I know, the office is closed until the end of the year. Do you really think I leave it all behind? Not a chance. The phones are still being answered, and the emails checked. I can't help it, it's what we do here in the Trenches. Anyway, I was having coffee with my law school friend, and we talked about families, and of course, the Trenches. We came around to my theory of crazy and sane. I don't know if I've expounded on my theory here before, but even if I have, it bears repeating. In a custody battle between a relatively normal parent (isn't it always relative?) and a parent with a high conflict personality, the high conflict personality almost always wins, at least in the short run. Why is that? It's actually pretty logical, if you stop and think about it. A normal parent will always love their child, not matter what, even if they don't particularly like their behavior. They're safe. They're the parent with expectations of the children, beyond what the children can do for them. They're always there when the going gets rough. The high conflict parent? Not safe. Loving the other parent is not OK to this parent. They have to be the only parent loved by the child. Children know that instinctively. The high conflict parent forces the child to choose between parents, and they almost always choose the high conflict parent. For them to do otherwise means they lose the love of one of their parents. What child would freely choose to lose the love of a parent? Almost none, so they choose the high conflict parent, knowing the normal parent will forgive them and continue to love them. Crappy choice, but in the theory of crazy and sane, it's probably the only reasonable one.
I had a good friend back in law school. I really liked her and we were pretty close. Then, I moved to Maryland. We still kept in touch - Christmas cards, mostly. Until the year the Christmas card came back. I thought it might be just a glitch with the postal service, so I sent a card the next year. It came back too. I couldn't believe my friend had moved and didn't let me know. I still don't know what happened with the Christmas card. What came afterward was almost 19 years without contact. Then came Facebook. Here in the Trenches, we like Facebook because of the incriminating information we find. We like it because our clients and their spouses find their long lost loves on Facebook and leave their spouses. This year, we like it for different reasons. We like it because we can find our law school friend and have coffee with her for the first time in 19 years (and four children between us). We like it because we can keep in touch with Office Testosterone when he's too sick to actually have an in-person conversation. We like it because we know what our children are doing and thinking, when they don't actually tell us. Social media is powerful. It has the ability to tear people apart, but also to bring them back together. It's all in how you use it and why.
Today is the last day of the year here in the Trenches. I find that I am in a reflective mood. It's been a trying year, not least of which because of the economy. For most of the year, we have been suffering along with Curtis, our Office Testosterone, as he fights for his life against Lymphoma. Then, at the end of November, our little Erin left us after seven years. As Chrystal has been here almost since the beginning (twelve of our 13 years), it's fairly obvious that we're not big on change here. Sure, we update our technology, find new ways of improving our service to our clients, but when it comes to the guts of the Trenches, our people, we don't like change. So, change is a big thing, and not one we enjoy.
Our people are what make the Trenches different from other family law firms. We have been truly blessed (and I think our clients would agree) to have some of the best support staff any firm can have. Everyone who works here really cares what happens to our cllients; to us, it's not just a job, it's who we are. So, who are we?
First, there's Chrystal. I don't know what we would do if she decided to fire us. She's the first contact clients have with the office. She's always compassionate and caring. She listens attentively long past when most of our minds have started to wander. Her people instincts are right on, and I have ignored them to my detriment only a few times (even I can be taught). She has common sense in abundance. I think a lot of our clients love us for her (in fact, I think they love her more than me, as they should). That's all on top of being a top notch paralegal. Plus, she puts up with me, through dictating emails on the road, triaging emergencies on potty breaks in trial, sitting with the phone line open when the office is just too darn quiet or when I just need a sounding board. She's also the best friend I have in the world, bar none. We've been together through a lot, and she assures me the Trenches will be her client until she wins the lottery (and thankfully, she never buys a ticket).
Then, there's Erin, our Little Miss Sunshine. She started working in the Trenches when she was just 17. We've watched her grow and mature into the truly fine young woman she has become. Through high school and college, there was always a home for her in the Trenches whenever she had time to work. I remember her "deer in the headlights' look the first time someone asked her a question on the phone, when all she really felt comfortable doing was saying "Hello" and "Can you please hold?" When she left, she was doing a lot of the things paralegals do, plus clients grew to love talking to her on the phone (and a lot of time, she liked it too). Erin always has a smile in her voice, and on her face. She has a big heart, and opened it to embrace all of us in the Trenches as well as our clients. I still can't believe she's grown up and left us.
