Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I Get the Orange; You Get the Peel

The hardest cases for us here in the Trenches are custody cases.  How do you assign a value to time and the ability to make decisions for someone's child?  The hardest custody cases are relocation cases, where one parent wants to move away from the area, of course with the child.  Usually, I'm good at finding a compromise to meet both the parents' and the child's needs, but relocation cases don't lend themselves to that kind of compromise.  On top of that, as much as I respect our judiciary, judges are not remarkably creative in fashioning custody schedules.  They don't have the time to get to know everyone.  They don't have time or the inclination to take everyone's needs and family traditions into account.  They just make a decision.  They give one parent primary custody and try to come up with some sort of long distance access schedule.  Period.

The fact is, in a relocation case, someone has to move.  There's usually no choice to stay.  That means one parent will have the majority of the time with their child and the other will have less.  It's a fact.  The question is who decides where the child is when - the parents or the judge?  We know what the judge will do.  What about the parents?  What if, just what if, the parents sat down and hammered out a schedule for each parent, let's call the schedules A and B.  One parent would get the parenting time in schedule A and the other would get schedule B.  They don't need to decide which parent gets which schedule, they just need to fashion the schedules themselves.  They can let the judge decide which parent gets A and which gets B.  Think about it.  If the parents design both schedules without knowing which of them will get which, they each have an incentive to make sure both schedules are acceptable.  They are both motivated to create schedules that work for each of them and their child because they don't know which one they will get.  I've done it before, and it works, much better than a third party making those decisions.  Here in the Trenches.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Tortoise and The Hare

As you might recall, Daughter just graduated from college with her Bachelors of Science Degree in Exercise Science.  The first thing she learned is that without a fitness trainer's certificate, her degree would not get her a job.  To those of us here in the Trenches, who are unable to practice law despite having a law degree before passing the bar exam, Daughter's experience seems familiar.  This week, she took and passed her fitness trainer's exam and, most importantly, got a job.

Daughter was excited,.... and then called me in a panic.  Everyone was going to expect her to know what to do.  She worried that a client would come in and ask her to devise an exercise regimen for a specific purpose, and she wouldn't be able to do it on the spot.  What if a client came in and presented a need she'd never seen?  What if she really needed to think about it for a while before answering a client?  Would she get fired?  Would the clients think she's an idiot?  Her questions brought back memories of my first jobs after law school, and when I told them to Chrystal, brought back the trauma of her first days as a paralegal as well.  There is such a difference between going to school and actually applying what you've learned.  It doesn't matter if you went to a trade school or college.  School is school, and it's a controlled environment.  The working world is not.  So, what did I tell Daughter?   I told her that clients (at least the ones you want to keep) understand that even though you know your stuff, you may not have all the information at your fingertips at any given moment.  That's especially true when you're young and just starting out.  Clients appreciate that you don't just try to bluff them, that you don't stumble your way through a response that is only partially correct.  My stock response starting out was that I wanted to think about their question and research it thoroughly so I could be sure to address their concerns fully.  Clients got it; they appreciated it.  After all, who doesn't want to feel special enough to know you really want to answer their question.  Of course, I did do what I said I was going to do, and the clients were satisfied with the response.  Our lovely Chrystal had the same experience, and so I passed that advice on to Daughter.  She felt better knowing that she didn't have to decide and advise clients on the spot, but could think about her response before answering..

There is a lesson here for our clients here in the Trenches.  Simply because  someone wants an answer today doesn't mean you have to give it to them today.  The world understands, even if your spouse doesn't seem to, that a thoughtful response is better than a hasty one that is then changed, and changed, and changed again as you think on it more.  I'd rather wait a while for one answer than have a continuing barrage of new responses to the same question.   The  problem here in the Trenches is that  our clients are not faced with easy questions about minor things.  They are making decisions that  affect the rest of their lives.  On top of that, they are suffering the same anxiety of needing to respond faced by Daughter at a time in which  their higher level thinking is compromised.  For our clients, taking the time for a deep breath and detailed thought is imperative, yet they feel the emotional  pressure to get it done and over with.  Part of our job,is to help them take that deep breath, present them with all the facts for their options, and help them vet alternatives until they can find the right one for them.  That's not an immediate process.  They have to take the time to investigate the issue thoroughly.  Here in the Trenches.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Man Walks Into a Bar....

