Understanding the relationship between you and your divorce lawyer is a crucial part of the process because if expectations aren’t met (on either side), things can go badly. Boundaries, methods of communication, who works for you, the billing…these are all things you need to clarify at the very beginning. In this episode, you’ll hear the how to’s and no do’s of a client-attorney relationship.
OUR GUEST – Jennifer Armstrong, Jennifer D. Armstrong, LLC, divorce and family law
Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS DIVORCE etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.
TH: Hi everybody. Welcome to today’s podcast. We would like to welcome Jennifer Armstrong to the show today. We are going to be talking about how to have the most productive and successful relationship with your lawyer. It’s really important and you spend a lot of money and invest a lot of time in this relationship. Jennifer specializes in divorce and mediation in the state of New Jersey, and we welcome you to the show.
Jennifer: Hi. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you guys having me.
Jessica: Thanks for taking the time.
TH: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jennifer: Okay, so my name is Jennifer Armstrong of Jennifer D. Armstrong, LLC, divorce and family law. I’m a solo practitioner based out of Toms River, and I do divorce, family law, and mediation. While I’m based out of Toms River now that the courts are pretty much Zoom based, and everything’s being done virtually, you don’t necessarily really need an attorney in your own backyard, so I do have cases throughout the state of New Jersey. I’m more than happy to assist anybody with a divorce or mediation that they need.
TH: Great. Great. Jessica and I are real-life ex experts. We’ve been through a divorce: mine was four years, hers was not. [Half that] We actually have completely different divorce stories. I was in court, I knew all the sheriffs, I knew all the security guards, I’m not proud of it. I know too many retired judges, regular judges, it wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, but that’s just how it went. I hired my lawyer as a referral from somebody else and she was my right arm and maybe my left arm too, for those four years. We really wanted to talk to you about the components of a productive successful client-attorney relationship from your point of view and ask you questions from our point of view.
Jessica: And also, from your side of things, a little bit about what you would expect behavior-wise from your clients. Because I think that a lot of people have not had interactions with lawyers before. This may be the first time in their life that they’re ever having this kind of relationship. I think people go into it they’re already a lot of times angry and bitter and resentful. They resent just the idea that they have to be talking to this person, and that they have to have this relationship. They think their lawyer is not doing enough. They think they’re an idiot. They have to move on and get different lawyers. I just hear these stories over and over again where it just seems like sometimes people just are not having productive and fruitful relationships with their attorneys. We want to really dig into that with you.
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. Really it all stems from setting expectations and everything. As you said, a lot of litigants, don’t know any attorneys and they’ve never had to meet with an attorney before. You’re going through a really traumatic time in your life. It’s very emotional. Sometimes people either want to dump all of that stuff in the first initial consultation, or they clam up and they don’t want to talk about it at all. It’s so private and they’re not used to delving into those feelings. There’s a lot of mystery behind what makes a good attorney-client relationship.
The first thing that I will say is that I always tell you every consultation that I have with somebody is I always say you want to have consultations with multiple attorneys. Don’t just have one consultation with one attorney and hire the first person that you speak to. You don’t necessarily want to just hire the cheapest person that you happen to talk to. One of the things that we do in our firm is that we will send out various emails leading up to your consultation that tell you how to plan for the consultation. What to do so that you feel comfortable and confident coming into the consultation, so you are not just regurgitating all this stuff that your ex might have done in the last 24 hours that really ticked you off.
TH: That’s great. That’s a great tool.
Jennifer: Yeah, you’re not just treating that consultation almost like a therapy session, because at the end of the day, your attorney, we are here to help you with your legal problems. We are not here to be your best friend. We’re not here to be your emotional support throughout the divorce. I don’t know that a lot of litigants understand that. Again, it’s really important for the litigants to know what their expectations are from their attorney and for the attorney to set out what their expectations are from the litigants. Only when you have that communication and that discussion are you both going to be on the same page and be happy and have a fruitful relationship and everything. At the end of the day, as your attorney, I am here to fight for you. I heard another attorney, he’s in New York, and I don’t remember his name off the top of my head. He just recently wrote a book about divorce, but I heard him on another podcast referencing himself as, “I am your shield, and I am your sword.” Your attorney is there to protect you and your attorney is there to fight for you. The last thing we want to be doing is fighting with you. I want to be fighting for you against your ex and against their attorney. I don’t want to be having issues with you, the client. That starts off by making sure that we get along, that we’re on the same page, and that expectations are set early on. You as the litigant have to meet with possibly several attorneys to find that perfect fit, and not be afraid to ask the questions, and not be afraid that your question’s stupid, or the person is going to be judging, or thinking that you’re clueless about this. That’s the whole point of having a consultation.
