Redress Risk Management (post until May 31/19)

Is it a good idea to bring a friend to a lawyer’s appointment?

By Timothy N. Sullivan

Sometimes, a client going through a separation or divorce will ask me – usually with some trepidation – if they can bring a friend or family member to a meeting. Though we’re often taught that lawyer meetings should be ‘private,’ the truth is that having a second set of ears in the room, or a calming presence beside you, can be a great help in what is often a painful situation.

Separation and divorce need support systems

In almost every situation, people going through a separation or divorce need a number of supports to help them get through what is a stressful process. Financial strains can be acute; childcare and custody arrangements can be logistically challenging even when both parents are getting along reasonably well, and there are often residential, healthcare or employment-related issues that need to be sorted out. All of this can mean that both soon-to-be-ex-partners are navigating extended periods of high stress and emotional strain.

Friends, parents, family members – all of these can help to provide the additional support needed to get through the separation and divorce. Bringing one of the members of your support team to a meeting with your lawyer can be comforting – and a reminder that you don’t need to go through the process all alone.

What about confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege?

When clients bring a friend or family member with them to appointments, I explain the following. The solicitor-client relationship is between the client and the lawyer, so anything said within that relationship is privileged. However, privilege may be lost when a client brings the support to an appointment who obviously overhears and may be involved in the discussion between the client and the lawyer. The lawyer cannot ensure confidentiality in that case and privilege may be waived. At some point, I may clarify the rules and allow an opportunity to speak with me one-on-one.

A rare, but more significant and difficult problem, is when the accompanying person gets over-involved in the meeting. Asking an unasked question or explaining in different words so the client understands what a lawyer says are real upsides to bringing somebody along. But potentially devastating downsides include dominating the conversation, trying to instruct or direct the lawyer, and interrupting the flow of discussion for the relevant points in raising questions of a personal concern.

For example, parents may accompany an adult child in the course of a family breakdown. Of course, most parents want the best for their child – but if they become too emotionally invested in the process, or angry at the ex, they can be disruptive to the meeting. I have, on the rare occasions when this has occurred, asked the parent to wait outside for the remainder of the meeting. 

Solicitor-client relationships are like other intimate relationships

They involve the discussion of personal and potentially embarrassing details, personal finances, the admission of significant errors of judgment or mistakes. Strategy and tactics, personalities and court rules, juggling emotional, financial and logistical family problems are all in a day’s work for a family law lawyer. Attending with a loved one to help means to allow that solicitor-client relationship to thrive with support, be it emotional, financial or logistical. Ask the loved one and the lawyer how you can be helpful and stepped back when it appears the helpfulness is waning.

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