Most people never walk into a lawyer's office because something good has happened in their lives.  Here in family law, people are as stressed as they will ever be in their lives, except when someone they love dies.  If your marriage is ending, if there are problems with the custody or support of your child, you know you need help.  You don't want to make the wrong choice of lawyer.  How do you know which one is the right one for you?  There are a lot of ways to decide, almost as many ways as there are attorneys to help you.  I know it's overwhelming.

First, get a recommendation from someone you trust.  That's not just from anyone, but someone whose opinion matters to you.  Don't stop there.  Ask them questions.  What questions should you ask?  How about these?  How did the attorney work with you?  Were you a team, consulting with each other, assessing options, planning strategy?  Did the attorney take charge and tell you what to do and when and inform you of what was happening?  Did the attorney do everything and not have you participate?  How did you feel about the attorney's office staff?  How did they treat you?  How did you feel about how the attorney conducted your case?  Why?  What were your expectations for the attorney?  Were they met?  What about your attorney makes you recommend them?  What didn't you like?  Don't just ask these questions - really listen to the answers.  Think about the answers and about how you process information.  Think about how you like to be treated.

Second, call the office and make an appointment.  Pay attention to how the office staff treats you on the phone.  Are they courteous?  Do you feel like they are listening to you?  Do you think they care?  Remember, they work for the attorney, and they wouldn't keep their jobs if they didn't treat the clients the way the attorney wants and tolerates.

Third, meet with the attorney.  Pay for the consultation.  I know, who likes doing that, but you will get some legal advice, so it's worth the money.  Decide, first and foremost, whether you feel comfortable with this person.  Most people know in 30 seconds whether someone makes them feel comfortable.  This is a person who will know every one of your deepest, darkest secrets, and if you're not comfortable with them, you will be even more uncomfortable as time goes on.  Do you think their communication style works with yours?  What about their philosophy of life and how to practice family law?  A client who comes to me wanting scorched earth and burned bridges will never be comfortable with me.  If you recall, I'm the information girl - I want my clients to have as much information as they need to make their own decisions.  I'm there to make sure they have the information, help them apply the information to their lives, and support them as they make their decisions.  Not everyone is like me, and not every client wants what I offer.  Which brings me to discussing how much involvement the attorney expects you to have in your case.  Some want you to have a lot, and others are just as happy if you just show up for trial and trial preparation.  While we're at it, do you want to go to trial, or do you want to settle the case?  Do you want to leave destruction in your wake, or do you want to make sure that even in the turmoil of your divorce, everyone finds an acceptable solution? You'd better make sure your attorney is on board.

Finally, talk money.  Yes, it's a dirty word, but you need to talk about it now.  How does the attorney bill?  For what do they bill?  If they talk to their associate, for how many attorneys are you billed?  The same with support staff.  Do they charge for copies?   For postage?  Do they routinely use delivery services instead of the US Postal Service?  Do they charge for faxes?  You need to know, if only so you're not surprised when you open the first bill.

Think you're ready to choose a lawyer?  Good.  Oh, one last thing.  When all else fails, go with your gut.  If it feels right, if it feels comfortable, it probably is.  Here in the Trenches.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Gambler

After I had the most fun a lawyer can have in a courtroom, I went downstairs to watch some of my good friends here in the Trenches try their case.  It was frustrating to watch, much less to participate in. Their judge had no expression whatsoever.  He never looked up.  Heck, I forgot to turn off my cell phone, it went off - loudly, and he never noticed.  It wasn't that he wasn't listening.  Questions and comments he made during the hearing showed he was.  He just never looked up from his legal pad.  They were arguing to the top of his head.  Witnesses would look to him while they were answering questions; he never made eye contact.  To say it was a frustrating experience for lawyers and witnesses alike would be an understatement.  To top it off, the hearing started late because the judge called everyone in chambers to try to settle the case.  In chambers, he shared his thoughts.  Like in my case from yesterday's post, they were not favorable to my Trenches friends.

