Monday, April 29, 2013
As I move my main office from Montgomery County to Frederick County after almost 19 years, I've been thinking a lot about my blessings. I think about Ellen Pattin, an attorney who happened to have an open office at a time I needed one, thus beginning a relationship and a friendship that lasted until her death last year. I think about how, when I needed an assistant and paralegal, I was in a case with an attorney who was retiring and needed to find a good home for his; thus, Chrystal found a new calling, and I found a right hand and the best friend I could hope to have. When I needed part time help doing office work, one of my son's friends needed a part-time job; and there was Erin, who stayed at the office through college and beyond, and became my other daughter. When I needed a bit more part time help, my daughter's boyfriend needed some work between semesters; the relationship with daughter ended, but you all know how much Office T meant to me. Then, there are the landlords who looked out for me, and found me my moving man and my electrician. Finally, there's Jimmy Hickes, the man who cleans my office. Actually, he has the contract for the common area of the whole office park, and we lucked into his being available to clean my office as well (I told you I was lucky). He's the person I will really miss when we move this week. Jimmy is a truly good person with a huge heart. I could go on and on about all the Vietnam Vets he's given jobs and worried about through the years. The hours upon hours he spends helping out and visiting at the VA. I love our after-hours talks about everything from current events to the state of our and our families' health. I will miss seeing him every week. He's become a friend. Aren't I lucky for all my good fortune? Here in the Trenches.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
In case it isn't obvious, divorce is hard. It's hard for the leaver, who often agonizes for years over whether to leave or not. They worry over hurting their spouse and their children. They wonder what everyone they know and love will think of them. They grieve the loss of extended family. They worry over finances and the future. When they finally tell the leavee, it's a shock and surprise. Even if they should have seen it coming, they almost never do. Yet, now that the divorce process has started, they are expected to go along with the current, and let it carry them to the end. They're not ready. They didn't want it. They haven't had time to get used to the idea, to work out all the details like the leaver. Plus, they have to deal with the overwhelming emotion that accompanies the shock and the loss. they apologize for not being able to get past it, to move on. After all, it's been a year, a year and a half, two years already. Then they see that the leaver is doing fine, so why aren't they? That makes them angry, even angrier at their spouse. They are furious. They can hardly control themselves with their fury. Eventually, they see what is happening and begin to recover and move on with their lives - we hope. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
You know the saying "one bad apple spoils the whole bunch?" Well, I saw that in action this past weekend. As I might have mentioned, I was in Anchorage, Alaska for the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association's spring continuing education conference. Everyone stayed at the same hotel. As you might have guessed, everyone also checked out on the same day - at the same time. It's off season in Anchorage, so the hotel was a bit short staffed. That meant there was one bellman. That's right, one bellman to take everyone's bags to storage, arrange for cars and taxis, answer the phone and send everyone off on their way. He was overwhelmed. It was obvious. Most of us saw it and patiently waited our turn with good humor. A few, very few, were nasty - really nasty. When I got to the front of that long line, where I had been right behind one of those very nasty people, the bellman looked at me and asked me if all lawyers were that mean. Ouch. It didn't matter to this man than 99 of 100 of us were kind to him; it was the one nasty one who stood out and painted us all with that brush. This whole situation reminded me of something I read in one of Stephen Covey's books - in the relationship bank, each good deed adds a coin to the balance on account, but one bad deed can wipe out years of deposits in one fell swoop.
How many lessons can we take from this, here in the Trenches? First, to try to remember that each of us who toils here represents us all, and the good and bad deeds of others are projected on us. Second, to remember that our clients have likely had the entirety of deposits in their relationship bank account withdrawn before they meet us, and we are tasked with helping them increase the balance on account. Third, if our clients might be the ones who made the withdrawals from their relationship bank account, we have to careful that they don't bankrupt ours as well. Here in the Trenches.
(BTW, read the book pictured and you'll understand why I picked it for this post)
Monday, April 22, 2013
One of the pet peeves here in the Trenches is clients who don't pay us. There's nothing more frustrating for us than when a client runs out of retainer right before trial, fails to make payments to us, and then after trial, they suddenly feel like we really didn't do anything all that great for them after all, and so they shouldn't pay us what they owe. It really hurts.
