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Modern Family Law Views

Modern Family Law Views – Sex and the Attorney-Client Relationship

October 29, 2013

Sex and the Attorney-Client Relationship

A recent conversation with two female colleagues addressed an interesting dynamic that can occur between divorce attorney and client of opposite sexes.  These colleagues commented experiencing – often enough to recognize a pattern – a troubling dynamic with typically older, powerful and successful, male clients.

Both the colleagues are accomplished and respected family law attorneys in their own right.  They described encountering difficulties with their role as teacher and counselor to these clients, who were not used to being in the role of pupil and mentee, particularly to a younger female.  In addition, these men, accustomed to the role of experts and leaders in their everyday lives, were coming out of marriages where they already felt loss of control to their wives and to an “unfair” legal process they saw as chosen by and favoring their wives.

The problem described in the attorney-client dynamic comes from the female attorneys reaching a point beyond which they felt unable to influence or advise the male clients.  Efforts to counsel appropriate behavior or interest based decisions would be met with excessive push back, if not downright loss of trust and termination of the representation.  When a male colleague would give the same client the same advice, though, it invariably would be accepted and followed.

My colleagues concluded that the same power or control issues were absent from the male attorney – male client relationship.  This could be because, for whatever nature or social reason (or both), the male client felt less threatened hearing bad news and following unappealing advice from another male.  We discussed the give and take banter learned from early childhood, sometimes rough but rarely threatening, between males and how this might explain the difference.  All agreed that even if the female attorneys successfully followed the “rules” of such a “buddy” relationship, it would rarely work the same way as with a male attorney.

These comments led me to reconsider some of my attorney-client relationships with the wives of such wealthy and powerful men, and to identify a trend of both victimization and reliance.  That is, these clients often presented in the role of victim, someone to whom their husbands had dictated the decisions, and who at the same time had come to rely on their accomplished husbands in everyday life.  The dynamic I recognized was the transference to me, as their attorney, of the protector and provider role, and their search at the same time for a confidant who would validate their sense of victimization at the hands of a “controlling” husband.  Whereas the protector role may come almost too easily, and thus presents its own dangers, especially to objective analysis, the confidant and emotional sounding board role comes to most male attorneys with the same difficulty as does the “buddy” banter to their female colleagues.

In either situation, the dynamic presents challenges for the attorney in getting a client to make sound, wise, and long-term goal-oriented decisions.  As with many relationship issues, the solution may lie in mutual acknowledgement of the situation, and help from appropriately trained professionals.  This is where the advice, given early and often, for the client to start or continue a therapeutic relationship helps.  It also is where the mental health professional working with divorcing clients can bring invaluable sensitivity and insight on the relationship dynamic between client and attorney, and thus help the client and attorney achieve a more successful outcome.

© 2013 by Hadrian N. Hatfield

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Scott M. Strickler

Hadrian N. Hatfield

Heather L. Mehigan

Geoffrey S. Platnick

Kelly E. Davis