Last, but certainly not least, there's Curtis. He's the youngest member of the Trenches and our newest addition. He's also the first individual with high testosterone to work here. (You've read about his troubles and also his praises multiple times here.) He is our Zen master. Life is crazy for our clients here in the Trenches, and sometimes, the agitation is contagious. Curtis never gets agitated. He's always calm, cool and collected, and that's contagious too. You can feel your heartbeat slow when he's around. Life's a little less frantic, and his upbeat attitude also rubs off. He's a special guy (as well as a top notch "safe place" finder!). As you know, he is gravely ill and needs our positive thoughts.
As we end the year, the population of Trenches is reduced by half. We miss our Sunshine and Testosterone, as do our clients. We know, however, that they are never far away - geographically and in our hearts. Happy holidays
After another really tough holiday season here in the Trenches, I'd like to talk about our unsung heroes. No, it's not the support staff (especially because I sing their praises every chance I get). It's our significant others. As those of you who work in the Trenches know, it is difficult and draining to deal with our clients' crises on a daily basis, and even worse during the holiday season. We end up completely exhausted at the end of the day when we go home to our significant others. As you might imagine, we're not the best company when we get home, and I mean when we get home, which is usually pretty late. At a time of year when most folks spend time celebrating with family and friends, those of us in the Trenches are exhausted and decidedly antisocial. We work, eat, sleep, and go back to work. What happens when we go home for those hours to eat and sleep? The dogs are thrilled to see us, even more so if we take them for that four letter word that starts with "w", and ends with "alk". What about the people at home? Funny thing is, most of us come home to people who understand. They know this is what we do, and that it's tough on us. Are they thrilled with having a warm, semi-conscious person at the other end of the couch for three weeks? Of course not, but they don't complain, they don't add to the pressure. What they do is help us reduce our stress, and carve small moments of joy out of our days, so we can continue to be at our best for our clients at a really difficult time. They are our unsung heroes, and we love them.
You may remember my post a few weeks bank (OK, a rant really), about how the rules apply, except when they don't. On Friday, I had the opportunity to argue that an order should be vacated because the other side did not play by the rules. I knew that if I won, the other side would simply walk downstairs and file a different motion, but the right way. Still, what they did was wrong, it hurt my client, and placed her in an untenable procedural posture. The other side took the position that the ends justified the means. As you might remember in the post linked above, the judge who heard that type of argument a few weeks ago, bought it. Not Friday's judge. He heard the argument, understood what granting my motion would mean in the long run, and decided the rules meant something. It restored my faith in the law, but drove home what we tell our clients here in the Trenches: it's not the law but the judge who decides your case, and do you really want to leave it to them?
“We are never so much disposed to quarrel with others as when we are dissatisfied with ourselves.”
-- William Hazlitt
Isn't that the truth? Or perhaps you would prefer "If misery loves company, misery has company enough." -Henry David Thoreau? Have you ever noticed that unhappy people want everyone else to be unhappy as well? It's almost as if they can't truly "enjoy" being miserable unless others are as well. I don't know about you, but I like wallowing in self pity all by myself. I want someone to come along and convince me the party is boring and I should end it rather than joining it with me. When I'm in a bad mood, I'd rather you talk me out of it. When you yell at me, I try to figure out why - what did I do to provoke it, what might be going on in your life, why you handle disputes the way you do. Do I yell back? Sometimes, but I usually regret it. The times I do take the bait are times at which I'm not at my best, when I'm tired or overwhelmed. Here in the Trenches, what I do does not affect how I live my life. It does, however, affect my clients' lives. Here are people enduring the biggest loss, next to death, that they will ever encounter. Every aspect of their lives is changing, and they don't know how. They're off balance and confused. Every nerve in their bodies is raw. Many of them blame themselves for the breakup of their marriage. Maybe they didn't want the marriage to end. I would call most of our clients dissatisfied with themselves and their lives. Add to that their being high conflict people, and you come up with some epic quarrels. Understanding this means we view the most quarrelsome client with compassion and understanding. We help them feel safe, heard and respected so they can reduce the desire to quarrel. It's all part of what we do, here in the Trenches.
