Saturday, December 27, 2008

Reviewing Child Custody Coach and Some Thoughts on Lawyers and Clients

I found Child Custody Coach several weeks back. I find the concept both interesting and disturbing. I suppose some will find my reaction predictable - after all, this service does tread on attorney's turf. I suggest you read on because it is not that it treads upon the turf of lawyers that disturbs me.

The following quotes are all from Child Custody Coach's Coaching Services: Child Custody, Custody Evaluations, Parenting & Attorney Fees unless I say differently.

Let me point out that Child Custody Coach's perspective is that of California and mine is Indiana.

"From my experience, attorneys generally do not properly prepare and continuously inform and educate their clients throughout the child custody process, as they may not have the time, patience, nor the desire to do so.
That sentence disturbs me. A client not properly prepared for a hearing is one way ticket to losing - to losing even a good case. Personally, I do not like to lose and neither do my clients. If the lawyer is not preparing the witnesses and clients for a hearing, then the client needs to get a new lawyer. For the lawyer lacking "the time, patience, nor the desire to do so," to change his/her practice.

The lawyer who does not communicate with his client is looking at a violation of our Rules of Professional Conduct. You will notice the same rule applies to the concept of client education.

(a) A lawyer shall:

(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client's informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;

(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client's objectives are to be accomplished;

(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;

(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and

(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer's conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law or assistance limited under Rule 1.2(c).

(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

A lawyer who fails to prepare himself, his client, and/or witnesses for a hearing violates Rule 1.1 that defines our competence as lawyers.
Further, this would be very costly for the client (i.e. attorneys on average in California charge $300-$350 an hour for their services).
I have been recently informed that an Indianapolis attorney/firm charges the same amount for family law cases. When I do not charge a flat fee, I have two hourly rates: $175.00 for non-trial work and $200.00 for trial work. Yes, it can be costly. I recently defended a custody case where opposing counsel had a fee bill of approximately $6,000.00 and I had one of $4,000.00. It took over a year to finish the case.

I did find this information online about another Indiana lawyer:
"FEES: A one-half hour office consultation fee is $50. My current rates are $200/hr in 1/4 hour increments and $80 per hour for paralegal/legal assistant time."
I am writing this not just to make a distinction between Indiana and California but as also a premise for another point. Clients need to ask more than what is a lawyer's hourly rate but is the estimate of the total cost for a case.

Giving a perfect estimate of any litigation is not perfect but a good ball park figure can be given. The more facts known to the attorney, the better the estimate. I have a business client asking for a litigation budget which is a bit difficult since I am still waiting on the documents in the case.
When an attorney fails to properly prepare and continuously inform and/or educate their client throughout the child custody process, the client can and often will experience feelings of uncertainty, neglect, abandonment, and as though they have been left completely in the dark by their attorney."
This is so true. I recognized many years ago that I am not a good handholder. Which is one fault I cannot lay at my legal education but only at my upbringing. My solution was to start providing a handbook for my divorce and custody clients. My idea was to provide the clients with an overview of Indiana law. It has worked. My view is that a more informed the client will be a help in preparing their case. A nervous, uncertain client will make the attorney-client relationship a troublesome one.
Some clients feel as though they are walking on eggshells and may be reluctant to ask their attorney questions in fear of their questions being interpreted as "stupid" or too intuitive. What makes matters worse is the incremental billing and high costs one can be charged by their attorney (i.e. .10 of an hour @ $300-$350 an hour) to answer lingering questions a client may have, even if they are simplistic.
My designed my handbooks for answering the simplistic, common questions.

Not that law school prepares us for this sort of thing. A former secretary told me once that I gave clients information overload - hence the reading material. It is easier to digest and retain. I still find myself thinking I explained something quite well only to learn that I had not been answering the actual question of the client.

Which brings to mind another client of many years back. I was her second attorney on the same case. I knew that many attorneys did not inform their clients in the same way that I did, but I thought she knew what was doing on. See, she had this very nicely organized notebook of all the documents in her case. When I told her something she nodded in what I took as understanding. Then I discovered that the understanding was only apparent. I made the assumption that I often do - and one I get criticized for by my father - that I think everyone is as smart as I am. Instead of acting knowledgeable, she would have done better to have asked questions. Answering questions is part of a lawyer's job - see Professional Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 above.

Lawyers need to talk to their clients and clients need to ask questions. Lawyers need to make sure the clients understand whatever is being discussed and clients must let their lawyers know when they do not understand.
...One of the biggest and yet most common mistakes made by clients, which can exponentially increase attorneys fees and costs, which attorneys often complain about, is the client's unconscious use and reliance on their attorney for therapy. In these highly emotional and high stake child custody situations, the unconscious use of an attorney for therapy can be minimized and unneeded costs can be significantly reduced by working with The Custody CoachTM. Sometimes it is only a matter of listening, or acting as a sounding board, or answering lingering or ongoing questions a client may have, which can significantly reduce costs and keep one sane throughout the child custody process.
I had a client use me for something similar to therapy during a recent child support case. I cannot agree too strongly with the above quote that lawyers should not be used for therapy. We really are not competent to perform that kind of service. Many of us are completely oblivious to the emotional side of custody cases. I like to think I am not oblivious. Nor can I agree too strongly that custody cases are stressful for family, lawyers and judges. The service described in the above paragraph is a very useful one - in my opinion.

Then I am back in a state of dismay with this paragraph:
Further, The Custody CoachTM will listen to the client, assess the situation, review pertinent documents (i.e. declarations, evaluations, custody orders, stipulations, time logs, etc.), and help the client strategize, organize, prepare, present, and identify those things which are significant, relevant, and important to their case that can impact and/or influence child custody. This collaboration between the coach and client is extremely important in that this allows the client to have better control in managing their situation and confidence in communicating and interacting with those in the child custody community without sole reliance upon their attorney.
It seems unclear to me whether I may need to meet with the counselor to prepare for the hearing and then do the same with the client. I see preparing the case as involving all the same the activities as the client will have with the coach. The older I get, the more I like the English idea of instructing solicitor and barrister advocate but that is not the system that we have in this country. In the past year I have had three civil cases with me acting as local counsel and I have found all three to be unsatisfactory experiences. No, I like knowing the client and the facts as deeply as possible. Not knowing either with any great depth has left me feeling a bit disoriented.

I like the idea of a service where custody clients can deal more effectively with the stress and emotional turmoil of a custody case than what I can offer them. I am not so certain that it helps me, the client or the costs of a case to have another deal with the legal aspects of a case.

Clients need to know that paying the bill means they get to ask questions. That lawyers have certain obligations to their clients. Clients need to know that if a lawyer does not meet these obligations that they need to demand of their lawyers that they do meet their obligations to their clients.

Lawyers need to find the means to provide the best service to their clients at the lowest cost. Whether this be with alternative fees (and I have articles touching on this subject under the label "attorney fees") or with printed information depends on the client and the case. We all need to learn to communicate better.

I think I will close out this very long post with Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2.:
(a) Subject to paragraphs (c) and (d), a lawyer shall abide by a client's decisions concerning the objectives of representation and, as required by Rule 1.4, shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued. A lawyer may take such action on behalf of the client as is impliedly authorized to carry out the representation. A lawyer shall abide by a client's decision whether to settle a matter. In a criminal case, the lawyer shall abide by the client's decision, after consultation with the lawyer, as to a plea to be entered, whether to waive jury trial and whether the client will testify.

(b) A lawyer's representation of a client, including representation by appointment, does not constitute an endorsement of the client's political, economic, social or moral views or activities.

(c) A lawyer may limit the scope and objectives of the representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.

(d) A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.

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