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Sensitivity In The Divorce Process

By Charles F. Vuotto, Jr., Esq. And Carly DeCotiis, MA, NCC, LPC, ACS, CCS

We all know that divorce is a very stressful occurrence in anyone’s life. It is stressful not only for the parties and their children, but also for the lawyers and even the judges involved. However, the authors posit that there are some things that lawyers can do to help their clients that do not technically fall into the category of the law. Generally, family law attorneys may be more effective when working with divorcing couples if they focus on empathy and sensitivity to the emotional issues experienced by couples. This is a skill set that most mental health experts possess and practice on a daily basis. This column seeks to offer lawyers a brief overview of some of the tools they can employ to help their clients deescalate the situation, rather than escalate it (within ethical guidelines, of course). First, lawyers may wish to try to approach “divorce” as more of an uncoupling and be more sensitive to everyone’s feelings. In most cases, such an approach will facilitate the process by causing the parties to be less emotionally distressed (most importantly for the children). Lawyers are taught to be advocates. That’s who they are. That’s not wrong in most kinds of legal work, but in divorce, lawyers are faced with many scenarios where advocacy takes a back seat to preservation of the family and the children. Lawyers are not typically trained in psychology, which would help them be more aware and sensitive to their client’s emotional needs. There are exceptions, in terms of those trained in mediation and Collaborative Law. Unfortunately that is a small part of most lawyers’ educational process yet lawyers are forced to navigate the emotional impact of divorce without that training.


The following are some of the tools that family lawyers can utilize to achieve the aforementioned goals for their clients.  Many lawyers may instinctually use some or a combination of these techniques in their daily practice, however if lawyers consciously engage in these techniques they can assist their clients more effectively.


  1. Validation: Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors as understandable/valid. In many cases people are invalidated, in which a person’s emotional experience is rejected, judged or ignored. Validation does not mean agreeing or approving. Validation can be one of one of the best tools to help emotionally sensitive people (i.e. a person getting a divorce) to manage their emotions effectively.  It’s crucial for divorce lawyers to be mindful of this and practice validating their clients.


  1. Building rapport: Building rapport with your client is essential for them to trust their lawyer and their judgment. A client wants to feel like you genuinely care about their situation, not that you are just another “case”. Answering emails and calls promptly fosters rapport. Creating rapport at the beginning of the attorney/client relationship will often make the interpersonal interactions more successful along with the outcome.



  1. Positive affirmations/encouraging words: During a difficult time such as while in the process of getting a divorce encouraging words can go a long way. Encouragement is one of the most important attributes when getting along with others/clients.


  1. Use “common” language: Legal jargon can make the intimidating divorce process even more intimidating and scary. It can also be confusing. It’s important to use understandable language in order to ensure the client understands the points the lawyer is explaining.


  1. Review the divorce process: It is important to verbally explain to the client the sequence of events in the divorce process along with a handout reiterating those points. When a client is emotionally distressed they often do not pay full attention to what is being explained or can miss certain parts. A handout helps them feel more secure because they have something to reference and do not need to constantly call their lawyer with questions.



  1. Reflective listening: It is important to fully understand what the client is saying before offering suggestions, feedback or ideas. Reflection lets the client know you are listening and trying to understand their point of view. When engaging in reflective listening, the lawyer will reiterate back what they heard their client state. This technique gives the client the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings or share additional information.


  1. Obtain client’s objectives: It is essential for the lawyer to understand their client’s objectives and gauge whether their objectives are realistic. If they are not realistic it gives the lawyer the platform to explain why.



  1. Discuss client’s worst fears about the divorce process: If a lawyer understands their client’s fears about the process, they can be sensitive to those topics and pay extra attention to helping them work through those issues.


  1. Understand family dynamics: In order to truly understand your client in the divorce process it’s imperative to know the specifics about their family dynamics. It is important to ascertain whether your client or their spouse came from divorced families. Determine the quality of their relationship within their nuclear family and whether there was any mental health or substance abuse in the family.



  1. Review aspects of the divorce process that may be emotionally taxing: (i.e. custody evaluations, mental health or substance abuse evaluations, testifying if it goes to trial): Often times lawyers may not fully consider the emotional toll custody evaluations, testifying in court and other aspects of litigation will have on him/her or their children. It is imperative for the lawyer to discuss the processes in detail, prepare the client and perhaps role play with the client.


  1. Give list of professional resources: It is helpful if the client is provided with a list of recommended couples, child, individual and family counselors as well as mediators. If a client goes to a professional and does not have a positive experience they often will not go back and will not find someone else. Clients who trust their lawyer feel comfort in going to someone they recommend. During the divorce process it’s imperative for the client and their family to have professional support.



Some mental health experts may have the view of lawyers that they are too aggressive, divisive and only concerned with money. Conversely, some counselors may not fully understand the divorce process and the legal issues involved. Concepts clash at times. Both sides, in our humble opinion, could benefit from education about the other for the betterment of divorcing (uncoupling) parties and most importantly, the children, who often are the ones most impacted by the process. If lawyers employ the above techniques, it may help them to possess a skill set that can be used to enable them to be more emotionally sensitive ultimately for the betterment of the divorcing couples and their children.



Charles F. Vuotto, Jr., Esq. is the Managing Partner of Tonneman, Vuotto, Enis & White, LLC with offices in Cedar Knolls and Matawan, New Jersey. He is certified by the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney and is a past Chair of the Family Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association. He is a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (“AAML”). Mr. Vuotto is the Editor-in-Chief of the Family Law Section’s New Jersey Family Lawyer.  Mr. Vuotto is qualified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey to mediate family law matters and has been trained as a family law arbitrator by the AAML. In April of 2016, Mr. Vuotto received the Saul Tischler Award from the Family Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, which is a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to family law in the state.

Carly DeCotiis, MA, NCC, LPC, ACS, CCS is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Private Practice with offices located in Summit and Raritan New Jersey. Mrs. DeCotiis provides individual, family and couples counseling to children 10 years and above, adolescents and adults.


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