Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Will You See Your Divorce Five Years From Now?

"Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."  
                                                                                                Abraham Lincoln

A post of mine from just over a year ago is getting a lot of traffic this weekend.  One comment in particular inspired this week's post.  The commenter wrote that in hindsight, this person wished that when she got the "best" family law attorney, she had gotten an attorney who was committed to helping the client work out their issues with their spouse and not simply going forward on the litigation path.  She regretted the treatment her former spouse received at the hands of her attorney.

I wish I could say that this person's comment were unusual here in the Trenches, but it's not.  Clients come through our doors every day expressing the gamut of emotions.  Angry and distrustful people are our stock in trade. Of course, many people who decide to divorce are angry, for a whole lot of reasons.  When we have an angry client, we have two choices: we can help stoke the fire or we can help to quench it.  If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I try to quench it.  Not everyone shares my view.  Let's talk about realities of the Trenches.

Some of us work in the Trenches because we want to help people.  We feel our clients' pain and we want to help them move forward.  We want to help them close the door on this chapter of their lives and move successfully into the next.  I would actually hazard a guess that most of us who work in the Trenches feel that way.  There are those who don't, those lawyers who really don't care and figure their job is to get the client what they say they want or even simply to get the case resolved.  I hope you run screaming from those offices; you deserve better.

The difficulty is that for lawyers of a certain age, being trained as a lawyer meant being trained to try a case, or at most negotiating a settlement like you would any business deal.  Some of those folks never learned to do anything else, and their definition of a lawyer is defined by their training.  It's not that they don't care; it's that the only tool they have is a hammer, so every problem is a nail.  I know, mediation has been around a long time, so why don't these lawyers get on board?  I wish I knew.  The most I can say is they never adapted to the reality that clients, especially family law clients, don't love going to court as much as they do.  For these lawyers, when a client comes into their office hopping mad, and wanting to rake their spouse over the coals in court, these lawyers are very happy, because that's what they know how to do.  They know how to fix that problem.  I'm going to go out on a very short limb here and tell you that if that's the lawyer in whose office you end up, you need to go somewhere else, at least for a second opinion.

After over twenty five years of practicing law, most of them here in the Trenches, there are a few things I've learned about people.  The first is that some of those hopping mad folks will remain hopping mad until the day they die.  They will never understand why they divorced; they will never forgive their spouse for not being the person they thought they were and needed them to be.  Still, encouraging their anger doesn't help.

The second thing I've learned is that anger, like guilt, fades.  As time passes and life goes on, clients tend to view their spouses with a different lens.  This lens tends to be more forgiving.  It is not a distorted lens, but rather one that, instead of being the rose color of love and unicorns or the fiery red of anger, is clear and focused.  Clients, particularly those with children, realize they have to co-parent together and will be entwined until they or their children die. Clients tend to remember some of the better times they had with each other; and with time, they remember that they once loved this person.  It's at those times they regret how they or their lawyer behaved at the time of their divorce.

Those of us who work in the Trenches know this.  We see it as our jobs to pull our clients out of their comfort zone.  We question the basis for their anger.  We probe at the hurt feelings.  We look for those times when the spouses worked together in the past.  We try to find shared values.  We encourage our clients to look into the future and tell us what they want it to look like.  We ask them if their proposed course of action will get them there.  We tailor the process they use for their divorce not only to their present but also to that future.

I understand that when your marriage is ending, the last thing you want to be is reasonable.  I know that when you're looking for an attorney, you want a good one, but you don't want to have to dig too deep.  I get it.  Remember, I've been there.  I know you don't want to spend the money for a consultation with more than one lawyer.  You just want one person, the first person you see, to solve your problem.  Remember though, that lawyer didn't cause the problem - you and your spouse did.  The lawyer can't solve it - only you and your spouse can.  Don't you want the lawyer who is best able to help you do that?  Find out about a lawyer's philosophy of representation.  Find out what they consider their role to be in your case.  Find out how they intend to help you connect with your inner best self and help you solve your problem.    You might need that hammer; then again you might need a monkey wrench.  Don't you want a lawyer with that tool in her tool chest?  Here in the Trenches.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Puppy Girl and Emotional Decisions

It's no secret that my beloved puppy girl is 16 years old.  She has arthritis in her legs, and that makes standing still interesting.  She has cataracts, and a wee bit of dementia.  She's lost a lot of weight, but the vet says she's in fine health, except for the above.  She sleeps a lot during the day.  Yet, she still eats like a younger dog.  She takes half a mile walk every day.  Sure, it's slow, but she does it.  She greets me when I come home at night.  She's not in any pain.  She also still torments her puppy boy and they play very limited and geriatric puppy games (I find your bone and stand over it so you can't get it.  I lie down in the middle of your bed until you stare at me long enough to make me move).  I know we're moving toward the "big decision," and we're probably talking weeks rather than months.  It's agonizing.  She's my puppy girl, my companion, my lovely friend. Being a reading nerd, I am reading a lot about when you know it's time.  The best advice I've seen is that you ask a third person whose advice you trust.  All that c__p about how you'll know it's time and keeping track of good days versus bad days, is just that.  When you are too close to the situation, the way you interpret data is skewed.  Your heart will override your head, or you will interpret the data to support the conclusion you want.  My third party and I have talked and she knows I don't want puppy girl to suffer.  I don't want her to have no good quality of life.  I don't want her to lose her dignity.  Based on all that,  my third party says "not yet," and I concur.

