Good Counsel: Divorce Lawyers and Therapists — How are they different?

In the previous blog, we discussed the similarities in the roles that divorce lawyers and therapists play in assisting clients who are contemplating divorce. In this blog, we will discuss a few of the key differences between the interactions a divorce attorney and therapist has with the client.

Differences        

Fleshing out the full range of differences would take a treatise. However, let’s begin by outlining two of the more obvious areas.

Therapists should not give legal advice.

Most therapists understand that they should not provide legal advice. In fact, many therapists do not believe it is their role to give out advice of any kind.    Yet, in practice, the division between legal counsel and advice rendered by the therapist can get blurred.  I often have clients who tell me that their therapist believes they ought to seek more  child support or spousal maintenance or that they need to seek a better parenting time schedule.  While some of this may be due to miscommunication or misrepresentation by the client, I suspect that there are gray areas that arise with regularity.  For example, a therapist who is working with a woman who has been struggling with empowerment issues in her relationship and is interested in helping her stand up for herself may, perhaps unwittingly, give the client the impression that she should be seeking more from her spouse.  Whether that is legal advice or not is, perhaps, debatable.  However this type of counsel is likely to have an impact on the legal aspects of the divorce.   If a therapist believes that understanding the legal realities will impact the counsel provided to a client, it may be wise to communicate with the client’s lawyers.

Lawyers do not provide therapy or provide psychological counseling.

Similarly, most divorce lawyers know that they should not provide therapy and try to make this clear to clients.  However, the definition of “therapy” is even fuzzier than determining what may constitute legal advice. For example, at the earliest stages, when the client is wondering about whether to divorce or separate,  good lawyers understand that they are not qualified to help a client determine whether to end their marital relationship.  However, when the divorce attorney begins to explain how the client can “protect themselves” in divorce, it is easy for clients to get the impression that they need to consider divorce in order to protect themselves.  In those instances, the attorney may, (perhaps inadvertently) be rendering advice that is outside their expertise.   In addition, there are many instances in which the client, or their spouse may have received a diagnosis of a mental health disorder, such as narcissism, bipolar personality or borderline personality.  The attorney is likely to have some familiarity with those terms and, as a result, may outline a divorce strategy based on his or her opinions about the anticipated  behavior of client or the spouse.   While some of this may be inevitable, it is important for the attorney to avoid having his or her amateur diagnosis interfere with their ability to provide competent legal advice.

In a perfect world, there would be some communication between the therapist and the divorce attorney so that both professionals can stay within the boundaries of their professional expertise and so that they can harmonize their advice in a way that allows the client to make the best possible decisions during this important time.

To understand this general concept better, it is helpful to look at some specific situations that arise in the divorce process and to address the ways that communication between the professionals may be helpful. We will start by looking at decisions that clients make before the commencement of the divorce.

Next: Teaming Before a Divorce (or Separation).                   

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