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28 November 2011

How personal do I get when first meeting a client?


Mahie Abey

I was struck last week at what a traumatic experience the whole process of divorce can be. I know that sounds a bit silly given that I am a divorce lawyer - but sometimes it is very easy to forget. It was brought home to me by initial meetings I had with two new clients. In neither of the cases were the facts themselves exceptional. There were no extremes of behaviour by either party, though definitely examples of distressing and selfish actions (but that is very often the case in divorces anyway).

What was so striking was that both clients (both women), neither of whom I had met before, were within minutes of the meeting starting to tell me things about their long marriages that they may never have told anyone else before.

What I tried to do was imagine how that whole experience must have been like for them. I started with the physical surroundings - the room where I see clients is very pleasant, with water on hand and a ready supply of tissues and tea and coffee. But it is still clearly an office. I’m not sure what I can do about that.

I then thought about what their feelings about me must have been. I always try to put clients at their ease, and start any meeting with basic factual questions (names, addresses, children, relevant dates etc) to help clients relax . I have started my initial meeting like that for years, partly because I need the basic factual information and also because I think it does help clients.

Once I have done that initial information gathering I then ask clients what has gone wrong in their marriage. The reason this question comes so early is that it is essential that I understand what has happened and why. This of itself leads to questions which in any other context would be deemed wholly improper and personal. It is at this point that clients sometimes get very upset - understandably.

What I wonder is do I really need to put them through this process so early on in any meeting or indeed at the first meeting?  Am I just distressing them, which will then limit their ability to take in all that follows, including advice and information about divorce, children and money?

But not to ask these questions and try to find out what has gone on means that my understanding of what the client wants to achieve is only very sketchily formed. It could also seem uncaring and unprofessional.

At this point, I’m not sure there is any alternative to asking such personal questions. What I think I need to do is to speak to one of the fantastic counsellors I know and ask them what they think the best way to handle the situation is. I will report back when I have done