surface and look beyond awards and recognitions (which can be bought anyway),to help you evaluate a prospective attorney on a person-to-person level. Learning the law isn’t the hardest part of what I do (there are a lot of “smart” lawyers), understanding and collaborating with clients takes more skill. That is arguably one of the most important parts of my job, and the one I take most seriously when representing clients. You deserve that type of representation, but finding it is often difficult.
Look beyond the plaques and rankings and ask yourself the questions I’ve talked about above. Remember, the real secret sauce here is not necessarily a lawyer’s IQ, but their EQ.
Brian Blitz is a Principal at Berger Schatz in Chicago, Illinois. Despite having litigated complicated matters throughout his career, he subscribes to a collaborative and holistic approach when representing clients, of what he believes is his “high EQ”.