Now, let's talk about the flip side of that scenario. What happens when a client hires an attorney, and the attorney charges them more than they think is necessary? What about when the attorney/client fit isn't good, and either side doesn't figure it out until sixty days before trial? In either scenario, you have a client who either has no money (and a fee dispute against the attorney - but still no money) to hire a new attorney, or no time for a new attorney to get into the case. Think about how frustrating that is for the client. Here they are at the most important time in their lives and case to have an attorney, and they don't have what they need. I see this all the time in my other life as co-chair of the fee dispute committee of my local bar. It makes my heart bleed, not the least of which because a lot of these situations could be avoided. My tips?
First, read your bill - carefully. Ask questions. No lawyer should refuse to discuss the bill with you. Does something seem like something took a lot of time and had a lot of hands on it? Ask about it. There is probably a good reason for it - but maybe not. In a big firm, having a lot of hands on a pleading or paper is fairly ordinary - it's part of the cachet of a big firm. Sometimes that translates into a better work product....and sometimes it doesn't. In smaller firms, you won't see a lot of hands on a paper, because there just isn't the manpower or the time. That doesn't translate into an inferior product; just a different one. There are some things that just take a lot of time and effort. If it feels like too much time is being billed, ask the attorney. If that doesn't answer your questions, get a second opinion - earlier rather than later. Don't wait until the charges are out of control to check it out. Another attorney can tell you whether the charges are reasonable under the circumstances.
Second, if the fit doesn't feel right between you and you attorney, take that feeling seriously. Is it a personality difference? Is it an issue of competence? Either way, again, take it seriously. If it's a personality difference, is it one that makes you uncomfortable? Is it one that makes you reluctant to trust them, or in their competence, or is it simply a difference in style? Is that difference in style actually a good thing (which it might be if you are naturally more reserved and the attorney is more forthright)? There are as many attorneys out there as there are types of people. In other words, there is someone for everyone, and you want someone who you feel understands you and your case and is capable of negotiating or litigating effectively for what you need. Don't ignore that feeling until it is too late to change attorneys, if necessary. I don't mean that you should change attorneys, but if you have that feeling, an investment in an hour of time with another attorney for a second opinion is a good one.
Bottom line is that we here in the Trenches want our clients to be satisfied. Satisfied clients are our best referrals (and they pay us). We want you to understand your bill, have your questions answered, and feel comfortable with us and our competence. Remember that - here in the Trenches
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Yesterday was a blast. The stand alone family law military program went off without a hitch. Patty's and my presentation on custody issues and the military was even better than we expected it would be (and of course, we had high hopes). We even got an "Excellent" from the grand master of family law and the military, Mark Sullivan. Patty's husband, Steve, who is also a fabulous presenter, made the military version of child support really interesting - for those of you who have never read the military regulations about interim support, that isn't easy. The best part of it was that we had a varied audience, with both Alaskan trial court judges and military legal officers; everybody learned something, and no one was bored. You all know I do quite a bit of military divorce and custody cases, so in that way, of course, yesterday related to the Trenches. You know me, however, and I've thought of another way it relates to the Trenches.
What yesterday was about was education. We educated the folks who provide legal help to the people who serve in the real trenches, the military, and their spouses. We educated the folks who make the decisions in family law cases. That's really a big part of our jobs here in the Trenches. Whenever we have a case before a judge, our job is to educate him or her on the applicable law and its relationship to our facts. If we do that well, and our client's facts follow the applicable law, then we stand a good shot of winning our case. Whenever we have a contested case, part of what we do to avoid standing before a judge by settling the case is to educate our clients on the law, how their facts fit into that framework, how their spouse's facts mesh with the law, and what a judge is likely to do given the law and the facts. How well we educate our clients has a great deal to do with whether we can settle their case. If opposing counsel hasn't done the same job, then we may not settle, but at least our client has realistic expectations about what might happen in their case. At the end of the day, that may be the difference between a satisfied client and an unsatisfied one, or a good result and a bad one. Here in the Trenches.
BTW: Big kudos to Phil Tucker, this year's chair of the military law committee, for putting this program together so it ran so smoothly.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Here I go with my good intentions again. I am in Anchorage (yes, that's Alaska) this week. That picture is the view from my hotel room (for once, I am not overlooking the parking lot). The ABA Family Law Section's Spring CLE (continuing legal education) program is here. Before it starts, the military law committee likes to produce a stand alone CLE for military legal assistance officers and local judges on family law issues and the military. I'm speaking on custody laws and the military with Atlanta attorney Patty Shewmaker today. I'm a littles nervous and excited. Anyway, I fully intended to post before Wednesday, but the dog ate my homework. Not really, but I couldn't get the in flight internet to work on the nine hour flight here, then I was too exhausted to even stand up once I got here. Yesterday, I will admit that I took the day off to recuperate.
