Divorce With Decency

Authoring a book on the subject provided a way for a local attorney to maintain market share in a difficult business environment.

June, 2000

Unfortunately, they don’t teach you much in the way of business marketing or management classes in law school.  For many of even the brightest attorneys, learning to run their law office as a business becomes the trickiest part of their practice.  This is especially problematic in a divorce and family law practice since most divorce clients are “one time only” users of legal services.  Unlike the ongoing relationships that develop between corporate lawyers and their business clients, most divorce clients are not crazy enough to keep getting re-divorced time and again, nor are they anxious to keep rehiring their divorce lawyer.  This leaves a divorce lawyer in the position of having to develop marketable reputation for client service in order to be able to continually “refill” a divorce clientele that by its very nature is constantly evaporating.

I realized years ago that this was the dilemma facing me as the managing partner of the Coates & Frey law firm.  Although we were already the largest conventional divorce and family law firm in Hawaii (and had even won awards for Best Divorce Lawyer, etc.), I instinctively knew we would have to continue to find more innovative ways to maintain our presence and market share in an increasingly difficult business environment.  Thus it was, that several years ago, I decided to add a divorce mediation component to operate in conjunction with my firm’s existing conventional divorce practice.  I called this new operation “Divorce with Decency: A Mediation Clinic,” and it not only enabled me to feel better about my own practice by allowing me to put a much more positive spin on things, it also served to vastly broaden our firm’s client base.  In fact, it proved to be a fairly auspicious business move since most divorce attorneys at that time were busy acting as “lawyers” and relatively few were concentrating on divorce mediation or on taking the “high road” to reaching expeditious and economical settlements.

The key factor which I had come to understand was that if the clients themselves are given the choice, most would prefer to have their divorces handled in this kinder and gentler (or even if they are not feeling all that kindly, at least more economical) framework, rather than to have their case batted around ad nauseam in a conventional legal context by high priced divorce lawyers.  Like any other business decision, this is a simple judgment call to decide to deliver your services in the way the customers themselves want them, rather than blindly adhering to the conventional format in which the vendors of such services have traditionally been accustomed to delivering them (i.e., in this case the standard adversarial legal framework).

Even as our firm’s focus on mediation and “user friendly” divorce practice continued to grow and prosper, I found myself looking for still other ways to enhance our visibility and our reputation for “positive divorce” practice.  Although I felt confident about our efforts to be more innovative and client focused within the context of our law firm itself, it became apparent that the best way I could reach beyond my own paying clients and to try to dispense whatever grains of wisdom I might have to share about my positive approach to handling the divorce experience was to write a book.  Only in this way could I more widely disseminate information to readers interested in trying to explore a more enlightened approach to the divorce process.

My intent was to package some of my entirely too extensive experiences into a book format that is available for around $17 — thereby making it more accessible to people who are understandably put off by the $200 an hour fees that I and other experienced divorce attorneys customarily charge in the privacy of our paneled offices.  This became the genesis for the writing of my book Divorce With Decency—The Complete How-To Handbook And Survivor’s Guide To The Legal, Emotional, Economic, and Social Issues.  It took me five years to write this book, but it was finally published last year by the University of Hawaii Press.

The publication of Divorce with Decency proved to be yet another “win-win” scenario.  The book has received an extremely enthusiastic response from readers, prospective clients and professionals in the family law field alike. I was particularly flattered when Divorce with Decency won the Hawaii Book Publishers Award of Merit for Excellence in Guide and Reference Books. And while the book’s primary objective was to “do the right thing” by trying to put the best face possible on the divorce experience, it has certainly also had the twin benefit of increasing the stature and visibility of our law firm in general.

As we have all been forced to learn so painfully during these last nine years of excruciating local economics, trying to continue doing business in Hawaii is one heck of a horse race, or a jungle (or whatever other animalistic imagery one chooses to apply).  I instinctively knew that it was dangerous to simply rest on our laurels.  Even hidebound attorneys have to act like businessmen occasionally, to look for innovative ways to grow their business. In that sense, it may be true that lawyers really are like sharks (although not my most favorite analogy!). You really do have to keep swimming and keep moving to stay alive.

Bradley A. Coates is a graduate of University of Southern California and University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.  He is a partner in the Hawaii law firm of Coates and Frey and a member of the Hawaii and California State Bars. He is the founder of Divorce with Decency, a low-cost divorce mediation clinic, and U.S Arbitration and Mediation of Hawaii and the Pacific, Inc., an alternative dispute resolution service for the settlement of all forms of civil disputes.

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