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Keep your Friends Close, but take their Advice with a HUGE Grain of Salt

When you are going through a divorce, it is important to have friends and family around to support you. This will be an emotionally devastating time, whether you initiate the divorce or your spouse does. Even if you know it is the best possible path, it will be a very difficult time.

You need friends to talk to, to vent your feelings to, to keep you grounded. If you have children, friends will help as a buffer to make certain you don’t take your frustration (there is always frustration) out on the little (or not so little) ones.

And friends like to help. They want to offer advice, to ease your pain, to help you with the transition. Some have gone through divorce themselves, other have family members or friends who have been through it. They will share stories and ideas and legal advice with you.

Listen carefully to them. They do this out of love and a sincere desire to help you.

Then ignore everything they say. Well, sort of.

More divorcing people have gotten into more trouble by following the well-intentioned advice of friends, family and therapists than can be counted. In my experience I had a client who lost custody of her children because she listened to advice that her therapy group gave her over my advice, and we had to fight for months (at a cost of thousands of dollars) to get custody back.

I have spent uncounted hours trying to undo the damage caused by clients acting upon loving advice from friends or family who knew a lawyer who said they should do this, or whose cousin Bob who just went through a divorce and he said they should do that.

The thing is, each divorce is different, with a different set of facts which differ from cousin Bob’s divorce. There is no telling if your friend is actually relating what this hypothetical lawyer said accurately, or if that lawyer understood the facts, or is even a family law lawyer. Each county is different, with different judges who have different approaches to the law, which is one of the reasons you want to pick a local lawyer who knows the judges and the way the courts work in your jurisdiction. A Bench Bar in Marin County is completely different from a Bench Bar in Contra Costa County.

Understand that your friends are trying to help, and that is a wonderful thing. Listen to them, thank them, then discuss any ideas you think are worthwhile with your attorney. Most of the time your attorney will explain why that idea, while it may sound good, is not practical. They turn out to be like Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house – appealing on the outside but not so great when you look into it.

But there are also times – maybe one out of fifty – when a friend has suggested a really good idea to a client that made me go, “Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. Good idea. Here’s how we can do that.” It happens a couple times a year, and a good attorney takes ideas where they come. The important thing is to share them with your lawyer before you try to implement them on your own.

This is why you want to work out with your attorney some ground rules on billing and communication from the start. I never want my clients to feel that they cannot call or email or text me because I will charge them like some attorneys (text message: “has the other attorney called yet?” “no” ka-ching! $42.50!) I’d rather you feel free to run ideas past me without worrying that I will charge you. You will pay enough for the big stuff; you shouldn’t be nickeled or dimed for little questions (“my friend said … Is this true?”).

There is one source other than your attorney who will be a font of good ideas in your divorce, who knows the facts and will come to understand how things work – you. You will become an integral part of the team and will provide ideas working with your lawyer as you proceed. You want to find a lawyer who will listen to you as well as talk at you.

So enjoy the benefits of good friends who want to help. Be thankful that they care enough for you to give their advice and counsel, and are there to support you. But understand that their well-intentioned advice may not be the best help for you legally, and may actually hurt your case and interfere with your lawyer’s representation if you try to implement these ideas on your own (what is known as “self-help”). You never have to tell them this, just express your gratitude and say you will share their thoughts with your lawyer who is always open to new ideas.


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