About Portnoy Associates

Portnoy Associates is dedicated to reducing the chaos of the divorce process that comes from the intense emotionality of divorcing individuals. By doing this, we believe that successful legal outcomes can occur more quickly, with less stress on the professionals and their clients, less exposure of lawyers to the actions that result from client dissatisfaction, and less damage to the families of divorce. We believe that it is possible to construct a more humane legal course that reduces turmoil and promotes welfare.

One important step in creating such a system is to give the professionals the necessary tools to accomplish these goals. If those involved on the "front lines" of divorce are skilled in helping their clients to remain calm, contain their feelings, and remain more directed, we will have succeeded in beginning the humanization of the process.

Fifteen years ago Dr.Portnoy became interested in how clients' emotions interact with steps in the divorce process when he joined an organization outside of Boston, Massachusetts called The Divorce Center Inc. The Divorce Center is a collaborative volunteer group of mental health professionals, attorneys, mediators, financial planners, and others who work with divorcing individuals. Its primary goal is to provide low-cost public education on issues of divorce. During his early days with the association, Dr. Portnoy observed how many of his lawyer colleagues talked about the emotional difficulties of their clients and how it complicated the lawyer's ability to represent the client successfully. It was clear that matrimonial lawyers faced many of the same challenges that trained psychotherapists did, but without the benefit of training in how to manage emotions, and with the added disadvantage that it was not their purpose in the first place. As a result of these observations, Dr. Portnoy began to research the intricacies of lawyer-client relationships during the divorce process. He began to write about his findings and to teach groups of lawyers how to address the emotions of their clients to make them less interfering. The culmination of this research and teaching was the publication in 2000 of his book, The Family Lawyers Guide to Building Successful Client Relationships (Family Law Section, American Bar Association). Portnoy Associates now offers a variety of services to professionals working within the family law system and to divorcing clients to help them achieve a calmer, more focused process.

Why is it important for lawyers to have these skills? Lawyers report that as much as 40 percent of the total time spent with clients centers on their emotional problems, and some research suggests that lawyers' relational skills may be more important than legal competence in determining client satisfaction. Most lawyers report that they regard their client's emotional state as very important in their work together; but most lawyers also report not knowing how to respond. In response to strong affect and emotional outbursts, lawyers rely on what they know how to do: rational and practical solutions. One study cites the three most frequent lawyer responses to client emotionality as: pointing out the consequences of a bad idea; giving specific, concrete advice; and trying to present specific alternatives. While such responses may be valuable parts of a lawyer's repertoire, they unfortunately put the lawyer into the untenable position of offering rational advice to a person who is not rational at that moment. As any battle-scarred psychotherapist will attest, that will not only miss the mark, but can lead to anger and distancing on the part of the client. In other words, not knowing how to respond to emotionality actually makes the emotionality worse.

Is it any wonder that the risks to matrimonial attorneys seem to be higher than other legal specialties. Surveys of state bar association disciplinary committees reveals that divorce lawyers have a higher rate of complaints filed against them than one would expect based on their representation in the total population of lawyers. While the data on malpractice suits is harder to come by, one might speculate that lawyers are more frequent targets in that arena as well. Even in the absence of formal complaints, divorce lawyers face complicated ethical dilemmas in their relationships with their clients. The constant pressure of having to deal with emotionally driven unreasonable demands often leads lawyers to the point of psychological withdrawal wherein they accede to the demands or avoid communication with the client. These are examples of the myriad of ethical dilemmas that can increase the risk the lawyer faces.

The benefits to lawyers of being skilled in how to handle highly emotional clients are obvious. They include reduced risk to the lawyer of exposure to ethical complaints, ethical dilemmas, and lawsuits, reduced stress, and the ability to maintain focused, directed relationships with their clients. When you add to that the fact that the lawyer's ability to help his client stay more emotionally intact also benefits the client and the client's children, it is easy to see how far-reaching the benefits are.

That belief is shared by the legal professionals Dr. Portnoy interviewed for his book. Across the country, judges, lawyers, and mediators felt that the system needs to be changed and that the possession of relationships skills by all legal professionals would be an important step in that direction. It is toward that goal that Portnoy Associates has developed its programs and services.

About Sanford Portnoy, Ph.D

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