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Great lawyers are great listeners. This helps them to gather relevant information for a file. Getting all of the relevant information is essential. After all, to borrow a common computer science saying, “garbage in, garbage out.” Wrong facts lead to wrong advice and potential disaster for a client.

Great listening skills may mean that a client is tempted to share their emotions about their ex-partner with their lawyer even though the focus really should stay on the client’s legal issues and the advice that the lawyer provides. It might feel inviting for a client to vent to their divorce lawyer about their ex-partner but peril lies ahead!

Let’s return, dear reader, to the saga of our sample divorce client, John Doe. John has hired Vinnie Moneybags to represent him at a rate of $250.00 hourly plus HST. This means the end cost of Vinnie’s services to John are $287.50 per hour when you include tax.

John is in a bitter divorce battle with his ex, Sally. Sally has made a claim against John for spousal support, sole parenting time with the kids, and an equal division of marital property.

Vinnie has pulled John into his office to meet. He wants to discuss a settlement offer that has been made by Sally, give John advice concerning whether the offer is reasonable, and get direction from John as to whether he wants to accept or make a counter-offer. Vinnie has blocked 1.5 hours off for the meeting though he is hoping to get it done in under an hour.

Vinnie and John spend the first 30 minutes of the meeting going through the parenting provisions of the offer. John is getting irate and making snide comments about Sally’s parenting but is not wandering too far off topic. However, when they get to the spousal support provisions of the offer, John becomes much more upset.

John starts accusing Sally of never having loved him. He claims she cheated on him 18 times with 10 suspected partners (all of whom are named by John along with snide remarks concerning their physical appearance). He rants that Sally took his dog when she and the kids left the marital home. John grows more upset as he describes how Sally and her new boyfriend recently made Christmas cards with their picture on the front to show the world how happy they are. He claims they included his dog in the picture to specifically thumb their noses at him. He starts demanding damages for emotional suffering because “Sally stole my dog.”

Vinnie tries to break into John’s rant many times to explain to him that none of these matters are remotely relevant to the issue of spousal support. He even uses the words, “John, you need to focus on what I am trying to tell you before you waste too much money.”

However, John is so worked up that he won’t accept Vinnie’s statements and accuses Vinnie of being on Sally’s side. He starts raising his voice with Vinnie. Suddenly, Vinnie’s admin knocks on the door. She tells Vinnie he has an important phone call from the clerk’s office. Hint: there is no important phone call. Vinnie’s assistant is just intervening because she is nervous about John starting to yell.

Vinnie realizes that the entire 1.5 hour block has been used up and that an entire hour of that was John’s rant about the cheating and the dog on the Christmas card. He ushers John out of his office so Vinnie can take his “important phone call from the clerk’s office.”

Does this sound exaggerated to you? It is exaggerated in that this specific scenario has not actually happened in our office. But any divorce lawyer would likely tell you that it rings very true to what they have experienced.

How did this influence Vinnie’s bill to John? Vinnie had 1.5 hours blocked off for the appointment but was only going to charge John for the time that they spent together. However, Vinnie blew through the entire appointment so the total cost was:

($250.00/hr x 1.5hrs) + 15% HST = $431.25

Of that $431.25, the sum of $287.50 was attributable to John’s rant and was completely and utterly wasted. That’s a full 2/3 of the total bill! Poor John is going to waste his entire retainer if he is not careful.

Venting to a lawyer felt good in the moment to John. It felt so good he ignored Vinnie’s attempts to stop him. However, John will not feel good when he get’s Vinnie’s bill. It’s going to increase John’s financial stress and likely make John even angrier at Sally (and maybe at Vinnie). We’ll get to how that anger will influence John’s legal fees in a different post. Spoiler alert: it’s not going to work out well for our friend.

Let’s be real. Your divorce lawyer probably does not have the training that a therapist does to help you work through your emotions. Your lawyer also charges way more than a therapist (fun fact, your therapist may be covered by your health insurance while the care and feeding of your lawyer likely won’t be). Lawyers are absolutely unqualified to help you with your emotions no matter how good a listener they are or how nice they are.

Want to be super real? In addition to not being qualified to be your therapist, there is better than even odds that your divorce lawyer probably needs therapy themselves. Poor mental health is common in the profession.

How could John have kept himself from going off track here? Some possible solutions are:

(1) John could have acknowledged to Vinnie that he was feeling too angry to stay on topic and asked to end the meeting early and reschedule for another day when he could be calmer. Vinnie likely would have agreed that was wise and been happy to stop the clock and just grab someone else’s file to work on to finish out the time until his next meeting.

(2) John could have asked for a little break to attempt to calm down and refocus before trying to resume the meeting so they could actually get some work done that benefited John.

(3) John could have listened to Vinnie with an open mind about the irrelevant comments and just let Vinnie explain what factors are relevant to determining entitlement to spousal support.

(4) John could have ended the meeting early and told Vinnie that he wanted to write him a letter/email about why he doesn’t think Sally should have spousal support. Then John could have taken as long as he wanted to write a ranting email but then Vinnie could have read the rant in a much shorter time than John ranted in person and then brought John in for a meeting later to explain why the allegations don’t affect Sally’s entitlement to spousal support.

(5) John could have saved his rant for a friend or an actual therapist.