As you might imagine, I have been spending quite a bit of time with Patty and her husband Steve (who is also her law partner) the last few days. This is Patty and Steve's first ABA Family Law conference. As you might expect, the talk drifts a lot to the Trenches. What always fascinates me is that no matter where your Trenches are located physically, most everyone's experiences are the same. The Trenches are a very stressful place to work, and it helps to share what's going on in your neck of the woods with others who understand. Conferences are a great place for that because you can share with people who aren't going to be sitting across the courtroom from you. You can be more open with frustrations and quandries and laugh at some of the sillier moments. What's interesting is watching newbies to the conference get that. It's like a lightbulb gong on when they realize that life in Trenches is the same no matter where you are, and that we all have a common bond in that. It's especially great when you meet people who have similar attitudes toward what we do. Yes, I love the programs: I always learn something that helps me to be a better lawyer. Usually more than just something. The real value, however, is in the connections we make and the experiences we share with each other. It's worth the trip to Alaska in the off season - Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
A client came into the office today. We had a 3.5 hour meeting. I thought it was a good meeting. We narrowed witnesses, went over testimony and discussed possible strategy for trial. We got a lot accomplished. He, on the other hand, called the office fifteen minutes after our meeting and said he didn't feel like we accomplished anything. Isn't it funny how two people can view the same situation so differently? It all has to do with expectations. My client knows nothing about the law, and he has no clue how the legal process works. He thinks that lawyers have far more power to effectuate a settlement than we do, and that the judge knows more about their case beforehand than they do. I, on the other hand, know the limits of what lawyers can do and judges know. I understand how the legal process works, and what is necessary to resolve a case. Our respective knowledge created divergent expectations. We need to back up and share the information necessary for us to understand each other's perspective.
So it is with marriages themselves. When two people marry, they bring with them a lifetime of experiences. Those experiences give rise to divergent expectations of what marriage means, how a couple interacts, and what behaviors are acceptable. In the marriages we see here in the Trenches, the members of the couple did not communicate, either to discover that their expectations diverged, or the reasons why. Genuine curiosity about what makes their spouse ticks, and open communication about what they know and how they know it, could save a lot of visits to the Trenches. When was the last time you asked your spouse questions, followed up, and really listened to the answers? Here in the Trenches.
Monday, April 8, 2013
The Trenches is a tough place. It's even tougher when clients lack clarity. When I say clarity, I mean a number of things. I mean clarity about what is and is not an acceptable result. I mean clarity about what a lawyer and the court system can and cannot do. I mean clarity about what they need to do to achieve their goals. There is nothing in the Trenches more frustrating than a client who tells you that they want their spouse to make the first offer, but has no idea of how to respond to it. How will they know whether their spouse's offer is reasonable? How will they know what response to make? They hope their spouse will make a ridiculously low offer so they can just accept it, but if they don't, they have no idea what to do. Not helpful. Then, there are the clients who don't understand the practice of law, don't understand how the courts and the rules work, but nevertheless want to tell us how to file pleadings, how to write them and what to request. They micromanage their case, which wouldn't be so bad, if they actually understood what we were doing. They don't, but that doesn't stop them. We spend a lot of time and a lot of money explaining and explaining again why we asked for the relief requested and what it means to plead in the alternative. Exhausting. It's just another day - here in the Trenches.
Friday, April 5, 2013
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
I had all kinds of good intentions about what to write here tonight. Life, sometimes, has other ideas. Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of the death of our dear Office Testosterone. Truth be told, it's all I can think about today. It seems like just yesterday he was with us, buoying our spirits with his magic hugs and his positive attitude. On the other hand, it feels like forever since we saw him, spoke to him, texted with him or Facebook chatted. Those of us who loved him are having a difficult time this week, as our memories of him collide with the feelings of sadness and dread we felt a year ago this week, and a loss that is so raw that the thought of him makes our eyes well up with tears and our voices catch. Our Office T was a special friend who touched all of our lives so deeply. His loss is still overwhelming. I find myself stalking his Facebook page and re-reading all the private chats between us, just to retain that connection.