Jessica: That’s a great point because I think that there are a lot of people who come into it, and really need a lot of hand-holding. They really need a lot of communication, and they really need to hear from their lawyer every step of the way. They want to be CC’d on the emails that the lawyer is sending so they can really feel like they are looped into the situation. Not that they’re controlling the flow, but that they feel like they have a sense of control because they’re part of what’s happening there. How do you feel about that? Is that an unrealistic expectation?
Jennifer: No, it depends on what it is that they’re asking for, and that’s a discussion that has to be had. Because I’ve certainly had clients who have indicated to me, “Well, I thought that we would talk before you do anything. I thought we would have a discussion.” or “All the letters and emails that are going to go over to the other side, I’m going to get to review those first.” Well, we can do that if that’s what you want, but the other component that goes along with all of this is you’re going to be billed for that. Right, the money. Okay? It’s really important that one of those conversations very early on that you have with your attorney and the attorney has with you is about billing. Every one of our clients during the consultation, we talk about billing. It’s in the retainer agreement. Yes, you need to read the retainer agreement. A lot of litigants don’t. They just go to the last page and they sign. Again, it’s unpleasant, so you’re just trying to get through it as quickly as you can. Sitting in the office or doing a Zoom with me, talking to me about your divorce is the last thing you want to be doing. Some litigants gloss over those finer details and points, but it’s really important.
One of the things that we do when we get a newly retained client is sending out a new client notebook. There’s a whole section in that new client notebook about billing. Every time you talk to your attorney, you are being billed. Every time you call your attorney, email your attorney, text your attorney, every communication you’re being billed. Sometimes clients who have never worked with an attorney before don’t understand that until they get that first bill. They see that in the first month they’ve gone through thousands of dollars because they’ve called their attorney about every little thing their ex has done, or every thought that’s popped into their head. That’s unfortunate because now you’ve just gone through a lot of money that you may not be able to replenish. Where has it gotten you? I mean, there are always the complaints that we hear about all the time. I have an attorney, I paid them all this money, and they did nothing for me. Well, is that really true? Is that really true that they did nothing?
TH: Right. Your therapy bill just went down by $1,000 because your legal fees were up.
Jennifer: Right. This is the thing. You pay for an attorney’s time. You’re not paying for results.
Jessica: That’s a really important distinction.
Jennifer: Yeah. You’re paying for my time. The time that I spend with you is time I’m not spending with somebody else, and so you are paying for my time and my expertise. If you want to spend that time talking to me about the $5 Christmas ornament that so and so took that was really important to you or you want to spend that time talking to me about how much alimony you’re going to get and how are you going to support your kids at the end of this divorce. You make that decision. I’ll talk to you about either one. I prefer to talk to you about your legal issues that are really important and how do we move your case forward. One of the pieces of advice I can give people is that when you’re communicating with your attorney before you send that email before you make that phone call, ask yourself, is this going to move my case forward? Is this getting me closer to the end? If the answer to that question is no, and I’m just calling to vent, hang up the phone. Put the email in the drafts, add things to that draft email throughout the week, and maybe send one email a week to your attorney with all of those things that you think your attorney needs to know as opposed to sending multiple emails every day.
Jessica: You mentioned earlier every time you email your attorney, every time you text your attorney, are there ways that you should not be reaching out? I got divorced from my first husband long enough ago. I wasn’t texting with my attorney ever, but I don’t know that that would be the right form of communication?
Jennifer: It’s not for me. Again, that’s another discussion during the consultation you need to have with your attorney because you might be a person who you do everything by text. Well, you’re not the client for me then, because number one, I don’t give my clients my cell phone number. That’s a slippery slope. It’s a disaster. I’ve been contacted on weekends, and I’ve been contacted on holidays. We have lives too, and no client pays an attorney enough to interrupt me. It’s just not necessary. Email and phone work best for me and my office, but again, that may not be okay for the client. There are some clients who want to be able to text. The other reason why text messaging and doing everything for your life through text is not ideal is because at some point, if you’re just text messaging with your spouse, and you need to go to court, you need to show a judge something. Well, guess what? Now you have to download all those text messages, so you better be real good at screenshotting those text messages and printing them all out. If you think a judge is going to look at a three-inch stack of text messages, you’ve got another thing coming. It’s not going to happen, okay? See, it might be easiest and quickest for you. It’s not necessarily the most efficient, or the best use of your time, or your attorney’s time. Again, those are some of the things you want to talk about with your attorney, because there are boundaries that both the attorney and the client have to be mindful of. There are clients who are going to require, “I need to be able to reach my attorney on weekends. I need to be able to reach my attorney in the evenings.” If that’s something that’s really important to you, you need to communicate that to your attorney, because as attorneys, we are still professionals. Most attorneys are going to be available to their clients Monday through Friday, from nine to five. It’s different for everybody, everybody’s got their own policies and procedures, but that’s one of the things that are in our new client notebook. There’s a whole section on communicating with us. If you just need to know when your next court date is, you don’t need to talk to me about that. You’re going to talk to my receptionist who is free to talk to. We don’t charge you to call up here and talk to my receptionist.
