Monday, June 29, 2015

First Things FIrst

Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely than the general public to suffer from depression.  Therapists may not be more depressed than the general public, but they do a really poor job of recognizing their own mental health issues.  When you add to this mix dealing with family law problems, the professionals really struggle.  After all, those of us in the Trenches deal with people who are emotional, stressed and angry.  It's our jobs to help them deal with their emotions, assess their options and make decisions.  As a result, we bear the brunt of their not so pleasant feelings.  That's on top of dealing with the everyday stresses of our jobs.  All of the above is why I started a divorce professionals support group.  Everyone thought it was a great idea.  For the first few months, everyone made sure to schedule the time.  Then, this month, it was just one other person and me.  Everyone else had a commitment for a client that precluded their attendance.  Really?  This lunch has been on the calendar for a month.  I made sure nothing conflicted with it; so did the other person.  Everyone else allowed their clients to intrude.  Maybe that's why we suffer from depression - we lack boundaries and don't make ourselves a priority.  We care for our clients and ignore our own health.  Here in the Trenches.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Father's Day?


I spent a lovely and whirlwind 24 hours in the Big Apple with Daughter.  She left the Big Apple to go to Atlantic City and I headed back to Baltimore.  On my way back, I sat next to a lovely woman who was going home to DC after spending the day in the City with her grown daughter.  We spent most of the ride talking about her other daughter, the one who isn't really speaking to her.  Today is Father's Day, the second Father's Day without my Daddy.  One of my virtual friends said online that being on social media on Father's Day is really hard because she has such a difficult relationship with her own father.  I can't help but think these three things happened within the same weekend for a reason.  I agree with my friend that family relationships are really complicated and sometimes difficult to navigate.  After all, unlike friends, we don't choose our families.  They're ours, no matter what.  Then, you layer on top that we share their DNA, so they are part of us.  As parents, we raise them and teach them; as children, they are raised and taught.  What results is a complicated mess.

With Daughter, it took me a long time to figure out that sometimes when she called and complained, all she wanted to do was complain.  She didn't want me to kiss it and make it better.  She didn't want me to help her brainstorm options.  She didn't want me to solve her problem.  I might never have figured it out, except that right before one of those phone calling occasions, I was attending a workshop by Bill Eddy.  He suggested.....asking what the person wanted us to do, listen or help solve the problem.  What a revolutionary idea!  After that, I asked her.  Our relationship lost a difficult piece, as her needs were met and I knew what was wanted.  No more guesswork.  No, it's not always perfect, but we've learned to navigate as adults.

My seat mate on the bus?  She was a very successful woman.  So were her daughters.  She had a difficult life when they were young.  She worried about the impact made by those times.  She had hopes and dreams and worries for her girls.  She wanted them to have an easier time than she.  She wanted them to be happy.  She wanted them to feel successful.  I could hear a lot of guilt and shame for the choices she made, the things she said she wished she could take back, and the love she couldn't express without sounding like she was nagging or judging.  She was in such pain because all she wanted was a good relationship with her girls.  She was at a loss as to how to make it happen now that they were adults and responsible for their own choices, and her role was simply to love them.  It's hard because she knew they were making mistakes and she wanted to tell them, to teach them, to protect them from harm.  That's what moms do.  That's not what they wanted.  I'm sure if you asked her daughters, they would also express frustration for the caliber of their relationship, but from the other perspective.  I hope they find their way.

Holidays like Father's Day and Mother's Day bring all those relationship issues to the surface.  When people have difficult relationships with their parents, every Facebook post about a great parent simply grates.  We all see history through our own perspective, and no two people see anything the same.  We all forget that children grow and become adults, and parents age and become our children.  We parent as we were parented, or maybe we parent exactly the opposite because of the way we were parented.  Maybe we made choices to live on one income and have a stay at home parent, and maybe we chose for both parents to work.  Maybe our children turned out just like us, and maybe just the opposite.  Maybe our divorce scarred our children for life, or maybe it just scarred us.  Relationships constantly evolve and until death parts us, there are always opportunities for a different kind of relationship.  Sometimes, that different kind of relationship is to have no relationship at all.