I know I sounded uncharacteristically pessimistic yesterday. As those of you who read this blog regularly know, many, if not most, of my clients or their spouses are what Bill Eddy likes to call high conflict people. To put it simply, these folks are tough, and it takes a lot of energy to deal with them on a regular basis. What makes them so tough? For starters, nothing is ever their fault - and I mean nothing. If nothing is ever their fault, then it must be someone else's. In the Trenches, that someone is usually their soon to be former spouse, but it can just as easily become their lawyer. They do "bad" things and justify their behavior because of some action by the target of blame. The problem is that bad events have longer lasting consequences than good, and bad behavior is more destructive than good behavior is constructive. If you think about it cognitively, it makes sense. It only takes one event to gain a bad reputation, but once you have a bad reputation, it takes multiple positive events simply to neutralize it, let alone turn it back into a good reputation (which may never happen). Many people don't exercise or eat right to feel good; they do it so they don't feel bad. What does all this have to do with the Trenches? Contrary to popular belief, lawyers don't just provide legal advice. Our jobs, done correctly, mean that we help our clients clarify their needs and goals, explore and weigh options, and negotiate effectively with their spouse. We know that once someone engages in bad behavior, given that our clients are already in a negative situation, our jobs become that much more difficult. That means that contemporaneously with helping our clients on a substantive level, we need to work to prevent bad behavior from occurring, both in them and their spouse (and probably the spouse's lawyer as well). We have to identify the high conflict people, recognize and manage our reactions to them, and help them feel safe so they can resolve their differences and move on in life. It's a tough job, and it can be exhausting and draining. We keep doing it because we care. We don't always like it.
Well, Christmas cookies are done and delivered (Whew!). Time to focus on the Christmas....emergencies. Every three or so years, they come streaming out of the woodwork. The last time that happened, we had a husband threatening to drive through a picture window and plotting to kill his wife, and a little chest butting at a Christmas concert. It was so crazy, I nearly threw out the holiday gifts I was wrapping. This year is slightly less crazy (thank goodness for my gift recipients!), but between now and Christmas, I have two emergency hearings, one truly ridiculous custody trial, and another potential emergency. Makes my shoulder hurt just thinking about it. All except one of this year's emergencies are nothing but power plays about parental control. In each case, there are clear court orders setting forth what the holiday access is supposed to be, and those court orders were by agreement between the parents, and not forced on them by a judge. It's cases like these that make me despair for humankind, because the only conclusion I can draw from them is that the other parent made an agreement never intending to honor it. Who suffers for that? The children. It's always the children, but parents like these don't care. It breaks my heart, but keeps us in business - here in the Trenches.
Sorry for the lack of posting recently. Between totaling my car and Erin leaving, there have been a major bunch of custody emergencies. Add to that the almost 300 dozen cookies I make between my two Christmas cookie weekends, and something's got to give. It's the blog. See you all next week.
Except when they don't. What is it with selective enforcement of rules? My parents' trainer's car was broken into. The window was smashed, but nothing was taken. The police refused to take a report because "they'll never catch anyone." My motion to dismiss a modification of custody was denied because "they'd just amend the pleadings and refile." A former husband files an emergency motion in a closed case, doesn't get a summons issued, doesn't personally serve the former wife. The court ignores the lack of jurisdiction and grants the motion. Really? Is playing by the rules no longer in fashion? Maybe we just get to selectively determine which rules and laws get enforced. The crazy making part of this is that on a different day, in a different court, or maybe before a different judge, the result would have been totally opposite. I feel like a rat in a Skinner box. You remember that experiment: B.F. Skinner created a box in which rats pushed a lever and food came out every time. Then he changed the experiment so that when they pushed the lever, they received an electric shock. A third time, the rats were placed in the box and when they pushed the lever, sometimes food came out and sometimes they received an electric shock. What did Skinner find? Behavior that was reinforced by intermittent reinforcement was more resistant to extinction than behavior reinforced by positive or negative reinforcement alone. What that means is that when the rules and laws aren't enforced uniformly, then not only do those people who abide by the rules continue to do so, but also those people who don't abide by the rules will continue to do that as well in the hope that they will continue to get away with it. For those of us here in the Trenches, who try always to abide by the rules, it's frustrating, just like it is for our clients when their spouses don't play by the rules. It's especially frustrating to know that unless the rules are enforced consistently, that behavior will probably never change. I guess we need to look at all this as an opportunity to practice our coping skills.