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Snow White Never Married Hitler

Family Law News, Vol. 17, No. 2

C. Rick Chamberlin, JD, San Francisco; Expanded for the Family Law News by Jennifer Jackson, JD

Rick Chamberlin was one of the truly bright lights in the practice of family law, whose wit and gentlemanly ways turned every case against him into a truly delightful case with him. His death in 1993 was a great loss; we miss him. When I began practicing family law, I attended one of his seminars for beginning family lawyers. To my delight, his outline survives him. Rick's associate, Kate Rockas, was kind enough to share his outline (reprinted here unedited as the italicized portions of this article) which we expanded into this article for News readers with her permission.

A. Is burnout an essential part of our practice

Since the family lawyer is dealing with pain on a day to day basis in the context of an adversarial rather than a healing process, stress is a given. Who among us is not "burned out?"

B. Is avoiding burnout really coping with stress?

The phone is ringing off the hook, deadlines are passing you by right and left, vicious FAXes are pouring in from your opposing counsel and clients, and decisions are going against you. It happens to all of us. How do you cope? Are you "Unavailable?" "In conference?" "Away from your desk?" "In Bermuda?" Sitting in your office with the lights out and your head down on your desk, sobbing?

1. Coping with burnout

  1. Probably easiest way is independent wealth
    If you're living off a trust fund or a Sugar Daddy/Mommy, your options are wide open. Quit. Go to Paris. Who needs this aggravation?
  2. Probably realistic way is to manage stress
    So we have stress. Best to learn to manage it, rather than ignore its deleterious effects on our ability to help our clients.

2. Managing stress: we'll attempt some practical tips

II. Practical Pointers

A. Generally: Practice in a way that suits you, not someone else

We all have role models to whom we constantly compare ourselves. It could be their style and demeanor. Frankly, we all wanted to be just like Rick; on more than one occasion I asked myself "how would Rick have dealt with this? What would Rick have said? What would Rick have done?". How could we emulate his marvelous perspective? Where did he buy his ties?

It could be their strength, thoroughness, methods of preparing and working up a case, talent for public speaking, client control. However, attempting to imitate a colleague often backfires: his strength becomes stubbornness when you try it; her client control becomes insensitivity in you, his talent for public speaking becomes your insufferable stage-hogging.

It isn't productive to compare yourself to other attorneys or to strap yourself to their styles, when you may be losing the very qualities these attorneys admire in you.

1. Sometimes difficult, depending on office

Unless you are a sole practitioner or the reigning family lawyer in the firm, the tone of your practice will be set by others. You will need to feel your way both in terms of whether or not the general practicing style of the office suits you, and, if it does not, whether your own style of practice will allowed to flourish - or, at the least, tolerated.

2. Probably worth a change in jobs if stress is serious because of this issue

If your own style of practice is unacceptable to the firm or to your "boss", and if you can't pull the wagon in the harness (or are simply not a "team player"), something has to give. You need to explore your options, which include finding an office whose style more nearly matches your own, and setting up your own office, where you answer to no one.

B. Maintain a sense of "yourself" in the practice. Attempt to avoid being reactive.

One of Rick's talents was his ability to maintain his calm while all about him were losing theirs, to coin a phrase. Once you have discovered the most effective style of practice for yourself, do not be dragged into or down to another's style. It is easy to fall into the trap of continually reacting to another person's bad behavior. When you are reacting, you are not in charge. This is not to say that bad behavior should beget bad behavior; it is simply more effective to stop - think - remember and employ your own strategy of the case.

C. Identify Clients you can and can't tolerate

1. Don't take the ones you can't work with, no matter how much you want the business

How many of us have been seduced by a big retainer, in spite of the prospective client waiving ten million red flags in our faces? The stress of the "one bad apple" who keeps you up at night eclipses the 90% of the practice that is going well. Is the big retainer worth the misery this client will put you through?

