Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Today, I give credit to my friend in the Trenches, Lorraine Prete, for sharing this gem from the IACP Forum. Go get a piece of paper. No, really. Go get a piece of paper. Got it? Good. Look at the paper. It represents what you know about yourself. Fold it in half; that's what your best friend knows about you. Fold it in half again; that's what your spouse/significant other knows about you. Fold it again; that's what people who know you know about you. Fold it again; that's what you tell your lawyer about yourself. Fold it again; that's what your lawyer tells the judge. Fold it one last time; that's the information about you on which the judge makes a decision. Sobering, isn't it? Here in the Trenches.
Monday, October 29, 2012
As you all heard a week or so ago, we're having trouble with the original electricians we hired to wire our new home, here in the Trenches. Unfortunately, things have taken a rather ugly turn, and now lawyers are involved. I have been a client now twice in my life, and in both cases, the first lawyer I consulted was not the one who took me to the finish line. Why was that? Well, in the first case, the first lawyer I hired didn't listen to me. Not only that, the first lawyer gave me wrong advice. That's right, not just bad, but wrong. Hey, it was my Trenches moment, and the last person you can bluff about the law is.......someone who works there. The second lawyer? Well, for starters, he didn't lie to me and he understood the law. He also made me feel like what I had to say about my life and my case mattered to him. We worked as a team. That made all the difference in the world. Now, here we are with my electrician problem. The first lawyer with whom I spoke is a very good lawyer, very sharp. The problem is, it wasn't a good fit. I didn't feel like he understood my problem. He understood the issues and the law just fine; he just didn't understand me. I felt adrift, like I still didn't know what to do. I called a second lawyer, also a good lawyer, very sharp. I explained the situation, and he understood, not just the situation, but my problem. He made me feel understood, and so I feel moored. He knows what I need to feel that the case is settled satisfactorily. I'm in good hands. I would have been in good hands with the other lawyer as well, but it just didn't feel right. When I tell clients that the fit between attorney and client is one of the most important factors to a successful case in the Trenches, I know what I'm talking about. After all, I've been there. Clients need to pay attention to how the relationship with their attorney feels down deep in their gut. Do they feel heard? Understood? Does the attorney focus on the issues important to them? They're vital questions to answer - here in the Trenches.
Friday, October 26, 2012
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
I was at the courthouse from 10:00am until 6:00pm yesterday, with no lunch, trying to settle a case. It settled, which was good, but I missed one of our last Indian Summer days. I was too tired when I got home to do more than write yesterday's blog. Today was another of those Indian Summer days, so I made sure to come home early and take the puppies for a nice long walk. It seems I wasn't the only one appreciating the weather, because my old girl (she's 12.5) practically raced around the lake. I brought them home and went for a run. It's great to be able to run again. I'm using Jeff Galloway's system for running, which is a run/walk method. You run for a few minutes, then walk for a minute, all through the run. I first tried it when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, and it's amazing how easy something is when you only have to do it for five minutes at a time. That first hill on my run (tell me again why I live at the bottom of a hill?) doesn't seem nearly so bad when I know I get to walk soon. The funny thing is that my running times are faster when I run and walk than when I only run. That's kind of how it is here in the Trenches. The divorce process is a marathon. There are some folks who can run the whole thing and do so quickly, but the vast majority can't. They have to work hard to finish. Some of the finishes are better than others; and the bad ones are usually due to a lack of training or starting out too fast. Pacing yourself, running some and walking some, until you can run more than you walk and do it more swiftly, gets you to the end, and you cross that finish line looking and feeling a whole lot better than those folks who didn't pace themselves. Those of us in the Trenches know who they are. They're the ones who panic about everything, obsess about things before their time, and generally over think. If those folks don't slow down, they look and feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the time we really need them to focus and obsess. Then, they're no help to anyone. They need to walk a little during their race so they can come out better in the end. