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Lunching with the Enemy in Family Law

Tonight's post about the complexities of camaraderie in family law was written by our Marietta and Atlanta divorce attorney, Megan McClinton.

A little while ago, I was getting ready to start a mediation in Fulton County. When my opposing counsel arrived, we met briefly one on one to discuss some of the outstanding issues of the case. Typical lawyer stuff.

When we were wrapping up our preparations, she made a comment that's stuck with me: "You know, you can't take any of what I'm doing personally. I like you. If I wasn't worried that my client would see us, I would take you out to lunch this afternoon". I was at once happy that I had established enough professional rapport with an opponent to where we could treat each other not just civilly, but amicably. Yet I was also confused: would it really make her client *that* upset to see us having lunch together? Surely people realize now that the practice of law isn't what you see on t.v. - opposing attorneys *can* cooperate with each other and can maybe even be...dum dum DUM, friends!

I won't bore you guys with Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct regarding fraternization of attorneys. You can visit the State Bar of Georgia website if you have a specific question, but I will tell you that there is no rule against your lawyer having lunch with the opposing party's lawyer. And here's a shocker: lawyers hang out with each other ALL THE TIME.

Since I was curious, I posed the question on my Facebook page: What would you think if you saw your divorce/custody lawyer laughing over dinner and drinks with your opposing party's lawyer? (I also qualified that the divorce/custody dispute is pretty nasty and contentious.) One of my friends stated that they would be "enraged" and another stated that they would be "hunting a smarter lawyer". I had another friend state that seeing that scenario would make them "feel sort of sold out". The overall response was negative, though, with a lot of my friends saying they'd basically fire their lawyer over this.

These responses made me understand where my opposing counsel was coming from when she said she didn't want her client to see us lunching together. In law school, you're taught to treat opposing counsel with respect and civility - that rudeness and unprofessional behavior have no place in the modern practice of law, even if you're on opposite sides of the courtroom. But in the real world, apprarently for many that may not realistically work. What if you're like me and you're married to another attorney? Or, coming out of law school and into the practice of law, you maintain deep friendships with your colleagues?

So, how to resolve this dilemma? My suggestion is always openness and honesty. If you know opposing counsel or you have lunch with them, talk to your client about it. Let your client know about your relationship with opposing counsel: tell your client if you two went to law school together or are from the same home town, or work together on philanthropic organizations or if you're both members of a legal networking group. Your professional associations are important in the practice of law.

And I firmly believe that knowledge is power, and making your client feel well-informed and in-the-loop will not only ease your client's mind but also help strengthen rapport - two qualities that are hugely important in the client-attorney relationship, especially in family law.

Finally, two attorneys who can be amicable, civil and yes, even friendly with each other will always wind up with better results for both of their clients.

So having lunch with opposing counsel is not only professional, it is wise and it is in the client's best interest.

Megan McClinton

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