Does it really take much of a leap to connect all of this to the Trenches?  Clients tell me all the time that they never saw it coming.  They tell me that they can't believe that their spouse did X, because X is so unlike them.  Their spouse said the relationship changed, that they changed, but they don't see it.  Yet, all of the people they ask me to call tell me a very different story.  Usually, it's somewhere between what my client says and what their spouse says.  You see, they were too close to see things clearly and their emotions filled in parts of their story when the facts were lacking.  Usually when people do that, what they fill in supports the conclusion they want, and not what actually is.  The third parties without skin in the game are far more reliable as to reality of the situation.

Is there another third party whose advice clients in the Trenches should trust?  Oh yes, their lawyer.  Again, the lawyer has no emotional investment in their case.  Certainly, we care about our clients, but it's not our lives, it's theirs.  We don't interpret data through the eyes of emotion, of hurt feelings, of hopes and dreams unrealized.  We don't fill in "facts" that don't exist.  We hear our clients, and dig for what lies behind their words.  Is it fear of poverty?  Of being alone? Of being judged by others? Of losing their identity as a parent or spouse?  What is it they need or want?  What is their view for the future?  Whatever it is, once we learn what those things, we can help them define their goals and advise them of their best course of action.  We don't rewrite the history of their marriage - that's for a different professional to help.  We help them write the story of their futures accounting for their hopes and needs and fears.  Here in the Trenches.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ten New Year's Resolutions For Your Divorce

Tomorrow, my office opens its doors for the new year.  As in every new year, there will be a lot of calls from people who have vowed that they will not spend another holiday season with their spouse.  Lest you think the folks who call the first week of January are the only ones thinking that way, we get another surge right after the credit card bills from Christmas get paid at the end of the month.  For all of you joining us in the Trenches in 2016, here are ten resolutions for you.

1.     I resolve to talk to a lawyer, a financial planner and a good family therapist before I tell my spouse I want a divorce.  A lot of the people who come through our doors are woefully under-educated in both the divorce process and the realities of post-divorce life.  They leap before they look, only to find on the way down that they could and should have done things differently.

2.    I resolve to step back and put myself in my children's shoes.  Yes, I know you want equal time with your children.  I know you miss them when they are not with you.  Funny, though, that when I suggest that the children stay in the house and the parents rotate between two residences, clients look at me in horror, as they don't want to feel like a nomad and not have a place that's theirs.  Yet, that's what they want for their children, and they are genuinely surprised to realize that.  Now, I'm not saying that nesting, as that arrangement is called, is better or worse than any other custodial plan.  What I am saying is that parents need to think about divorce from their children's perspective as well and think about how their life might be like.

3.    I resolve to look at issues from my spouse's point of view.   98% of all cases settle.  Whether they settle early or after the second day of a three day trial often depends on how aware at least one party is about what the other one needs in order to feel successful.  I know, the last thing you want to do is think like your spouse, but your future, not to mention the amount of your legal fees, depends on it.

4.    I resolve to take the high road.  Just because your spouse is hiding the ball, talking trash to the neighbors or denigrating you to your children, doesn't mean you have to do it.  Life is a marathon, not a sprint.  All of that bad karma comes back, as does the good.  Your children, neighbors and friends will learn the truth, and they will appreciate that it wasn't you who pointed it out.  You'll find what you need to find, and what you can't find, you'll accept.  Momma was correct that two wrongs don't make a right.

5.    I resolve to take a breath before I do anything "for the principle of the thing."  As a trial lawyer, I hate the principle of the thing.  Sure, it always earns me more money, but my clients are rarely happy with the results, because the principle of the thing is rarely tangible.  It's a lot of money to spend just to make a point.  You need to make sure the point is worth the cost.

6.    I resolve to take an active role in my divorce.  I have said it before, and I will say it again (and again) - it's not my life.  It's yours.  If you want your post divorce life to be successful, you really should take an active role in molding it.  Otherwise, your post divorce life will look the way I want it to look.  I hope you like it.

7.    I resolve to choose the divorce process that best meets my needs. If you don't know by now that process determines outcome, please reread this post.

8.    I resolve to choose a lawyer whose approach to divorce and values mirror mine.  We are truly like dogs and their owners.  In a successful relationship, we will mirror each other.  In an unsuccessful one, we will be at cross purposes.  Certainly, I can advocate for whatever position you wish, so long as it's sustainable by the facts and the law, and I'll be successful doing it.  If it goes against my approach to divorce or my values, we may spend a lot of time discussing what you want me to do and why, and perhaps at that point, your funds and time may be better spent with another lawyer, one who meshes better with you.

9.    I resolve to take responsibility for my own decisions.  I didn't pick your spouse; you did.  I didn't have children with your spouse, amass assets or debts with them.  In other words, I didn't create the situation you are in.  I didn't create the court system.  I didn't make the rules:  I play within the system.  It's my job to help you move forward. I will help you develop options, weigh the options, and negotiate an agreement.  I can't do it alone.  I need your help.  Ultimately, with my help, you need to make a decision.  I want you to be fully informed when you do that.  If it turns out your decision didn't work out as you hoped, then it is your responsibility - mine was to advise you fully so you could make the best decision possible under the circumstances.

10.  I resolve to take care of myself.  Life in the Trenches is stressful.  Stress affects people in different ways.  Maybe you need to talk to a professional therapist.  Maybe you need to reconnect with your faith.  Maybe you need to exercise more.  What about a massage?  Whatever it takes for you to be the best you possible.

Happy New Year.  Here in the Trenches.