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Over the weekend, I attended an all day seminar on how to talk about support (also known as alimony and child support). It was put on by my fabulous co-trainers at the Collaborative Practice Training Institute. I had never seen it before, so I was excited when they asked me to role play the divorcing wife and get to attend at the same time. It was a great seminar. At one point, they asked us to talk to someone at our table about when you talk about the law of support, why, and what effect it has. I think the purpose was to get us to consider how and when we talk about support affects our clients at the collaborative table. The way it's discussed can influence client expectations and also affect how clients feel about their agreements surrounding support. Clients feel a lot of pressure and a lot of uncertainty in this area, largely because the law of spousal support is so amorphous. They want to know what could happen if they go to court, so they have parameters for their discussions of amount and duration. The law creates an artificial pressure on clients which subtly influences their agreements, even if what they think is right and fair runs counter to the law. What was actually very surprising to me was how much pressure the law also places on their attorneys. In Maryland, where I practice, if you don't ask for alimony/spousal support at the time of the divorce, you can't get it later. A reservation of the right to alimony is very difficult to get in this state, so the stakes at time of divorce are very high, and the client who thinks they may not need alimony now or the client who foregoes alimony for a property transfer, may find that they either need alimony or the property they receive instead of it isn't enough. In Maryland, that's too bad. That creates a lot of pressure on the attorney advising the client to make sure enough is enough. In Virginia, a reservation of alimony is a matter of course (at least that's what the person at my table told me), so you'd think the pressure is off of them. But wait, adultery is an absolute bar to alimony, so the attorney in the case needs to be careful if their client has committed adultery. This is especially true in a collaborative case, where an affair is something material that should be revealed. Wow, what a tension that creates for the lawyer - the adultery needs to come out, but if the case falls out thereafter, their client can't receive any alimony. What's a lawyer to do, and how do they advocate effectively for their client if the law is contrary to what is best for this family?
What it comes down to, in the collaborative world and in the Trenches in general, is that the law is not just another piece of information to help our clients make decisions, as much as that is what we want it to be. It is also the elephant in the room about which the attorneys don't wish to talk. We tell ourselves it's because we're afraid the information will cause our clients to take positions and forget to focus on what everyone needs. That's true, but what is also true, and unacknowledged, is the pressure the law exerts on us as advocates in the collaborative process. How do we help our clients create a solution that is acceptable to them within a world of laws and rules that doesn't take into account their families and their particular needs? How do we help them make decisions in the collaborative process that may be at odds with what might happen in court? Helping the client negotiate for their needs, while keeping in mind the limits of the legal system, that's the pressure exerted on the lawyers in the collaborative process. It's what we navigate every day, and that we do it seemingly seamlessly is part of the tension and the art or what we do - here in the Trenches.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Friday, October 19, 2012
Thursday, October 18, 2012
It's blog in a blog from an article day! As my faithful few are aware, there are a few blogs I really love to read. For law practice management, you really can't beat Lee Rosen's Divorce Discourse. For business theory and management, I love Seth Godin. I'm addicted to Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. Gretchen's blog yesterday was about waiting in line. She adapted it from an article by another favorite of mine, David Maisters, titled, appropriately, "The Psychology of Waiting Lines". Here is what Gretchen and David have to say about waiting lines:
1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.
2. People want to get started.
3. Anxiety makes a wait seem longer.
4. Uncertain waits are longer than finite waits.
5. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits.