Did my friends go for broke in the courtroom?  No, they did not.  But wait, didn't you say yesterday that when you have a case you're pretty sure you'll lose, you should go for broke?  No, I did not.  What I did say was that you have to weigh a lot of factors.  One of them is the judge.  Is there an argument that will sway the judge?  In this case, sadly, the answer is "no."  What kind of a hearing is it?  Is it a hearing that is important to the ultimate resolution of the case?  How important is it?  Is it important enough that you can't afford to lose?  If so, can you win in some other way, say by building a record and appealing any ruling?  Might losing actually put you in a better position to get more for your client later on?  Only the lawyer knows.  Again, it's part of what we do.  Here in the Trenches.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Remember When We Spent Those Four Amazing Hours in the Hot Tub Together After Winter Formal?

Yesterday, I had fun.  A lot of it.  I had a very important hearing.  I knew my judge, and through my knowledge, figured it was highly probably that I was going to lose.  It didn't matter that the law was on my side.  It didn't matter that my client's case was compelling.  Knowing how the judge thought, I din't think my client stood much of a chance.  I told her so.  She's a long term client, and I like to think she trusts me.  She was disappointed, but understood how the system works.  She knows that sometimes the choice of judge and not the merits of the cause decide the case.  It didn't matter, I didn't want her to lose.  She had one chance.  There was one way to word the argument to sway this judge.  I had to be prepared to go for broke.  So I did.  I even jumped up and down.  A friend in the gallery said she could see the moment I started to sway the judge. It was a beautiful thing.  My client won - big.

You might ask why we don't always go for broke here in the Trenches.  It's not that we don't put all of our hearts into our cases, because we do.  Going for broke, however, is a big gamble.  If you win, you win big.  If you lose, you also lose big.  There's very little room in the middle.  That's why we don't usually do it.  Hedging your bets a bit helps ensure your client gets at least some of what they want.  If they have the right judge and the right set of facts, they can still win big. At least they won't lose it all. Knowing how far to push, how much risk to take in the courtroom and how to still serve our clients interests is delicate.  That's a large part of why a client hires us.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Once Upon a TIme....

...there was a family -  a father, a mother and a daughter.  They all lived together in a house and looked so happy.  Except they weren't.  The mother was not a very good mother, but no one else knew it, because the father was so good at covering her mistakes and making up for them.  He was a very good father.  One day, the family came apart.  They couldn't agree on where their daughter should live.  They had to ask a judge to decide.  The judge decided that the daughter should live with her father and see her mother at limited times.  The judge found that the mother was unfit.  "Unfit" has a special meaning here in the Trenches - it means a parent who lacks basic parenting skills, a parent who can't be trusted to care for their children or keep them safe.  The father was sad, but content, because his daughter was safe.  Unfortunately, his daughter was not happy, and she was almost 14.  By the time the daughter was almost 15, she decided she wanted to live with her mother.  He knew what his daughter wanted, but he needed to keep her safe.  The father wasn't too worried - after all, the judge found the mother unfit, and nothing had changed. So, off to court they went, for the second time in 2 years.  The end of this story?  The daughter went to live with the mother.  Wait a minute, did I say the mother.  Yup.  The second judge didn't care that the mother was unfit.  He didn't care that the daughter wouldn't be safe with her.  The second judge only cared about what the daughter wanted.  That's it.

Would the result have been different with a different judge?  Probably.  Put that case before the 20 judges on the court and you would get 20 different results, but probably only one that would give custody to that mother.  The father was just unlucky enough to be before the one who didn't care about any of the things important to him.  That's how it sometimes goes here in the Trenches.  That father's case was a slam dunk, except that it wasn't.  When I tell clients that how the case goes depends on the pick of the judge, I mean it.  Justice has very little to do with it, and fighting the case for the principle of the thing doesn't change the outcome.  It just guarantees frustration, both for them and for us.  Here in the Trenches.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Where Are You Going? How Will You Know When You Get There?

