Following a hearing in Georgetown this past week, I went into a local coffee shop and, after cracking a typical lawyer’s “slip ‘n fall” joke at the sight of a wet floor sign, struck up a conversation with a woman, newly moved to the area, who is a marriage and family therapist. We shared, for the next hour or so, our similar (and different) experiences in dealing with clients finding themselves in the midst of custody battles, fighting over property, and dealing with all the cumbersome elements of the divorce process.
One of the many topics we covered regarded what seems like a simple distinction, but something which causes quite a bit of strain and delay on the legal end of things, that which is the difference between the following: Feelings. Facts. Assumptions.
Being a therapist, this lady was well acquainted with feelings and assumptions that are made by those struggling through marital problems and divorce (as well as their frequent dissatisfaction with their attorney, unfortunately…). Feelings, of course, being the feelings of anger, resentment, etc., wanting to get even with their spouse, wanting to see their children more often, or perhaps feeling and perceiving themselves as a victim in the process. Assumptions, going one level down, being the conclusions they had drawn along the way, such as, “he has been cheating on me,” or “she is using the children as a weapon to hurt me.” Sometimes these assumptions are spot on, and sometimes they are not. An assumption of “he has been cheating on me” may quite likely in fact be valid when the credit card statement has charges for chocolates, hotel rooms and fancy jewelry, yet the suspecting wife, who has a chocolate allergy, hasn’t traveled in months, and is still wearing the costume jewelry necklace she picked out for herself a few Christmases ago… But, often times, assumptions are also exaggerated and biased, even if we do not realize it.
So then, what are facts? The facts, more than the other elements of feelings and assumptions, are where you, the client, need often to focus your communications with your attorney. An attorney often plays the role of a therapist, listening to the problems of the client, listening to their frustrations and feelings, and honestly, I, as well as some other attorneys, appreciate and enjoy this. I believe it is part of what we do, and part of real advocacy. However, there is something that is often hard to communicate to clients, as well as hard for clients to realize, and that is, that we must start with, and must use, the facts. The assumptions, and certainly the emotions, must first give way to facts — what can we demonstrate, what can we prove, and what parts of this story are not clouded by the inevitable bias and subjectivity that incorporates itself into the stories of the most honest and well-intentioned of any of us. By revealing the facts, without first focusing so much on feelings and emotions, you enable us lawyers to first, evaluate the merit of your case, the story behind what has been happening to you, and help you gain a realistic outlook of what to expect going forward, and second, begin, from day one, preparing the best and most credible strategy in advocating for you.
This need for facts has nothing to do with an indifference to the emotions you are feeling. Quite to the contrary, it has everything to do with wanting to be armed with the best means possible to rectify those ill feelings and emotions, and bring your life back to where it needs to be.