6. Unfair waits are longer than fair waits.
7. The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait
8. Solo waits are longer than group waits.
What they have to say is every bit as applicable to the family law case as it is to the line at Walmart. When clients come into our offices, they just want their dispute to be over. They are eager to get started so that they can move on. Sometimes, we have to tell them that the time isn't right to separate, that they need to wait a little while before starting their separation. That makes them anxious. They want to know how long they need to wait, how long the process will take. Unfortunately, we don't have finite times for them. It takes as long as the court says it does. Even when they get to court, some of the cases filed after theirs go first; some judges are triple booked, while others have open dockets. We can't control those variables, even though they make our clients anxious. What's funny is that even the court system understands the psychology of waits. I'm pretty sure that's why they invented discovery. Sure, the discovery process helps us uncover important information that will help us settle or try our case. Let's be brutally honest, though. Much of the information we request in discovery is useless. It might lead to important information (and it's that small possibility that makes attorneys and their insurers nervous), but more likely than not, much of it doesn't. We could ask for far fewer documents in discovery and far fewer questions, and still gain all the information we need - in most, but not all, cases. What discovery does really well is give our clients something to do while they wait for their case to proceed. It gives them something to occupy their wait. As anyone who has had to comply with discovery requests knows, discovery can occupy all of their time. It makes the wait for court seem not quite as long. It manages the wait. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
While I was in my fury about the electricians, who shall remain nameless for now as I hope they will sleep on it yet again, I was wearing my other hat as co-chair of the Standing Committee for the Resolution of Fee Disputes for my local bar association. The people who file complaints with my committee are mighty unhappy clients. Most of them are unhappy with the attorney's service and unhappy with their bill. When we receive one of these complaints, we jump on them. We don't want to make a bad situation worse by making them wait while we take our sweet time in investigating the claim. Unfortunately, some past chairs of this committee didn't share that view; some investigating members of the committee didn't share it either. I had to deal with one of their unhappy complainants, and unfortunately not only did I have to apologize (profusely) to the poor woman for how much time it took for us to address her concerns, but I also had to tell her that her complaint was not the type of dispute over which we had jurisdiction. You can bet I will never assign that investigator to a case again, but meanwhile, we have a client who thinks our committee is simply window dressing while we protect our own. My apology won't overcome that, just like the electrician's offering to make it right won't make me think them competent. The electrician's offer, although it did not make me happy, at least returned me to neutral; reneging not only undid that, but made it worse, and there is nothing worse than an angry attorney. I hope my apology to the client and my determination never to allow that investigator near another case or to let anyone wait that long again, while not making the client happy, will at least bring her back to a neutral impression about our committee. In this case, it's as much for which we can hope. Client relations - it's all around us and a part of all we do - here in the Trenches.
Monday, October 15, 2012
I'm just back from my second conference in 3 weeks. I love attending good conferences. Sure, it's time out of the office, and I certainly have more than my share of work to catch up on when I get back, but I still love them. I learn a lot of things that help my clients here in the Trenches, and even if I only learn one new thing, I consider it money well spent. I learn some things that keep me up at night with worry, but worry can be a positive force if it stops you from making a mistake. I meet other attorneys who do what I do, and it is always energizing. Some of them are people I've met over the years and who have become friends, so I love seeing them. Some of them are people I meet for the first time, which fun too. I also get to listen and observe other attorneys in action. Some of them don't know what I know, so it makes me feel good that my studies have paid off. Some of them know way more than I, and I love listening to them and learning from colleagues as well as the presenters. It all recharges my batteries, and makes me anxious to come back and help my clients in new ways. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
My parents have had dogs since I was a relatively small child. When their last dog died, over ten years ago, they decided, for a number of reasons, not to get another dog. Mom remembered, however, how much joy their dog brought them, how Dad would come home from work and the dog would jump in his lap, and he would pet her while he watched the news. He looked forward to those evenings with the dog, and it gave him so much pleasure. Fast forward ten years, and as you know, Dad is not doing so well. He can't drive, it's hard for him to hear, and walking is a chore. He's homebound, and sometimes chair or bed bound. For a man like my Dad, all of this is very hard to take, and the light really has really gone out of his life. He's not talking much either, so Mom (although she has Pierre - G-d's gift to home health aides and a very nice man) has been lonely too. One of my parent's cousins got a small dog, and talked about how it really lifted their spirits. They brought the dog to visit and my Dad's face lit up. My aunt (Mom's sister) got a miniature dachshund (a rescue, natch), and raved about the dog. Mom remembered their dogs and how much they, especially Dad, loved them. My aunt offered to get Mom a miniature dachshund as well. Mom agreed, and two months ago, Lilly joined their lives. That's her picture on this blog entry. We call her a service dog. She makes Dad smile, he loves to pet her and throw her toy, and she calms him, many times in the middle of the night. She is Mom's constant companion as well. And Pierre feeds her bits of hot dog, so she's his buddy for life. The mood at the house has lifted immeasurably since Lilly arrived in August. Really, she doesn't do much to bring so much joy; she's just being Lilly, patrolling the yard for squirrels and lizards, and making the world safe for tiny canines. She makes them all happy.