As I think of Office T, I'm reminded of what he would want us all to do. Office T was all about relationships. To him, they were more important than anything else in the world. He nurtured his relationships and encouraged his friends. Even when he was dying, he was more concerned about how his friends were handling his death than about himself. He consoled and comforted everyone, and encouraged them all to gather with him and his family to give the latter support and so that his last memories of us and us of him were of laughter, good friends and love. The greatest thing we can all do to honor his memory is to show those near to us how much they mean. People always love to know they're appreciated, and they in turn, pass it along. Help us honor our dear Curtis by being kind to those near and dear to you. Thank you from here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
One of our Domestic Relations Masters in Frederick County has a very effective way of breaking impasse at settlement conferences. For those of you not familiar with the way the judicial process works in family law, a settlement conference is a date for everyone to come to court to try to settle their case, with the aid and input of a Domestic Relations Master. The settlement conference is usually set after most of the discovery in the case has been completed, after the initial court appearance, after a temporary support or child access hearing, and after 2-3 hours of court-ordered mediation. If the case hasn't settled by the time of the settlement conference, it is either almost settled, or so far from settled that the attorneys have begun to despair that it will settle. These latter folks are headed to trial, and usually the report to the Domestic Relations Master at the end of the settlement conference is that there is no settlement. That's when this particular Master kicks it into high gear. If you'd like to follow along, grab a piece of paper and a pen. The Master tells each party to take out a piece of paper and a pen. Then he says:
- On the first line, write down the amount of attorney's fees and costs you have incurred before today.
- On the next line, multiply your attorney's hourly rate by three, and that's how much you spent today.
- On the next line, multiply your attorney's hourly rate by eight, and that's how much you can reasonable estimate you will spend on the depositions that are going to be set because you didn't settle.
- On the next line, multiply your attorney's hourly rate by four, because your attorney has to prepare for the depositions. Don't forget to factor in your lost wages for the time you need to take off work to prepare for those depositions.
- Transcribing depositions testimony costs money, so write down $1500 for the transcripts of the depositions.
- You're going to trial, so on the next line, multiply your attorney's hourly rate by 7 and then multiply by the number of days of trial. That's the cost for your attorney during trial. Don't forget your lost wages here again.
- You don't expect your attorney to show up for trial without being prepared, do you? Of course not, so multiply your attorney's hourly rate by 16 and then multiply by the number of days of trial. That's how much it will cost you to have your excellent attorney be prepared for trial. Don't forget your lost wages because the attorney has to prepare you for trial.
- You're required to update your discovery responses until day of trial. Add another $1700 in cost for that.
- Your attorney needs to issue subpoenas for witnesses and do other miscellaneous tasks before trial. Add another $1500 for that.
- Did you know the Assignment Office regularly overbooks us? They do, so your case might not go to trial on the scheduled date. That means your attorney will have to spend some time re-acclimating herself with your case for the date it is reset. Add another $2500.
- Oh, you weren't happy with the judge's decision and you want to appeal? Add $8,000 for the appeal.
- Now add all of those numbers together and write that sum at the bottom of the page.
- Turn the paper over and write down your children's names and dates of birth. Think about all of the things you want to do for them, like send them to camp and college, all of which cost money which you just spent on your divorce. Your attorneys and your children would rather you spent the sum of money you wrote on this paper on your children and not your attorney.. Now, go on out and try again to settle.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Repeat after me: Just because I have available credit, doesn't mean I should use it. This statement is remarkably similar to: Simply because I have checks in my checkbook doesn't mean I have money in the bank. Thank you for indulging me. Here in the Trenches, more often than not we are not arguing about who gets to keep what they own, but rather who has to keep what they owe. The amount of debt some people have managed to amass is truly mind boggling. If I had the debt of some of my clients, I don't think I could sleep at night. Here's the scoop on debt here in Maryland. If it's in your name, it's yours. Unless you used the credit to purchase your house, pay for renovations to the house, or buy a car or a boat or that Picasso over the fireplace, the court can't do anything about the debt. Sure, the court can take it into account when fashioning an equitable division of the assets, but chances are, it won't do much about it unless one party did something truly dastardly to obtain or use that credit. Moral of the story is to be very careful when you open or use credit, or when you give anyone permission to use your credit. Today's happy marriage could be tomorrow's divorce, and do you really want the result of your spouse's spending habits to be your parting gift from your marriage? After all, who wants a bankruptcy to start off the next phase of their life? Here in the Trenches.