Raising the Etiquette Bar: New York State Matrimonial Lawyers and the Challenge of Civility

Letitia Baldrige, the “Doyenne of Decorum” and author of many etiquette books, died in 2012. Her last, the lengthy New Manners for New Times: a Complete Guide to Etiquette, was published in 2009. One of the book’s chief messages is philosophical: having good manners, and being nice to one another, makes us happy.

Some may scoff. Behaving properly may make us…well…proper, but it can’t make us happy. As a New York matrimonial lawyer and the granddaughter of Rita Borer, I side with Baldrige.

Nana gave me Letitia Baldrige’s Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90s in 1990, when I was 9. I devoured the 646-page book. Nana was a diminutive, immaculately and stylishly dressed interior designer who valued perfect etiquette. As a little girl, I once took a piece of her gum from a countertop without asking; when she found out, she told me that “it isn’t right to steal.” When she and my grandfather took one of their many overseas trips, packing was a 2-day-long affair. Shoes were individually wrapped in velvet bags before they were placed in their final resting place: the suitcase. Even when she was quite old, after my grandfather passed away, when Nana and I would eat meals together at her dining room table, she would become quite agitated when I didn’t use a coaster.

I don’t remember most of the content of Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90s, but the book (and Nana) had a profound impact on me vis-à-vis manners. This presents a unique challenge for me, a lawyer who works in an area of law not vaunted for courteousness. Matrimonial lawyers must contend with clients who may be at one of the lowest points in their personal lives. It can be difficult for a client dealing with intense emotional strife to maintain composure. Often, the aggregated load of juggling multiple jittery clients will pass to their lawyer, whose interactions with opposing counsel will be affected in a less than ideal way.

To be sure, it is never pleasant and is almost uniformly stressful for a client to be involved in a lawsuit. This is true for corporate clients, who usually have massive amounts of money at stake. But corporate lawyers must maintain composure and observe decorum. It is part of the strategy of winning. And no client would more desire to extricate himself from a lawsuit than a criminal defense client, for whom not money but personal liberty is on the line. But the criminal lawyer — whether prosecution or defense — zealously guards his or her hard-won reputation. Uncivil or hot-headed behavior, either inside or outside the courtroom, generally will not benefit the criminal lawyer or his client.

Given that the matrimonial bar is composed of fine and honorable lawyers, why are matrimonial lawyers more vulnerable to unrestrained behavior than their corporate and criminal colleagues? First, billing problems abound. It can be frustrating for a matrimonial lawyer to interact with a client who does not meet his financial obligations (to his lawyer, or to others), and resentment can infect comportment. Second, after experiencing drama in their own domestic lives, in court, and in observations of opposing counsel, many clients come to expect theatrics from their own counsel. Third, it can be more expedient for a matrimonial lawyer to deliver histrionics than to relentlessly fight the good fight to remain even-handed when a client is hounding the lawyer to raise his voice or magnify his gesticulations, regardless of whether a change in volume or broader waves of the hand would (in the attorney’s reasoned and experienced judgment) change the outcome. The hyperbole bar is high in the matrimonial bar, and this reality seeps into matrimonial counsel’s interactions with one another. And unfortunately, as Baldrige observes, interacting with colleagues in a less than courteous way can make matrimonial lawyers frustrated and angry.

Is there a solution? Should there be a solution? When law students or other prospective matrimonial lawyers ask whether this area of law would be a good fit for their skill set, one threshold question is worth considering: “Which is your bigger nightmare: in one day, fielding eight hysterical phone calls from a client complaining about personal problems she is having with her estranged spouse, or spending eight hours redacting documents?” For almost all lawyers (or would-be lawyers), the answer is a no-brainer: they’d prefer to redact. A small percentage would prefer the phone calls. These good candidates for careers in matrimonial law are tasked with finding a way to negotiate these calls (and calls with opposing counsel, and all other attendant unpleasant tasks) with the obligation to behave in a civil manner, and the desire to maintain cordial relationships with colleagues and clients and a reasonable work-life balance that allows for a happy life inside and outside of work.

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