I bet you're thinking I'm going to have to stretch this a bit to make it about the Trenches. Really? Don't you know by now that everything can be equated to the Trenches? I am not advocating that everyone in the Trenches adopt a dog, although you know I love my dogs. The story of Lilly is not really about a dog. It's about coping with adversity. I think we can all agree that Mom and Dad have had a tough year. Not a whole lot has gone really well for them, especially health wise. Mom could have given up. She could have decided that such was their lot for the rest of Daddy's life, and resigned herself to being fairly miserable. Instead, Mom thought back and wracked her memory for what she and Dad had done in the past that made them happy. She remembered how they felt about their dogs, and decided that canine companionship was just what they needed to lift all of their spirits. She was right, and Lilly now rules the roost. The point is that Mom didn't wallow in self pity; she didn't give up. She made a conscious decision that no matter what life was throwing at her, she was going to be darned if she let the circumstances determine her destiny. She made lemonade out of her lemons.
Our clients here in the Trenches are faced with daunting circumstances. Maybe they didn't want the divorce; maybe they did. Maybe the other parent of their children is moving away and wants to take the children with them. Whatever the circumstance, and even if they initiated the separation or custody dispute, their lives are in turmoil. Every day they wake up and are confronted with emotional upheaval, with the constant reminder of their circumstances. Some of those folks roll over and pull the blankets over their heads. Others decide to take control over even a small portion of their lives and move forward, whether it's joining a gym, a book club or getting a haircut or a goldfish. The folks who roll over and hide are not our favorite clients, because that's their attitude toward their case as well; they figure if they don't deal with it, it's not happening. No matter what we do, they don't help us and don't give us any clues about what they need and what is important to them - except that none of this be happening to them. Until those clients pull the covers off their heads, they'll remain stuck and won't move forward out of misery, no matter what we do. Here in the Trenches, we look for signs that our clients are trying to take those baby steps forward. It means they've decided to take control of their destinies, and are ready and able to help us help them resolve their dispute and move on with the rest of their lives. They may not help us much right away, but as we move along, those clients gain strength and purpose. They become eager to solve their problem, and it's then that we are able to help them determine what is important to them so we can reach a resolution. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Much of what we do here in the Trenches is help our clients make good decisions in a bad situation. It's hard enough to do that given our clients' emotional state during a divorce or custody dispute. They are under a lot of pressure. Some of them have even more added pressure in the form of loved ones and friends whose expectations are not always in line with the reality of the situation and the law. Those people are not our clients, and so they do not benefit from the tremendous amount of time and effort we expend in helping our clients understand what is and is not possible or probable. They just know that the person they care about is hurting, and in their world, the other person is to blame. They want their loved one to feel better, to be whole, and....to gain some vindication. Those are all understandable feelings. From here in the Trenches, however, it makes our lives so much more difficult. We have worked hard to help our clients get to a place where they can think rationally about the situation they face. They have some understanding of what is possible and can partner with us to evaluate settlement proposals and probabilities of success in court. They are where we need them to be in order to make their best deal. Then, their friends and loved ones kick in, and let them know THEIR expectations for them. Our clients begin to worry anew that the settlement they reached won't be good enough for everyone else's expectations. They worry that, like when they drive that new car off the lot, everyone else will think they could/should have gotten a better deal. What was a moment of relief and satisfaction becomes one of dread and concern. What we here in the Trenches would like all those others to know is that 1) We know family law; 2) We know your friend and loved one; 3) We wouldn't counsel them to settle their case if we hadn't discussed all the pros and cons with them and reality tested the what ifs; 4) We couldn't counsel them to settle their case if they weren't satisfied with the result. We don't trade on fear; we are honest about the risks and the rewards. Our clients trust that we have their back, and that we've given them all the information and advice they need. What we're like to say to everyone else is to trust their loved one to make the right decision for themselves, and share their relief and satisfaction. Even if you don't feel it, fake it. Those in the Trenches have enough stress without feeling unsupported.