A while back, I spent an afternoon in court with a woman I had been representing for more than a year. Her divorce was complicated by the fact that her husband (who had fired his attorney) refused to negotiate with me. He insisted that he and “his wife” would work out “settlement terms.” My client felt enormous pressure to be done.
Who can blame her?
For many people, the pressure to “finish” a divorce can feel overwhelming. The anxiety about going to court and the uncertainty about their future can make an unfair settlement seem better than no settlement at all.
These situations worry me.
Nothing prevents a person from reaching whatever settlement they believe is in their interests. It's one of the things that makes our system great. People are free to make their own decisions, attach whatever value they want to different priorities.
What worries me is when the pressure of the process makes people feel that an unequal settlement (without justification) is better than a decision a judge might make. It makes me worry because six months from now (when the smoke clears), I won’t be able to fix the deal.
Some lawyers don’t worry about these problems. They say, “It’s not my fault. The client was informed. They made the bad deal.” And to a certain extent, they’re right.
My client's decisions aren't my fault. He/she is the one who made the deal.
But that explanation doesn’t sit well with me. I care a lot about my clients. Some even become friends.
Here’s what I tell people in that situation:
First, go for a run or do yoga.
It’s what I do when I get stressed (and yes, even nasty divorce lawyers like me get stressed). Running helps clear my mind. Things don’t seem as bad after a long run. There's research from Harvard Medical School proving it.
Second, unplug for at least 2 hours – preferably 2 days.
Have you heard how much I hate email? It’s the best, worst invention of all time. No matter how hard I try, it seems like once a week my mood is soured by a nastygram.
Getting away from the screen will help you think better. Again, you don’t have to believe me. Read Sleeping with your Smartphone.
If, after a break, the deal still seems right for you, then maybe it isn’t so bad.
Third, make a list of what you think will be better after your divorce is over.
There are lots of benefits to settling a divorce. It's just that sometimes, the benefits you get aren’t the ones you’re chasing.
Some people settle divorces because they believe doing so will appease an overbearing spouse. This rarely works. Usually, difficult or controlling people aren’t motivated by only one or two concrete issues. The problem tends to be systemic. Compromising on issues you care about simply shifts the focus elsewhere.
Put a pro / con list on paper. Share it with family and friends. Talk to your lawyer. Many times, there are things a lawyer can do to help meet your goals while your divorce is ongoing.
What happened to my client? She stayed the course, I'm happy to say. Things are okay. And at least for now, she has resisted the urge to “settle” at all costs.