The first step to navigating any relationship is to look within, to decide what you want for the future and what role you played in the past.  Deal with the shame and the guilt, and the love and the understanding.  Decide what it is you want and what you need to do to move in that direction.  Real change is possible if you keep the goal in mind.  Keep it in the forefront as you rebuild your family after divorce or death or simply maturity.  Here in the Trenches.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why Do We Care If You Have Minor Children? Should We?

Effective October 1, 2015, Maryland will finally have a no fault divorce.  Sort of.  After October 1, 2015, if a married couple without children under the age of 18 desire to divorce AND they have a signed agreement which settles all of the issues between them, financial and otherwise, they may divorce without physically separating.  Note, this law does not apply to people with minor children.  Wait, what?  Why wouldn't it, shouldn't it apply to people with minor children?  Well, stability for the children is an answer.  Frankly, it's not a very smart answer, but it's an answer.  I suppose the legislature, in its infinite wisdom thinks that if we still make people with minor children have a year's separation before they get a divorce, even if they already have a full separation agreement, maybe they'll stay together for the children.  Or, maybe if they have to stay married for another year, that provides the children time to get used to the divorce?  Maybe, if there's a year's separation, it gives the parents time to redo their custody agreement if it doesn't work before it is reduced to a judgment.  Well, that never happens.  Do you get the impression that I'm not a fan of the distinction our legislature has made between people with minor children and those without?  You'd be right.  Here's why.

People with minor children have to interact with each other on a regular, if not constant basis.  They see each other at school, on the sidelines at sporting events and at concerts.  They have to confer about medical treatment, religious rites of passage and education.  Even when the divorce is amicable, it's still hard to be in such close contact so often.  Now, let's add a new girlfriend or boyfriend to the mix, because lots of people start dating during that one year of separation.  It's a long time to put your life on hold.  Think how the other parent feels:  they're not divorced, but not really married, yet here's their spouse will another person.  Think about how the children feel:  while their parents are still married, there's hope that they'll get back together, but here's their parent with someone else.  How confusing is that?  Maybe the parents are dating someone else, but they don't want to reveal it in public because they're still married for the next year.  They hide it; they are furtive and nervous.  How do you think everyone feels with that secret hanging about?

What about changing the custody arrangement?  Well, the people who will tinker with it in the best interests of the children, will do so even with a judgment already entered.  Others simply won't, even if the agreement doesn't work, with or without a court order.  The fact that there is an agreement rather than a court order, means we're dealing with people who have the capacity to make reasoned agreements and compromises.  Doesn't that fact alone bode well for those people's custody agreements being living works in progress?  It does as much as anyone else's agreement.  What difference would another year of waiting make?  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Things You Should Do Before You Decide to Divorce

1.   Change your password, on your phone, voicemail, email, Facebook, bank and credit accounts.  While we're at it, check your Facebook.  Is there anything on there that might make you look less than responsible?  Do the same for Twitter, Tumblr, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Instagram.  Clean up your online and public image.  I don't need to tell you not to publish pictures of you drunk, high or in compromising positions - right.

2.   Know what debts you have, and in whose name they are.  If they are in your name, they're yours.  If they're in joint names, they're both of yours. The credit companies don't care about any agreement you may make with your spouse; they care only about whose signature is on their contract. Oh wait, perhaps you should think about whether you could afford to service the debt if your spouse weren't around to help with the payments or your other expenses.  Again, don't incur debt you can't pay.  If you do, think about how to pay it down before you leave.

3.  Know what you own.  Not just cars and your house, but retirement accounts, stocks, mutual funds, and bank accounts.  Do your research.  Figure out the extent of what you own.  Find the statements.  Even if the only statements you can find are old, it's a starting point for investigation.  Educate yourself.

