“‘Let us choose justice for ourselves…'” (Job 34: 4).
It takes great courage to flee an abusive relationship, and confront an abuser.
While criminal matters are generally handled through the District Attorney’s Office on the state level and the US Attorney’s Office on the federal level, abuse victims seeking divorce or money damages for their pain and suffering will need to pursue civil litigation.
Civil lawyers can be found who specialize in victims’ rights following rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, elder abuse, clergy abuse, and sexual harassment.
A good lawyer can help restore the abuse victim’s life. A dysfunctional lawyer (or a dysfunctional relationship with an otherwise good lawyer) can delay the process, undermining an abuse victim’s already tenuous confidence.
Abuse Victims as Clients
Abuse victims deserve a dedicated advocate: someone whose honesty is above reproach, who will be diligent in pursuing their case, who will communicate on all critical matters, and whose legal judgment can be relied upon as sound.
Fortunately, there are many lawyers meeting these criteria.
Cost is likely to be the first criteria abuse victims consider, in choosing a lawyer.
Personal injury litigation is usually taken on a contingency basis, for a percentage of the ultimate recovery. What that percentage can be differs somewhat from state to state. Thirty percent for the lawyer is typical.
The legal fees in other types of cases, for example divorce or bankruptcy, are usually calculated on an hourly basis. This can be a challenge for abuse victims, who may not have much in the way of funds.
Legal aid is available across the country, but the types of civil cases covered will vary. Abuse victims should check with their local offices.
Victims organizations like WomensLaw.org and RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) can be a good source of information. Most bar associations will, also, have referral services with lists of lawyers in various specialties. Often an initial consultation will be free or at a reduced rate.
Thousands upon thousands of lawyers advertise, online and elsewhere. Whatever claims may be made in ads, victims should remember that lawyers are not superhuman, and that a verdict awarding money damages in their favor (particularly a large amount) is not guaranteed.
Since a lawyer can be instrumental in improving a client’s circumstances, the lawyer’s credentials should be carefully scrutinized, in the same way one might review the credentials of a physician.
Abuse victims will find lawyer ratings available online, but should not rely exclusively on these. Many fine lawyers are never rated. The recommendation of a friend can be as valuable.
For their own well-being, abuse victims should speak up.
Questions about the lawyer’s qualifications or about the case, itself, are natural. The lawyer should not express impatience with these, and should answer them to the client’s satisfaction.
A few questions abuse victims should clarify, from the outset, are:
- How many such cases the lawyer has handled.
- Whether the lawyer can ethically represent both parties in a divorce action (if applicable).
- Whether the lawyer is under an ethical obligation to relay all settlement offers on the case.
- Whether the lawyer can ethically withhold his/her fees from the monetary recovery in a case, especially if the client disputes some charges.
D. Taking Charge
It can be a relief for victims to find someone trustworthy to do battle on their behalf. Abuse victims may be tempted to leave all decisions in the case to their lawyer (mistakenly viewing the lawyer – male or female – as a sort of knight in shining armor).
Depending on the particular legal situation, lawyers will make recommendations in the best interests of a client. But the decision how to proceed with a case remains that of the client. In other words, it is the client who is in charge.
This may feel foreign to abuse victims. However, assuming responsibility for the direction their case takes is actually an important step toward recovery.
Victims should not allow themselves to be infantilized. The lawyer-client relationship is a professional/business relationship between adults. Lawyers are expected to treat their clients with respect. Abuse victims should treat themselves the same way.
E. Emotional Support
Most lawyers will make every effort to deal sensitively with an abuse victim.
However, lawyers are not psychiatrists or social workers. Sympathetic as they may be to the plight of their clients, most lawyers are not trained to advise their clients on emotional issues, and are likely to back away from the task.
This should not be perceived as a rejection. The lawyer may be able to recommend a knowledgeable and experienced counselor to aid the victim as s/he works through these issues.
With a realistic view of their lawyer’s role (and limitations), and active involvement in the legal process, abuse victims are more likely to have their expectations met.
The characteristics victims may want to avoid in the lawyers they select are discussed in Part 2 of this article, which is scheduled for 1/4/15.
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