Family Law Unraveled

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Client vs. Friend

Friday, February 19, 2010

Recently, a client I like a lot invited me to a party celebrating the one year anniversary of her divorce. That was a first for me, but I went and had a great time. It made me think about the issue of friendship with clients. When I represent a client in a divorce, I get to know the person really well in a certain way. I accompany them through an incredibly stressful time, and in the process I learn essential things about their character and personality: Is she strong or is she fragile? Is he honest? How does she prioritize money vs. conflict? I also, of course, learn a tremendous amount about the details of the person’s life, including things I don’t know about some of my closest friends. I know how much money is earned and how much debt incurred; I know about affairs, addictions, sexual problems, mental health issues.

Over the course of my years in practice, there have been a number of people I have come to respect and enjoy so much as clients that I find myself hoping we can be friends when their case is over, and I have successfully made that delicate transition a number of times. It’s kind of odd. Inevitably, we start out the friendship with what seems like a very uneven playing field because I know so much about them and they know so little about me. (Which I make a point of – I am super conscious of not making more than passing references to my husband and children when talking to my clients, first of all because it’s inappropriate for me to speak about anything other than their case when I’m billing them by the tenth of the hour for my time, and second of all because I figure the last thing someone getting divorced wants to hear about is someone else’s happy family life.) So there’s lots of catching up to do in that regard.

But in another sense, there’s not. We have been through an intimate and life changing time together where I have served as counselor and advocate, in and out of court, and they have seen me do what, hopefully, I do best; they have an understanding of and appreciation for the professional side of my life that my other friends and family do not. So we each have a connection to the other that we don’t have with other friends.

One of my best friends, Laurie, was a client. As we began to get close after her divorce was over, she called me up and asked if it was okay if she and her new husband bought the house across the street from me or if I would feel like she was stalking me. She was joking, of course (because I think she really knew I’d be thrilled), but she was acknowledging that even though the boundaries which exist between lawyer and client had changed, she wanted to take my temperature as to how much. That was quite a while back, and now we’re old friends. We have watched each other’s houses, kids and dogs, we trade advice, food, tools and we even have joint custody of a roasting pan. Just like any other close friend and neighbor, except I think the bond is a little deeper between us because of what we experienced during that difficult time in her life those many years ago.

4 thoughts on “Client vs. Friend

  1. Meg Goldner says:

    Marriages may come and go, but finding a good, female, friend is an essential and vital part of human existence. And to me, knowing I have an excellent, brilliant divorce lawyer is like the best of both worlds — having a great colleague and a great friend. I know that I have relied heavily upon my female friends, co-workers, and family as I have embarked on this life transition. I hosted a luncheon to mark the one year anniversary of separation and a wonderful dinner party to celebrate the one year anniversary of my divorce. Many people may think that marking these moments with “parties” is in questionable taste, I say it takes a village to make major life decisions and to support all of the positive results that may ensue.
    I will be happy to check in on this blog and see how you continue to comment on your work life and the other concentric circles around it!

  2. susan says:

    At least she invited you to her divorce party and you could choose to accept, knowing that she wasn’t uncomfortable with the knowledge imbalance. I’m sure the other situation has come up too, as it seems to a lot with many therapist friends of mine who find themselves at the same gathering with or same movie as a client of theirs, current or former, and it seems to generate a lot of discomfort.

  3. Sonya says:

    I think it’s the sme as being a doctor, especially in a small town. I want my doctor to be my friend (she is my age, has two kids my kids’ ages) but I haven’t been able to make the leap from patient to friend yet.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Margy, I love your blog. I think you’ve really got something intriguing and captivating going on. It’s great, great! I do so much admire you!

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