4.  Manage your credit.  No, it's not the same as #1.  Do you have credit cards?  In whose name are they? Are you a co-applicant or simply an authorized user?  How much is your credit limit?  How much space is there on the cards?  Think about whether your spouse might take a cash advance or charge to the credit limit.  Might you need to do the same?  Remember, divorce is expensive, and not because of attorney fees.  Setting up and maintaining a new household is costly.  While we're at it, do you have a credit card in your own name?  A bank account?  Get them.

5.  Get a good therapist - they're better than friends, and you will need the help of a professional to deal with all the feelings and changes in your life.  Go see a lawyer - not necessarily to hire one, but to find one with whom you are comfortable and to become educated about your options.

That's it.  Here in the Trenches.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Process Determines Outcome

I thought about leaving this post at that, but I thought you might need more.  This week, I had a number of new clients.  With each client, I said that process determines outcome.  I explained it to them as I explain it to you.  When you come into the Trenches for a divorce or a custody determination, those cases always end with a divorce or a custody decision.  The basic steps you go through to reach that conclusion are always the same:  identify what you want, ask the questions that will give you the information that will help you get what you want, gather that information, develop solutions to reach your goal and evaluate those solutions to get to the end.  Same steps, no matter the process.  The difference here in the Trenches is how those steps are implemented.  That's process.

What process?  Well, there are basically 5:  litigation, negotiation, collaboration, mediation and kitchen table discussion.  

In litigation, the steps are formal and choreographed.  There's no opportunity for direct communication between parties, no opportunity to dig deep for needs and goals instead of positions, and no control over the evaluation process.  That last part is left to the judge, not the parties, a person who has never met them, and may have an entirely different outlook on life and parenting.  

Negotiation provides a little bit more control over the evaluation process, but usually the lawyers control how that works.  There's little if any direct communication. Again, it's very formal, arms length and positional, but at least the parties make the ultimate decision.  Usually that decision has a lot of relationship to what a judge might do.

Collaboration has a lot of opportunity for direct communication, communication can be more productive because professionals are there to help that discussion and provide information.  A weaker party is supported so everyone feels they have the facts and the space to make the decision that's right for them. The focus is on needs and not positions. In collaboration, parties develop skills they can take with them into the future and because there is no threat of court, everyone has the ability to craft creative solutions to their problems. The parties control their destiny both then and after they leave the Trenches. 

Mediation also has a lot of opportunity for direct communication.  The mediator is a true neutral, however, so there is no support at the table for the weaker party.  There is no education piece or assurance that everyone has all the facts.  It is assumed everyone will play by the rules and speak up for themselves.  Here also there is an opportunity for creative solutions because mediation focuses on needs  instead of positions.  The parties decide how everything will wind up.

Kitchen table is when two people sit down and talk about what makes sense for them.  They may not have all the information, they may not have the same bargaining power, and they may never address their needs.  Then again, they might. The parties have the most opportunity for communication and control.

How the information is gathered and shared has a huge effect on outcome.  The formal information and decision making processes are adversarial and serve to increase tensions between the parties, rather than reduce them.  They also serve to insulate the parties from the direct effects of the conflict.  The more informal methods dig deeper into the whys of each action and encourage a thoughtful solution.  They also require direct, face-to-face communication, and facing conflict head on.  That can be too uncomfortable for some, and dangerous for others.  Each process works for some people and not for others.  A professional's first job is to help a client determine which works for them.  It is the most important job we do.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Do You Value What I Do?

Let's flip to the other side of "What Would You Pay For That?"  What would you pay to have your attorney guide you through the Trenches, and provide advice and counsel?  Really think about it.  I hate the billable hour.  I don't think that's a surprise to anyone reading this blog.  I hate it for a lot of reasons, all of them to do with helping my clients.  I know my clients pause before calling me with information or to ask advice, because it costs them to call me.  As a result, I sometimes don't have all the information I need or my clients do something really stupid because they didn't tell me first so I could advise them it was a bad idea.  There are times when I pause before doing something for a client, not anything case threatening, but still, I pause because I know it will cost the client money, and I know their financial situation better than anyone.  I feel guilty working slowly, yet there are times when I must. Sitting and just thinking about a case comes with a timer and a price tag.  That's how the billable hour works.   I've hated it for a long time.

