Client vs. Friend
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.