Recently I met with a new client who brought a close friend who had also been divorced to the meeting. Not surprisingly, I heard much about the friend’s divorce during the meeting, and it was clear that the client’s expectations were influenced by his friend’s story.
Thomas Kida, in his book, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think,” notes that anecdotal evidence is a significant factor when we make decisions. Much of the reason for this is because we like personal stories. People will believe a theory that is accompanied by a personal story, often in the face of scientific evidence refuting it. Lawyer’s make much of the phrase, “managing expectations,” which is something we do every day as we try to give our clients a reasonable picture of what to expect. Yet, it is much more than that. People believe things that they can relate to, and a close friend’s experience is generally easier to relate to, and comforting. Compared to the unknown of their own situation, it is reassuring to align with the known outcome of the friend’s experience.
The fact that the friend also had a wife, and also had children does not mean that the client’s outcome will be the same or even close. This can be a problem for the lawyer, particularly when the client perceives his friend’s outcome as a positive one.
Communication at the outset of the case is critical for both attorney and client so that there are reasonable expectations moving forward. No attorney has a crystal ball, but can only make educated guesses, based on accurate ad realistic information from the client. The case law will give the courts guidance as to how facts are to be applied in a situation. For example, when determining if a spouse is entitled to alimony, there are numerous factors that have to be considered, and a court will give more weight to some than others based on the facts of that particular family. In one case, the absence from the job market for a period of years may hold significant weight for the court, and in the next case, not much at all. This can depend, for example, on the type of skills the worker has, the amount of time it will take for the worker to “get back up to speed,” and any child care responsibilities. Similarly, the valuation of a business can vary greatly depend on the type of business, the income it generates, and its volatility in the market.
Walking away from preconceived notions based on other people’s stories is the best thing a client can do when embarking on a divorce.