I want to move away from the billable hour, not to a place where I simply quantify the hours I think I will spend on a case and multiply it by my hourly rate to come up with a price.  I don't want to go to a place where my work is commoditized and a letter costs $X and a pleading costs $y.  I dream of a world where I talk deeply with my client about their case, what it will entail, about it's strengths and weaknesses, and arrive at a price that reflects the value of my services to them.   Then, I can handle the case the way I want it to be handled, knowing fear of incurring cost is gone.  How much better would that be for everyone?  I think it would be fantastic.  I've done a lot of reading, and I think it can be done.  What's the problem?

I'm scared.  My clients are people with limited resources.  What if they can't afford me?  How do I help them understand the value of what I provide?  What if they don't value what I do?  What if we agree on a value and they abuse it?  What if they call my office a million times a day?  What if they monopolize all my time?  How do I handle that?  Then I think, I've looked at the books.  I've reviewed the cost of my individual cases.  I know that if I told some of these people what their cases would end up costing (and I am by no means the most expensive lawyer in the Trenches), they would never have believed me.  Yet, these people with limited means have found the way to pay my bill.  What if they knew up front how much it would cost?  Wouldn't it be great to be able to budget for that?  Do people really want that?  I think they do.  As a matter of fact, a returning client called just as I was beginning to mull actually implementing a fixed fee or value based pricing.  We asked how he would feel if we told him the cost would be a set amount (and it was not a small amount)?  He thought it would be great.  That's right, great.  He said he could budget.  He could weigh if the fight was worth the cost.  He'll be back.  He told me so, and we'll discuss value.

What do you think?  I really want to know.  Here in the Trenches.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What Would You Pay For That?

When something keeps appearing in my life, I'm sure it's meant for a blog post.  The thing that has come up time and again over the last week is value.  Value is an integral part of life here in the Trenches.  Our clients have property to value.  Those of us who toil here assign a value to the services we provide.  Really, what is value?  Merriam Webster defines value a few ways:   the monetary worth of something; relative worth, utility, or importance; something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.  Value is all around us in the Trenches.  It's an intrinsic part of our world.

Maryland is an equitable division state.  That means the court is supposed to deal fairly and equitably with the marital property.  One of the facts the court looks at to determine what is equitable is the relative value of the property owned by the marriage.  How do people decide how to value their property?  Wait, did I say value their own property?  Is that even OK?  Sure it is.  Who better than the owner of a property to talk about its value.  Anyway, how would someone value their property?  It depends on that the property is.  Let's talk about a few.  

If the property is a house, value can be determined by comparing the house to other houses that have sold recently in the area.  The value of the house can also be what an appraiser says it is.  An owner could use the assessed value for property taxes as its value.  Maybe a realtor can give them an idea of the price for which they would list the house.  Of course, an owner could simply take a guess too.

What about cars?  There's the Kelly Blue Book.  Then there's Auto Trader.  I suppose there's also Craig's List.  When you look at the Kelly Blue Book, do you use trade in value, dealer price or private party sale?  It depends on whether you want your car to be worth a lot or worth a little.  

Retirement accounts?  Well, most of those have statements.  The same with bank accounts.  

Oh, and your stuff?  Unless it's Baccarat or a Picasso, it's pretty much worthless.  That's right, worthless.  An owner can testify to the value of their stuff, but a judge is probably not listening.  The value of the stuff is yard sale value.  That's right, yard sale value.  Take all of your stuff and put it in the yard with a for sale sign on it.  That's the value.  Sentimental value means nothing.  It's all just stuff with a price tag.

One last thing - debt.  I know you have a mortgage on your house and a loan on your car.  I know they're substantial.  They may even exceed the value of the house or the car.  In your world, that's a negative value.  In the Trenches, the value can never be less than zero.  That's right, zero is the lowest number in the Trenches.  That's my world, and yours if you visit me here in the Trenches.