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Today's my birthday. I am spending it the same way I have spent each of my birthdays for the majority of my life - with my parents. I figure that Mom and Dad were there at the beginning, so it's only right we mark that anniversary together. Funny thing is, even on my 13th anniversary of my 39th birthday (there, I said I told you how old I am), I marvel that I can still celebrate with both of them. As my regular readers know, Daddy is 91 years old. He was 39 when I was born. As a child (and a worrier), I used to figure out what age he would be at each of my milestone birthdays, and wonder if he'd still be here. When I was a child, I really didn't think he would still be here when my children were adults, but I come from hardy stock. Mom was a different story. Mom was only 24 when I was born, so I never had the same thoughts about her mortality. She still looks pretty much the same as I remember her as a child (gorgeous). Sure, she's slowed down a bit, but haven't we all? Well, you all know Daddy hasn't had a particularly good year, health wise. Even though my parents have help at least 12 hours every day, the brunt of Dad's care falls to Mom. Well, I thought, Mom is strong, and with all the help, she'll be fine. Until she wasn't. I got here just in time for Mom to pass out and fall. She's fine (especially if you take a look at the other guy), but what a scare. She's fine - a lot bruised, but fine; I'm a little unnerved.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the Trenches (I know, I need a life). Here in the Trenches, our clients worry about so many things. Some of the things they worry about happen, but most do not. Most clients, like me and my Dad, worry about things that will not ever happen, and if they do, there's nothing we can do about them. It doesn't make the worry any less real. The things they should worry about, they don't think about, until it smacks them in the face. Our job here in the Trenches is to make sure they think about the things they should and worry less about the things they shouldn't. Fear is not a rational thing, however, so just telling a client once won't do it. The clients have to experience, each step of the way, that the worst does not and will not occur (when the worst is an irrational thought, of course). Only by our helping them with this experience can they focus on the issues that are important but not obvious. Kind of like my worrying a bit more about Mom. That's what we do - Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Collaborative Practice is not just for divorce. I bet you're thinking I'm talking about trusts and estates, employment law, education law and the like. That's not about which I'm talking. I'm talking about life. Let it suffice to say that there have been a number of instances in my personal and family life when collaborative practice has come in very handy. Think of the beauty of it. What matters are more emotional than matters relating to our personal lives or our families? This is where we can truly appreciate the beauty of the collaborative process. First, name the issue. Second, gather all information necessary to resolve it. That alone distracts from the emotion and forces us to focus on something else entirely - what facts and information we need to find a solution to our problem. We have to think what that information is, and then where to find it. Once we've gathered all the necessary information, a little time has passed, we've had time to catch our breath and order our thoughts. Then, we're ready to brainstorm options. It takes a while to list them all, because all good processes take time and effort, and we usually start with the most obvious and move to the more creative. Then, because we have all the information we need to make an informed decision, we narrow our options and solve the problem, not emotionally but logically and mindfully. The process is the magic - for us and our clients. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, October 1, 2012
Sorry for just disappearing last week. One of my very good Trenches friends and I went to San Antonio to attend a three day conference on military divorce issues. I took my tablet instead of my laptop, and discovered.....I can't really get here from there. So, good intentions, but reality intervened.
The conference was wonderful. I learned a lot of tips to help my military clients, both servicemembers and their spouses. I also learned a lot of things that make me just gosh darn nervous. There are a lot of traps out there for the family law attorney fairly wise in the ways of the military and divorce. For those attorneys who don't know what they don't know, well, I am a more than a bit frightened for them and their clients. This brings me to today's subject and another tip for choosing a family law attorney. There are clients out there who work in highly specialized fields with their own language and their own rules, like the military. There are also clients whose culture is very different from what most of us consider the norm, again like the military, but also national and religious cultures. When choosing an attorney to represent a client in the Trenches, it's obviously important to pick one who knows and understands the law of divorce and custody. It is important to pick an attorney with whom the client relates well on a personal level, and whose advocacy style is compatible with the client's. It is, however, also very important to have an attorney who understands the client's culture and its rules, and also has a working knowledge of any specialized fields of work. As one of our speakers this past week said: "Military personnel don't speak 'court'; courts don't speak military." That statement can apply to cultures, areas of employ and lifestyles other than the military. Don't they all need attorneys who speak their language, as well as that of the courts? Look for them, they're out there. Here in the Trenches.