The One Question a Family Lawyer Must Ask

Questions are underrated. Whether in law or business or relationships or whatever, if you can ask really good questions, you have a lot of power. You’ll get the right information you need to make the right decision—and making the right decisions about the questions that matter most is pretty much the key to success in anything.


There are books on this (just scroll down; it’s a cottage industry). Socrates asked questions to make draw his listeners into dialogue and, hopefully, enlightenment (and embarrassment, of course). Jesus similarly used pointed questions to nail the religious leaders (among others) to the wall. (See, e.g., Jesus’ skill in Luke 10 at turning the “lawyer’s” question back on him. He should have brought his “A” game that day.)

Questions are obviously particularly important to lawyers. Law school itself is really just a series of questions. (For good or ill, depending on the teacher—again, it’s not enough just to ask questions. They have to be good questions.) Depositions, discovery, examination—it’s all built on questions.

But as a divorce lawyer, the most important question I will ever ask someone is simple:

“Is your marriage really dead?”

It’s a strange question, I’ll admit. I ask it of every person I interview before becoming a client, and people are invariably surprised.

It is pointed. It is direct. And I ask it not only for the answer, but to watch a person’s entire reaction. Is she defensive? Does he start talking about how terrible his wife has been? How long does she take to answer—has she really thought about it?

I often tell clients (and anyone who will listen) that it’s not a lawyer’s job to kill a marriage. (In fact, I think it’s probably an ethical violation—but that’s for another post.) A lawyer’s job is to fill out the death certificate and arrange the funeral once the marriage is already dead.

There are two reasons why it’s so important to ask this question—why this is the most important question a family lawyer should ask. First, people should stay married if they can. If I encourage someone to end a marriage before it’s really over, I have just made the world a more vulnerable place for both parties. I have made society less stable. Bad marriages are admittedly bad, but marriage is good—it’s good for everyone.

On another level, I’ve just taken on a client who won’t have the strength to get through the divorce. Sure, they may make it, but there won’t be much to move on with. Divorce is devastating even when it’s the right option; if it’s the wrong option (if the marriage isn’t dead), then it’s something akin to hell on earth.

A family lawyer need not phrase the question exactly like me, but you should beware any lawyer who doesn’t ask something similar. Family lawyers see a lot, so a good one should be able to help you know if a marriage is dead or not. That is, they can help you make that decision for yourself. But if he or she is more concerned about answering that question for you, you need to find another lawyer.

Every lawyer is obligated to act in his or her client’s best interest, and it is never in someone’s best interest to get a divorce unless absolutely necessary.