TH: Oh no! Your receptionist is going to be on the phone for hours. It’s like, “I can’t take this call right now.”
Jennifer: No, but that’s okay. That’s an easy question though. Then there are questions about the paperwork that they might be filling out. We’re going to always tell you you’re going to call up and you’re going to talk to my paralegal because you’re only paying her $95 an hour to talk to her about something. If you’ve got to get on the phone with me, now you’re paying $400 an hour. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, I do want to talk to you, but I’m going to watch your money, probably closer and more carefully than you are. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you and I don’t want to do anything. It’s because I know that here in Ocean County, in particular, finances are finite. You only have so much to work with and you should want to maintain as much of that as possible for you and your family after this divorce. You should not want to give me all of your money and I don’t want all of your money. No attorney needs all of any one client’s money. That’s something really important to again be mindful of is that there is a cost to that interaction.
TH: What do you think about getting your family involved in your relationship with your attorney? I know my father was with me for everything, and that was for support. Also, I kind of felt like — I mean, I was relieved that I was getting a divorce. I was happy about it. It was inundating though and exhausting, and so I felt like I couldn’t always hear what my lawyer was saying because I got stuck on something — It’s like going to the doctor’s office when you have to go for a consultation. You bring someone with you to get the real story and then you’re only processing what you want to process. [Exactly] But what do you think about that?
Jennifer: It depends on the person. It could be very helpful because again, sometimes as attorneys, we forget that we do this every day all day. We will start, especially in mediation, the other attorney and I will start talking about things and we’re going so fast. We understand what we’re talking about, but we’ve lost the litigants. The litigants are like five miles back. They have no idea what the hell we’re talking about anymore because we’ve just gone through and we’ve resolved their whole divorce without you even knowing it. It usually starts with the consultation. I always encourage people if you need another set of eyes and ears to be with you, to be that person who provides that emotional support, or to take notes and be able to relay things back, later on, do that.
If you want me to be able to communicate with that other person throughout your divorce, I’m going to ask you that you sign an acknowledgment giving us permission to talk about your matter with that person because again, this is confidential information that we’re talking about throughout your matter. We’re not going to share that information with anyone you don’t authorize us to, and that authorization is going to be in writing, but it can oftentimes be very helpful. What’s not helpful is if you have a family member that wants to be able to call up your attorney, your attorney’s spoken with you and given you certain information and you relay that to your family member, and the family member doesn’t think it sounds right. Then the family member calls up the attorney and they start asking the attorney the exact same questions, and now I’m having that discussion all over again with the family member. So, no, get that family member on a call. Have a conference call so all three of us can do it at the same time and I only have to tell it to you once, and I only have to bill you once for it.
TH: And that’s why my father was in those meetings and not my mother.
Jessica: That’s right, exactly. Poor Karen.
TH: I think we have to wrap it up here, but I think that the overall takeaway is managing expectations, setting boundaries, and having comfortable honest communication. I trusted my lawyer, and she was a bulldog. I trusted her and she challenged me a lot of times. It took a few days for me to recover from those challenges, but sometimes you have to hear it. It’s really, really important to have a good relationship with your lawyer. I mean, trust me, four years.
Jessica: I think that this conversation can be continued too because I think there are still other things to be able to be talking about like not hiding information you’re your lawyer and making sure that you’re open about everything. It’s not going to help you if you’re not completely honest about everything that’s going on.
Jennifer: Yeah. I will tell you that the most difficult thing in a divorce when working with new clients is that clients underestimate the amount of information they have to provide to us. If we don’t have the information, we can’t help you.
Right now we’re battling with — everyone’s got a camera on their phone. Everybody just wants to grab that pay stub and take a picture of it and email us. If I can impress upon clients, if you’re going to be going through a divorce, you need to learn how to use PDFs and you need to get access to a scanner. It’s going to be invaluable to you throughout your divorce. It really, really is. The more information you provide your attorney, the lower your bill’s going to be and the faster your divorce is going to go.
Jessica: Love it.
Jennifer: There are no two ways about it.
Jessica: Love it. Jennifer, for people to reach out to you directly, where can they find you?
Jennifer: You can find me at our website which is www.jdarmstronglaw.com or you can find us on Facebook. I also run a private Facebook group called New Jersey Divorce Tips and Resources for people going through a divorce. It’s for general information and it’s no legal advice, but you can reach out through either of those sources and I’d be more than happy to help anybody who’s got any questions. Just reach out and give us a call.
Jessica: Great. For anyone listening, listen, we want to know what your questions are so we can bring them to the ex experts and get the information that you need most. Definitely reach out to us at email@example.com. We will be happy to pass your questions along to Jennifer and our other ex experts as well. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, Jennifer.
Jennifer: All right. Thank you. Thanks, ladies.
TH: Thank you.
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