On a hot summer day, a swarm of lawyers files into a courtroom at the Lawson E. Thomas Courthouse Center in downtown Miami. The judge looks up from the bench, a weary expression on his face. This is one of the most contentious cases on his docket, if not the courthouse. There is no love lost between the soon to be ex-spouses. The relationship between the lawyers is not much better. In fact, it is downright nasty. It has been that way from the beginning of the litigation several years ago.
As I look to my opponents, I wonder how many thousands of dollars the nearly half-dozen lawyers sitting next to me are charging for this latest court appearance. I try to rise above the fray and project a sense of Zen-like calm. Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail. But this is to be expected in high-stakes divorce litigation.
For several years now, my client has struggled to raise the family that her husband abandoned. For years, my client has had to beg her family and friends to lend her money. She has sold most of her jewelry and anything else that would help her collect a few more dollars for groceries and other basic necessities. Despite her best efforts to conceal the very difficult circumstances of her life, everyone knows the truth. And, they pity my client. Her situation is so desperate that some of her neighbors have taken to dropping off shopping bags full of groceries so that she can feed her children. Although I love fighting for the underdog, this is not the story of a poor family trying to survive. It is just the opposite.
My client married a very wealthy man—a millionaire several times over. His personal holdings include several companies, residential and commercial real estate, luxury automobiles, and various other “toys.” This man has used his wealth to hire a legion of lawyers—experts in divorce, commercial litigation, tax law, and appeals. He is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the courtroom. But, what my client lacks in resources, she more than makes up for in tenacity, fortitude, and a never-ending desire for justice.
From this case—and many others like it—I have learned a few basic rules:
1. High-stakes divorces are like tactical military operations. The element of surprise is key. You must move quickly and quietly. Rather than threaten divorce you must file for divorce. This is a race to the courthouse.
2. Litigate before you mediate. Most high-stakes divorces end in settlement. The parties do not want their personal lives aired out in public and they do not want to spend millions in attorney’s fees. But don’t forget that the fear of public scrutiny and expensive attorneys will incentivize the parties to seriously negotiate. Use this to your advantage.
3. Shock and awe is the key to success. The 800-pound gorilla’s biggest weakness is his sense of complete power and control. Take that away, and you will cripple him. Injunctions and other equitable measures will quickly help you level the playing field. And, it will move the parties closer to settlement.
4. Control the storyline. You need to have a compelling story, you need to sell that story to your audience, and you need to tell it often. If you do not control the storyline, you do not control the case.
5. Feel your client’s pain. Any lawyer who tells you that they do not take their client’s cases personally should not be allowed inside a courtroom. When I get up in court, I am my client. I feel her anguish, her stress, and her fear. I will pound on the table, I will raise my voice, and I will project my client’s emotions. You will not be an effective advocate if there is an emotional wall between you and your client.
Learn to apply these simple rules and the gorilla will run in fear.