2. Develop a system for identifying those who won't work for you and a list of people you can send them to

Each of us carries his or her own personal baggage into the practice of family law. You may have been through your own painful divorce, you may detest weak women; if your former husband walked through the door, would you take the case? Think twice about representing someone just like him. Identify the common characteristics of those clients you have despised, learn to recognize those attributes in potential clients, and reject their cases. Define client patterns of other attorneys, and develop a referral list of attorneys who will take those clients you learn to reject.

D. Avoid over-identification with your client

Perhaps the primary danger in family law is to take on the client's cause as your own like Superman's cape. Not that you cannot effectively advocate for your client, just don't succumb to symbiosis, lose your perspective. These are the clients who are most likely to turn on you viciously at any time during the case.

1. Remember there is always another side to the story

Anticipate the other side of the story, and, if you must recite the story in a declaration, build the potential other side into it. How many times has your face been red when you receive the responsive declaration to your righteous recitation of the heinous "facts?" How many opposing parties have wanted to negotiate with you when completely stripped of their dignity?

2. It is highly unusual for Snow White to marry Hitler

One good question to ask your client is "What is the worst thing your ex would say about you?" In any case, "too good to be true" and "too bad to be true" are both true: be suspicious.

3. Struggle to avoid unrealistic expectations on the part of the client

If your client believes that you are her knight in shining armor, that you have an "in" with the judge, or that her case is ironclad, she is going to be disappointed and angry when proven wrong. Do thorough reality testing; apprise your client of the risks, and it will be much easier to negotiate a settlement or to accept the outcome of a hearing.

4. It is the client's life, not yours

Perspective, perspective, perspective.

E. Identify opposing counsel you can and can't tolerate

1. If you know you do not mix with opposing counsel, don't take a case opposite him/her
Usually, it only takes one case to know that you cannot stand a colleague, that you are not effective against his or her style, and so on. When possible, find out who is on the other side of a potential client's case. When you know that any case with X is a case from hell, don't take it.
If the situation is truly serious, warn your client that if X takes the other side's case, you will have to withdraw and then do so.

2. Don't respond in kind to obnoxious opposing counsel

  1. Relates to discussion above of "being reactive"
  2. If you're sucked into someone else's style of practice you can't win for yourself or your client
  3. There's a good reason why someone else's style isn't yours: it doesn't work for you!
  4. It's very difficult not to respond in kind but try, try not to

F. Establish routine office procedures and follow them

1. Manage your calendar

a. Make time for everything on your calendar: deadlines, prep time, etc.
Do you put tasks that you dread on the "back burner", often until it's too late? Do you save projects until the day before they are due, and then stress out your client with impossible demands at the last minute? Do you allow yourself enough time to prepare for a hearing? Do you take on more work than you can do?

2. Think about managing the telephone

What is your telephone policy? If you answer every telephone call within twenty four hours, the call you have dreaded making often turns out to be not as bad as you thought it would be. In any case, it doesn't hang over your head. Consider having your staff make some of the calls for you, if only to reassure clients and opposing counsel that you are not ignoring them, that you are thinking about them.

G. Maintain a dividing line between work and non-work lives

1. This works differently for everyone some people shouldn't bring work home (like CRC)

Some attorneys are perfectly happy working at home.
If you are not: Be strict with your clients and staff. Even if you have to lie about your availability, they need to learn - and you need to set up a routine with them about - how to deal with situations as if you really were in Spain when all you are doing is sitting in your hot tub at home.

Be strict with yourself. Have rules and stick to them. Stay at the office and finish.

2. Give yourself time off and recognize how much you need

Have a policy about time off and stick to it. If you don't come in on the weekends, plan for that - stay late on weekdays. Have a vacation policy and make your staff and clients aware of it. Cross off vacation days on your calendar a year in advance and honor the schedule as sacred - don't schedule hearings, conferences, or meetings during that time. Plan AT LEAST a week off every three months so that you have something concrete to look forward to.

H. Don't be afraid to ask questions

Nobody knows everything. Have no shame - everyone needs advice at some time or another, especially at the beginning. Your best resources are your colleagues, court staff, and professionals with whom you have developed rapport. No one will ever tell you to get lost; these people know that they may need your expertise sometime and will now be comfortable calling you.

I. Maintain a sense of humor

Amen.


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