Effective communication with your Collaborative Attorney is crucial to the successful completion of your case. In order for your attorney to successfully advocate on your behalf, you must be able to clearly communicate your goals, and provide the factual details your attorney needs to help you reach a settlement.
- Agree on a Communication Protocol. At your initial consultation or soon thereafter, have a conversation with your attorney about how you will be communicating with them. Let them know if you have a preference for email, phone calls, or office meetings. Ask about the best way to schedule a call or meeting, either through your attorney directly or through an assistant who manages their calendar. Some clients prefer to keep a running list of questions for their attorney and schedule a meeting or phone call to go over all of them at once. Others prefer to send questions to their attorney via email as the questions arise. Email can be very efficient, especially if you are able to organize your thoughts succinctly. Consider using bullet points or numbered lists if you are writing about several different issues. Depending upon the complexity of the issues, your attorney may ask to schedule a call or meeting to advise you. If you don’t check your email regularly, let your attorney know to contact you by phone if they need a response quickly.
- Keep Your Attorney Informed of the Facts. Over the course of your Collaborative Divorce case, you should keep your attorney updated about the facts of your case. I like to check in with my clients before each Collaborative Four-Way Meeting to find out how things are going, what is working, and what is not working. Identifying problem areas in advance of the Four-Way Meeting allows me to ensure the issue is on the next meeting’s agenda, to brainstorm possible solutions in advance, and to check in with your spouse’s Collaborative Attorney on the issue when appropriate. If an urgent issue arises, you should let your attorney know right away. Generally, I want my clients to keep me informed of the following:
- Job changes for you or your spouse
- Significant income changes for you or your spouse
- Change of address, telephone number, or email address
- Identifying an asset or debt that was not previously discussed, including the receipt of an inheritance or sizeable gift
- Whether bills or support are being paid as agreed
- How your children are responding to the parenting schedule
- Whether you are having trouble producing documents requested for your case
- Keep Your Attorney Informed of Your Goals. One of the first conversations you will have with your Collaborative Attorney will be to determine your goals—what you want at the end of your divorce case; where you want to be in five or ten years after your case is concluded. It is not unusual for a client’s goals to change over the course of a case, but it is important to let your Collaborative Attorney know when this happens.
- Use Legal Staff. If your Collaborative Attorney has a legal assistant, paralegal, or other legal staff, learn how to use that person effectively. Legal staff cannot give you legal advice, but they have a wealth of knowledge about the procedural aspects of your case. Many attorneys prefer clients to copy their paralegal on all correspondence into the office so that the paralegal can maintain records for the client file. Paralegals often manage the document gathering phase of a case (known as “discovery”) and can answer questions you have about that process at a lower hourly rate than your Collaborative Attorney. Work with them to determine the most efficient way for you to send in your financial and other documents. More and more attorneys are going paperless and may prefer to receive documents electronically rather than hard copies, and are able to receive them via email, memory stick, or file-sharing program. Be sure to promptly respond to questions from legal staff and always treat them professionally.
- Respond in a Timely Fashion. Try to respond to emails or phone calls from your attorney reasonably quickly. Your case cannot progress without you, and the Collaborative process can fail if you are unresponsive for too long.
- Confidentiality. Everything you communicate to your Collaborative Attorney or their legal staff is protected by attorney-client privilege and cannot be disclosed without your permission. However, you should always let your attorney know if you are not ready for them to disclose something to the other side. Remember that the Collaborative Divorce process is centered around transparency, and that if you are unwilling to allow your attorney to disclose certain material facts, they may have to terminate the case. For example, if tell your attorney about something your spouse needs to be aware of in order to make informed decisions regarding settlement, that fact will need to be disclosed to your spouse in a timely manner or your attorney will be forced to terminate the Collaborative case. Note that your attorney will never disclose privileged information without your permission, but that you may need to choose between maintaining a secret versus maintaining a Collaborative Divorce process.
- Communication with Additional Team Members. If your case involves an allied professional, such as a child specialist, financial neutral, or divorce coach, be sure you understand how best to communicate with that individual and the team as a whole. Remember that anything you disclose to an allied professional remains confidential to the Collaborative Divorce process but is not protected by attorney/client privilege and may be disclosed to your spouse at any time.
- Ask for Help. Your attorney and their staff are there to guide you through the divorce process. When in doubt, ask them for help. For example, if you don’t have the time or technology needed to download financial statements, your attorney or their staff may be able to take care of that for you. If you are unable to locate a particular document or piece of information, let your attorney know right away so they can help find a way to obtain it.
Setting ground rules about how you will communicate with your attorney, their staff, and other allied professionals in a Collaborative Divorce case early on ensures that everyone stays in the loop, and that your case can continue to progress forward in a timely manner.