Stupid Lawyer Trick #27 – The Trigger Happy Contempt Petition

I am painfully aware that I come across with posts like this as an arrogant “know-it-all”. Do you think I like that? I hate it! I write these things in spite of wanting to be nice and constructive, not because I want to hurt feelings or offend. I do want to share ideas that will help our profession.

“Number 27” is just another set of suggestions that I think can help us be better lawyers.

First, a generalization. I have found that some lawyers build a reputation partially connected to the size of their retainers. People assume, since it works for dishwashing liquid and cookies, that “You get what you pay for.”

For me, the factors of conscience, compassion, and commitment to clients’ well-being must balance the drive to become wealthy and famous. When I come home, if my wife knows I did my best and did something for someone a competitor might not have, that’s worth more than money. Don’t get me wrong, money is important. I like money. But the client must come first.

Yet, I find the lawyer with $7500-$10,000 in her/his trust account is simply not as interested in getting to the bargaining table as I am. Being from a small town, most of my clients run out of funds before that, so I have worked hard on the “affordability” issue, and “access to justice”.

I think that giving partial refunds, cheerfully and timely, helps one’s reputation, and helps balance criticisms for being “too pushy”. And, a world of credit cards has made billing somewhat easier.

But let me get to the specific criticism I have of some lawyers. It galls me to be hired by a client who has been sued for contempt and to learn that the opposing lawyer never wrote, called, or complained to my client even once.

I addressed this and other issues in “So You Have Your (Child Custody) Agreement – Now What?”

I wrote “Now What” for clients who achieve an agreement but don’t know how to enforce it or make it work. I was prompted to do so after a good agreement failed a young mother who had to hire me,  and I learned that a colleague who is an excellent lawyer had neglected to instruct the client on what to do if the other person violated it, or the situation changed. I realized I hadn’t been either!

So, now every client of mine who reaches a parenting agreement receives, and must promise to read, that article and two others: a. “THE SECRETS TO ‘WINNING’ CUSTODY OF YOUR CHILD”, and, b. “THE SECRETS OF WINNING, Number II”  These “how to” articles teach how to involve the other party in the life of the child while looking good for doing it.

It occurs to me that I need also to do a piece,  “So You have Your Property Settlement Agreement, Now What?”. Be sure to subscribe to this blog, so you will get it as I hit “publish”. 

In the two contempt cases I talked about, the persons who later hired me had misunderstood their agreements and inadvertently violated them. A good letter or two, or even three, citing chapter and verse of the Property Settlement Agreement or Final Divorce Decree could have avoided the litigation.

BUT, such letters might also cost the lawyer that big fee! Hmmm?

Ironically, an e-mail reminder, a text, a letter, certified letter, or ominous warning notice not only can often move the offending party out of their lethargy, but it is great documentation of the contemptuous attitude we are alleging. If you are filing a contempt petition, that’s good stuff to have in your file.

Here is the advice I once got in a seminar from brilliant lawyer and friend Jim Bordas, “Give them the opportunity to do what’s right, and be ready to punish them if they do wrong.”

That’s a good motto, and remember, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The lawyers who lack imagination, or who put earning that fee above the best interests of the client, fall short of the standards to which we should aspire.

Put the interests of the client first, and you will always have plenty of clients.



This post was written by Burton Hunter

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