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Be wary of befriending clients (From Solicitors Journal)

From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 14/09/2012.

Getting involved with clients is not only unprofessional, it might put you in a difficult position when billing for your work, says Marilyn Stowe

The deserted wife, the cuckolded husband, the desperate mother, father or grandparent. The client who is losing a wife, home and maybe even their children. As a family lawyer, these are your clients: real people, with real feelings, sitting in front of you.

Family law cases have the potential for ill-advised attachment. By their very nature most are based on sad or unsettling situations. It would be easy to get more involved than originally intended when a needy client turns up and lays bare their emotional suffering.

But professional detachment is vital for the sake of all involved. No matter what the circumstances, it’s important to remember: we are not our clients’ friends. This doesn’t and shouldn’t make us unfeeling or uncaring; it makes us a professional, doing our job, and staying focussed on the task in hand. It’s like being a surgeon – I’m sure they could often break down when faced with a patient’s pain and suffering that they cannot cure, but what good would they be to them?

I work for clients, giving 100 per cent on a professional level, but of myself I give nothing more. I never befriend them.

Being friends with client doesn’t give us a closer working relationship. Clients who come to me are often emotionally stressed. It can make them understandably volatile, unpredictable and even fickle. They focus all their hopes on you as their lawyer, and equally focus their angst on you, even where objectively there is no good reason.

When a case is ongoing I never socialise with my client. I’m sure many of you have been offered sometimes innocent sounding freebies or invitations to social events o
ver the years. Whether it’s a discount 
on designer goods, an invitation to their home or to meet up on holiday, or a day 
out at the races, offers like this make me wary and I refuse. I keep my distance, without exception.

This means writing more formal correspondence to the client, ensuring regular billing, getting costs on account, getting paid and keeping clients to a strict scheduleIf you forget to keep a sufficient professional detachment and distance, you can often begin to lose sight of the wood for the trees, perhaps missing the bigger picture. Client care is a disciplined concept and needs to be objectively applied. In reality, This means writing more formal correspondence to the client, ensuring regular billing, getting costs on account, getting paid and keeping clients to a strict schedule

Friend turning enemy

That is, of course, the last thing a client wants from their ‘friend’. A conflict can thus easily arise, with clients leaning on their solicitor, asking for discounts off their bills and negotiating in a way they would never dream of doing if out shopping on the high street. Of course genuine friendship isn’t about what the other party can do for you or getting something for free, but that’s how some clients try to interpret their relationship with an overly friendly lawyer.

There is a difference between being friends and being friendly – although an emotional client can often mistake the latter as the first. Ultimately, in my opinion, if you become too close many aspects of ‘client care’ can go by the wayside, resulting in problems for the lawyer and for their firm. And in fact for the client, who after all approached you as a professional to do a job.

There have been several instances where my client at the time has had to deal with a bereavement or severe illness of their own. I always place great stock in understanding their situation and offering more support and guidance as required, but never overstep the mark to become involved in their personal affairs. In my mind there exists a narrow line between helping them with the specific family law issue which we have been instructed to resolve, and sorting their life out for them – especially as the two can so often be closely intertwined.

Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t go home and ponder over cases and have moments where we feel life can be very unfair. But that’s very different to befriending the person going through those circumstances and engaging with them directly on that emotional level.

Because no matter what you do for the client, if he or she has lost their sense of perspective their expectations will grow and, of course, may not then be delivered. And in an instant your erstwhile friend can, like the flick of a switch, turn into your bitterest enemy.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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