Today, I attended a webinar by one of my favorite bloggers about the business of the Trenches, Lee Rosen.  Lee is an interesting guy.  He's a family law attorney whose passion is the business of the Trenches.  He has branched out into helping lawyers do the business better. As part of that, he gives seminars that focus on the nuts and bolts of improving your practice.  What he noticed, however, was that the folks who were attending his workshops were anxious to learn how to market better, use technology more effectively and streamline their practices.  The problem was that most of them hadn't taken the time to develop a vision for how they wanted their practices and their lives to look ten years down the road.  As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice when she asked:   "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where--" said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.   His point was that unless you have a vision for where you want to go, all the work on nuts and bolts will only take you so far.  You have to have a vivid picture of where you want to end up for everything else to be most helpful and life altering.

Let's just take that last paragraph and apply it to our clients here in the Trenches.  So many of them are like the attendees at Lee's workshops:  they know what they have isn't working and they want to change it.  Great.  I can help.  The trouble is that most of them have no vision for what would work better.  They haven't thought about where they want their lives to be in ten years.  They're standing in Baskin Robbins and telling the clerk they don't want vanilla.  Well, there are 32 other flavors, and they have no idea which one they want.  They may try some of the flavors other than vanilla, but whether they'll be satisfied with them is a matter of chance, not design.  That's too bad.  It hardly seems worth the effort to engage in change without direction.  They may never find what works better.  I worry about the future for those clients.  Here in the Trenches.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Slave Driver

As I said yesterday, I am in the process of developing a "new normal." You may know from all of my posts that I run (slowly), do yoga, and in the summer, swim (equally slowly).  I am determined to improve my running speed and my resistance to injury.  I have learned the best way to meet this goal is by weight training.  Of course, I knew this before, I just haven't done it.  Sure, I have used my rather large library of workout materials to create workout after workout, time after time.  After coming home from work, running or swimming, and walking the puppies, the couch beckons and I heed its siren call.  No more.  As part of my "new normal," I am determined to incorporate regular weight training into my day on a regular basis.  Luckily for me, Daughter is newly graduated with her BA in Exercise Science.  So, while she is taking her breaks from studying for her fitness trainer certification, I asked her to devise a workout for me.  I let her know that I am easily bored, like lots of variety, and....want her to keep me accountable.  Good daughter that she is, Daughter sent me a "kick your tooshie" workout for all of the main muscle groups, broken down into three separate workouts.  I dutifully did all of the exercises in three days. I asked her for a different workout.  This was her response (personally, I think she's enjoying telling me what to do):

"So Miss "I got through everything in three days", that was the plan. I sent you three days worth of exercises. I am not giving you anything else as exercises. I need you to master the ones I gave you before we move on. However, If they are too easy, add weight, add stability ball, add more reps. I will however send you exercises to help with your balance that you can add in. With the amount of cardio you are doing, you either need to take more days between resistance training, or separate cardio and resistance more. I do not want to completely overload your body with a new exercise every two seconds, you need to master exercises and increase the weights and reps rather than that. As well, if you are doing both cardio and resistance training you need to eat a lot and give yourself AT LEAST one day off from every form of exercise. Otherwise, you will overtrain and you will hurt yourself. I know you do not agree with me, but trust me. If you want to call me and yell at me about it, feel free, Momma."

Ouch!  I asked for an accountability buddy, and I really got one - in spades.  Yes, you don't need to remind me that I asked for it.  That's OK.  It's what I need to keep me moving in the right direction.

