Divorce Coaching and Parenting Coaching: Bridging “Emotional Facts” to Hard Realities

By Erin E. Schaden and Gregory W. Herring

Long before establishing Herring Law Group (“HLG”), Erin began her career as a family law attorney. From the beginning, Erin was concerned about the emotional side of the law and found that family law was the perfect fit.

Greg began his career as civil litigator. Usually, clients did not require a particular “desk-side manner” because no one was formulating an intimate relationship. Greg typically focused on getting a specific job done within identifiable parameters presented by a singular incident or dispute. Sure, it helped to be personable; but civil litigators are paid to win — not “handhold” — and in that world “winning” is usually well-defined.

It wasn’t long before both added the family law specialty to their respective practices. Learning the substantive nuances of family law was expected. The surprise lay in having to absorb the astounding amount of personal and intimate information about our clients, opposing parties, and their families that family law attorneys regularly encounter. We:

  • Learn how much and where parties spend their money, and where they try to hide it.
  • Wrestle with big picture concepts like “best interests of the children,” the characterization of estates including community property, separate property and mixed assets, and non-cash alternative forms of compensation as assets and income.
  • Balance debt management against alleged and actual cash flows.
  • Encounter domestic violence, child abuse, electronic eavesdropping, and other crimes.
  • Assess sex lives — including issues of unauthorized use of community funds for secret paramours, “venues” of conception in parentage cases, and “revenge porn.”
  • Digest the smallest relevant details including where the parties went on vacation (and what they did on it), whether they celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and … “on and on.”
  • Intersect with substance abuse, personality disorders, and mental health issues of one or more parties and their children.
  • Untangle years of mixed and disputed finances — especially in cases involving family businesses.

As the Court of Appeal famously (in family law circles) put it,

In terms of the potential breadth and complexity of issues which they face, family practitioners work in one of the most, and perhaps the most, exacting and demanding areas of concentration in the law. Under California’s community property laws, every item of marital property presents a host of challenging issues. Not only must the family practitioner worry about the characterization and valuation of each asset, he or she often must consider future tax consequences involved in various items of community property. On top of that, support and custody issues involve different considerations, in which a human relationship–as distinct from a discrete event–is the subject of the litigation.”

(D’Elia v. D’Elia (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 415, 433 (ftn. 2).)

Often complicating this already-challenging work are volatile and contentious settings, when lives have imploded and every aspect of the parties’ and children’s existence can be in the air.

. . . [F]amily law cases have a unique propensity for bitterness. In commenting on family law litigation in [Green v. Uccelli (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 112, 1121] for example, Justice King found himself using “bitter” or “bitterness” four times in just one paragraph. (See 207 Cal.App.3d at p. 1121.) Bitterness and emotional distress often form a kind of background noise in family law litigation ….

(Bidna v. Rosen (1993) 19 Cal.App. 4th 27, 35.)

All attorneys are trained to research, draft, argue, and represent clients to right injustices and gain advantages. In most practice areas, these skills, alone, suffice. But family law attorneys are also expected to help comprehend, reassemble, and re-orient clients’ lives – all while negotiating the “rivers of bitterness” that commonly typify domestic cases (Bidna, supra, at 30).  

“Emotional Facts” Versus Hard Realities

Complicating this, clients often come to family law attorneys with “emotional facts” — expecting us to turn them into evidence proving “right” and “wrong.” An attorney-client exchange in a custody matter might include the following:

“My ex is practically living with his girlfriend.”

A good attorney would respond by asking questions like these:

  • “How do you know?”
  • “Who could verify that?
  • “Where did you get that information?”
  • “When was the last time you saw your ex with his girlfriend?”
  • “What did you do to obtain that information?”
  • “Does this matter – is she bad for the children?”

Replies might include the following:

  • “I know it because his car wasn’t in his driveway last night and he isn’t on a work trip.”
  • “I AM VERIFYING THAT INFORMATION FOR YOU RIGHT NOW!”
  • “My old next-door neighbor told me – she hates him.”
  • “I have never met the girlfriend but everyone around town sees them together all the time.”
  • “I climbed over the fence after he left for work and put a video camera on the window ledge…it’s my house too – community property – so I am sure that this is totally legal!”
  • “Of course she’s no good for the children – she’s not their mom!”

In these instances, a client’s emotional personal narrative – the “divorce story” — can end up driving the “client’s side” of the attorney-client relationship, regardless of the actual facts and law.

