Settle is a bad word in our individualistic, success-driven culture.  To settle is to fail.  If you google “never settle” you’ll see just how many companies have built their brand on our core belief that you should always strive for perfection, get exactly what you want, and never be satisfied with lesser alternatives.

Now, let’s talk family law.  When you are in a divorce or child custody case, you’re often wounded, fearful, uncertain, and ___________ (insert your own adjective here.)  Your brain is in full “fight or flight mode” and you’re looking for someone or something to protect you, restore your balance, and vanquish your tormentor.

Enter the gunslinger

Somewhere in a distant land, an advertising genius told a lawyer who told 10 million other lawyers that they should seize upon the flight or fight response and package themselves as protectors of the wounded and slayers of wrongdoers. Hence, we now have legions of divorce and custody lawyers plastered across our screens, standing confidently (chin-up, chest-out) promising aggressive representation that’s “on our side.”

And, it really, really works!  If you’re hurting and afraid, the idea of some guy or gal in a suit cleaning up the oil slick that is your life while singing you a lullaby appeals greatly to your primitive brain.  So, you go, you meet, and you hire a lawyer for your family law case.

Your mother doesn’t work here

But, things change and your lawyer isn’t your mother.  By my estimation 90 percent of all family law cases find a resolution (“settle”) prior to trial.  If this is the case, when, and how, does the conversation with your lawyer pivot from “kicking-ass” to “option development?”

While the fight or flight response of the primal brain can keep us from being eaten by a bear, in divorce and custody, it’s the rational brain that gets things done.  A good divorce or custody lawyer doesn’t just feed red meat to the primal brain, he or she engages the rational brain at the beginning of the attorney – client relationship.  That way, you, the client, begin to engage your brain rather than your emotions and you don’t feel “sold-out” when your lawyer starts using the “S” word.

Learning to use the “S” word

I have a saying: “Negotiate when you can. Fight when you should.”  Hiring a lawyer for your divorce doesn’t mean you’re done making decisions.  With the help of your lawyer, you should be constantly defining your goals, assessing cost against perceived benefit, and seeking to minimize long-term damage.A divorce settlement being signed

When you learn to bend in this process without breaking, you’ll get through it and emerge safe on the other side.  Settlement is not failure. It is an alignment of interests for a mutual good.

True, you won’t be seeing lawyers wearing cardigans online anytime soon. It just wouldn’t sell. So, let’s just keep the suit, pull the shoulders back, but start talking differently about how family law works.