Here in the Trenches, a lot of our clients could use accountability buddies like Daughter.  They need help making sure their emails to their former spouse are neutral and business-like.  They need help grieving.  They need help choosing a new partner so they don't fall for the same type again and again.  They need help moving and sorting. They need someone to keep them on the path to their "new normal."  While they're in the Trenches, we do a lot of that for them.  Soon, however, their case settles, and we leave the picture.  Who takes our place?  Is it a therapist?  A family member? A friend?  Is it different people for different things?  They need to have at least one accountability buddy to keep them moving forward, or we will see them again.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The New "Normal"

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of my father's death.  I have been doing a lot of thinking this last year, as have lots of my friends, in the Trenches and beyond, who have also lost loved ones in the past few years.  In fact, I had breakfast with Office Testosterone's mother just this morning.  What we all have in common is adjusting to life without the ones we love.  I call it the "new normal."  One of my colleagues here in the Trenches decided to leave the Trenches, and today marks her first day in the non-profit sector.  Office T's mom has moved from focusing on the time of his last illness to the wonders of his life and impact on others.  Me?  I'm still in transition.  This is the longest period I have gone without traveling home to mom and dad's in over two years.  It's odd having my daily or every other day phone calls with my mom that don't focus on how dad is doing.  I feel like something is missing from my daily life, and aside from dad's presence, I don't know what it is.  I am searching for something that I won't know until I find it.  Office T's mom feels the same.  It's more than just a sense of loss; it feels like a shift in focus and purpose, the direction of which is still unknown.  They say not to make any major decisions until at least a year after a loss, so I haven't, my mom hasn't, and Office T's mom hasn't.  So, it's been at least a year for all of us, and I'm sure direction will come, from where I haven't a clue.  I'm patient, so I'll wait (and work like hell) until then, and keep thinking.

Here in the Trenches, we know that divorce is like a death.  People don't treat it that way.  They are in a hurry to move on, to make changes, to do anything that is different from what they did before.  To them, I say "STOP."  It doesn't matter if the divorce has been a long time coming, or if they've been separated for a time that seems like forever, the finality of the divorce represents a loss.  It takes time to adjust to the loss.  It takes time to adjust to the "new normal."  Heck, it takes time to figure out the "new normal," aside from the end of the "old normal."  Simply reacting to the end of the old may not make for a good "new normal."  These folks didn't take ending their marriages lightly.  They thought and agonized over it for months, if not years.  Why not devote as much thought and effort to the future?  Patience is a virtue.  Here in the Trenches.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Genius Bar

I have had six months of computer problems.  First, the hard drive on my laptop died.  Then, I couldn't get my old programs onto it without upgrading my operating system.  When I upgraded my operating system, the spinning wheel of death would hardly let me log in.  Then, when I wiped the operating system it wouldn't let me reload my old one.  After four months of typing this blog on my iPad (no easy task, mind you, and a reason for the paucity of my posts), I went in today to the Apple Store.  Turns out the new hard drive had failed.  Again, they had to replace my hard drive.  Again, I was impressed with the folks at the Apple Store, not the least of which because one of the genius's there gave me some of his personal Excedrin for my migraine.

As I sat waiting for my computer to be repaired, I again looked around the store.  It was a busy place, people buying electronics, people learning how to use their electronics, people coming in to have their electronics fixed.  The people in the latter category were not all that happy, as you might imagine.  Just like the last time I was there, the people who worked at the Apple Store were wonderful.  They greeted everyone with a smile and a kind word.  They were reassuring.  They were helpful.  It would take an insanely angry person to stay upset, given the wonderful way they were being treated.  I asked the Geniuses who helped me if any of them ever lost their cool.  They said it happens - rarely, and only as a response.  Usually, they just save it for the back room.  That's how they're trained.  It's also why they're chosen to work there in the first place.

Here in the Trenches, and especially in my office, we have quite a few of our own "Geniuses".  As you might imagine, a lot of our clients are angry and upset.  Sometimes, they want to shoot the messenger.  We understand that; it's an effect of being in the Trenches.  We, however, don't shoot back.  We listen, we smile, we reassure, and we explain.  We do our best to help.  We care.  Most of our clients know that.  They calm down.  Some don't.  Certainly, we get upset.  We're only human.  We just save it for the back room.  That's how we're trained.  That's why we work here in the first place.  Here in the Trenches.