Even experienced counsel attuned to the vicissitudes of the practice are not always prepared for the emotional entanglements and the resulting barriers. Most will privately confess their dread of dealing with a client’s shifting “emotional facts” when juxtaposed against firm legal principles and waiting courtrooms. We might logically explain the process, risks, and realities to a shell-shocked client. Most of us can initially do it succinctly and patiently…but only the first twelve times or so before burning out!

Then, even the best of us tend to lose compassion and patience. Toward avoiding these ongoing and apparently “impossible” conversations, we sometimes build walls.

From their perspective, clients become critical when asked to pay attorneys to repeatedly state the same advice — even though they might need the repetition for a full understanding and appreciation. They get frustrated when counsel cannot square things that the facts and law might not reconcile.

Like others, we at HLG kept getting stuck in the gap. We would find ourselves well into developing a case, only to learn that our client was not ready for, could not fathom, or otherwise failed to process our advice. The disconnect generated frustrations and dissatisfaction on “both sides.” Seeking solutions, we considered incorporating “divorce coaching” (better referenced as “family law coaching” in relation to the broad practice of family law) as an additional aspect of our concierge-level service.

Divorce Coaching and Parenting Coaching – Bridging the Gap

The phrase, “divorce coach,” did not begin appearing in newspaper archives until the 2000’s. Attorneys, financial mediators, psychotherapists and other professionals began reinventing themselves and calling themselves that. (Geoff Williams, Reuters, Sept. 19, 2012.)

The American Bar Association defines “divorce coaching” as follows: 

Divorce coaching is a flexible, goal-oriented process designed to support, motivate, and guide people going through divorce to help them make the best possible decisions for their future, based on their particular interests, needs, and concerns. Divorce coaches have different professional backgrounds and are selected based on the specific needs of the clients. For example, some divorce coaches are financial planners, mental health professionals, lawyers, or mediators who have experience dealing with divorcing clients.

***

[A coach’s] job is to be [their] client’s “thinking partner.” Divorce is a long process, and the coach goes along for the ride – not as legal counsel or therapist, but as a guide. “It’s all about creating a safe, supportive, non-judgmental, and patient environment.”

(Geoff Williams, supra, citing Randall Cooper, co-founder of CDC College for Divorce.)

***

Coaching is not therapy (which is something HLG separately advises for many of our clients). The process does not explore the past or attempt to determine whether a client was or is “wrong” or “right,” or “justified” or not. Coaches can use a variety of concepts and strategies to help shift a client from hard binary positions toward perceiving important shades of gray. Building on that, coaching aims for individual-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes.

Well-trained divorce coaches and parenting coaches become strategic thinking partners. They help explain complicated new personal and legal realities in a relaxed manner, and with as much repetition as needed. They help explore what litigants might want in their new lives-to-be. The overarching goal is to help a client achieve a sense of stability, control, and perspective.

In employing a coach, a client gains a professional (at a much lower rate than lead counsel) trained to serve as a confidant, supporter, and professional partner.

From an attorney’s view, coaches can help bridge messy and illogical emotions to the facts and law. By gaining an enhanced understanding of a client’s point of view, counsel can better support a client in handling fraught situations.

Overall, attorney-client relationships benefit from  having a family law coach see the case from all perspectives and translate for the whole team.

Coaching in Practice.

Just as (alas) anyone – attorney or not; trained or not — can legally call themself a “mediator” under California law, anyone can also call themself a “divorce coach.” For HLG to enlist it, the coaching concept had to match our high caliber and our clients’ attendant expectations. Seeking professional standards and integrity, we identified at least one credible national program, CDC Certified Divorce Coach® (certifieddivorcecoach.com). We found it critical that, as a requirement for ongoing certification, a CDC Certified Divorce Coach® must adhere to a Code of Ethics and serious Practice Standards.

Divorce coaching and parenting coaching is now a distinct and essential tool allowing HLG to provide a new level of care. It has enabled an expanded role for Erin. She is the firm’s Executive Director, but she now wears an additional hat — as a CDC Certified Divorce Coach. ® With that training, she helps HLG’s attorneys and clients better communicate toward setting targets, executing outcomes, and managing personal change in a holistic manner.

Conclusion.

Family law lawyers are necessarily understanding, resilient, and creative. One of their biggest challenges lies in addressing clients’ “emotional facts” contrasted against actual facts and law. Since incorporating divorce coaching and parenting coaching into our repertoire, HLG has found it to be an efficient, effective, and economical way of bridging the gap. Erin would be pleased to help anyone incorporate it into their own practices.

Book a Complimentary Session
I offer a complimentary 15 minute session to see if coaching with me seems like a good fit for both of us. Please reach out to me at eschaden@theherringlawgroup.com. Look forward to being of service!