Alice in Divorce Land: Learning Your Lawyer’s Language
As a divorce lawyer, I am very accustomed to the role on the attorney’s side of the table. However, I recently sat on the other side of the table on a number of business matters that required me to consult with an attorney. The view sure is different! I realized that even as an intelligent, professional woman, understanding a new legal process was not just “common sense.” My lawyer had her own language and I often was left missing a beat that left me feeling a little befuddled. I realized that this must be how my own clients feel at times. Sometimes I would just admit that I didn’t understand and I needed more explanation, but then at other times, I would just let her speak her gibberish so I could get off the phone. I mean, she’s the lawyer, right? I don’t have to understand all of it. Right?
If you’re in the midst of a divorce and you feel this way, don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone. And it doesn’t mean your lawyer is smarter than you! They are speaking a language you don’t understand. Much like being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you can get by if you know just enough. Your lawyer also wants you to understand. They are not speaking gibberish on purpose. They’ve just been speaking gibberish for so long, they don’t know it’s gibberish! So what can you do? Here are a few tips:
(1) Ask for the Cliffs Notes: You don’t need to understand the language, but you do need to understand how it will affect you. When my lawyer tells me, “Collateral estoppel applies to the laches argument, but res judicata allows you to make an application for summary judgment.” (Okay, I totally made that up using fancy legal jargon). If your attorney said that to you, you might think, “Oh boy. I am not even going there,” as you give the obligatory head nod and then leave the office wondering what the hell she was talking about. Speak up! You’re never going to understand the intricacies of res judicata, but you can and should understand what it means for you. When this happens, don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand, but follow it up with, “What do I need to know as a layman?” And, “how does this affect me? What is the result?” Basically, is this good or bad? When you give your attorney an indication that she needs to perhaps simplify things or just give you a bottom line, it gives her an opportunity to do so. Remember, your attorney wants you to understand what she is saying and how it relates to your case. So don’t be afraid to speak up!
(2) Read the documents your attorney gives you! Your attorney will likely throw a lot of paper at you. It can be overwhelming. And there can be temptation to just ignore it because it’s unpleasant and voluminous. However, this is YOUR life. And you do need to pay attention. The last thing you want is to ignore all of the papers, and then later when you have the emotional fortitude to read them, realize that there were things on those papers you would have asked about, objected to, etc. You need to be involved in the process. It’s very important that you read the papers and ask questions if you don’t understand what they mean. You don’t need to understand them the way a lawyer would, but you need to understand how they affect you and how they will impact your life. Don’t be afraid to ask your lawyer questions. If you’re afraid to talk to your lawyer because he or she is not responsive to you, you have the wrong lawyer.
(3) Sometimes Google is your friend. Lawyers hate it when clients quote something about the law that they read on the internet. However, it can be a good source of information. If you are dying to know what res judicata is, Google it and see what you find. Just be aware that not all of the information you come across is accurate. So don’t plan your life based upon something you read on the internet. If you do come across information on the internet, or elsewhere, that makes you question something that is going on in your case, just ask your attorney. But if they give you an answer that you don’t like, accept their answer. For instance, if you find a source on the internet that says you are entitled to alimony forever just because your husband cheated on you, don’t argue with your lawyer when he or she tells you that is not the law. You can’t just go with the answer you like the best. You’re paying your lawyer a lot of money to advise you. If you don’t trust your lawyer’s judgment and advice, you have the wrong lawyer.
(4) Take advantage of support staff. Very often, the basic questions we have can be easily answered by your lawyer’s paralegal or secretary. If you feel like you have a “stupid” question and you’re a little shy about asking your lawyer, ask the paralegal. Chances are they have been doing this a long time and have a great deal of working knowledge to share with you.
(5) Refer to your lawyer’s website. Many attorneys have resources on their websites about common issues that arise in their practice. They may even have a FAQ section that could answer a lot of common questions that have come to your mind. Check out those resources before you spend money asking your lawyer. Just be sure to ask your lawyer if you need more specific information that applies to the circumstances of your case. Not every divorce is the same.
The common thread here is that you take proactive steps to educate yourself. There will be terminology your lawyer uses that is not familiar to you. The most important thing is that you understand what steps your attorney is taking on your behalf and that you generally know the strategy. Knowledge is power. Don’t entrust your lawyer with making major decisions that will affect your life long after your lawyer’s job is done. You are the one who has to live with those decisions. So be an active part of the legal strategy. You can do this very well as a layman so long as you feel comfortable asking questions and being involved.