Monday, June 8, 2009

How to be an Engaged Divorce Lawyer

So some of you know, and I'm not sure if I mentioned exactly why I was picking up and heading out to Michigan for the summer, but I'm out in Ann Arbor practicing family law. (Yes, actually practicing - the student practice laws out here are very flexible.) Family law, you say, isn't that divorces and stuff? Isn't that incredible depressing and draining work?
I say, why yes, yes it is. Truth be told, for the truly romantic, family law can be a soul crushing and draining experience. You sometimes represent clients who will spend every penny they have to make sure their ex goes just as broke as they are. You represent people who use their kids as a toy to get what they want out of their spouse.
When I first got interested in family law, I couldn't believe how depressing it was. I was temping down in DC at a large family law firm where the lowest paid attorney there billed at $400 an hour, and the top guy was at $800. People spent as much on their divorces as they did on their weddings.
I would read their transcripts and answer the phones and meet clients who, despite having stood up in front of their friends and family and promised to stand beside each other, until death did them part, were out to rip each other to shreds. I saw clients who had literally, ala first wives club, given the best years of their life to their spouses, only to be kicked to the curb. I saw clients who were dealing with cheating wives who were using drugs. I saw men stalk their spouses through their cell phones and GPS devices. I saw clients who hired bodygaurds to keep their spouse away from their kid. These were people at their absolute lowest and sleaziest.
I think if I had been there for more than a few weeks, it would have killed me, and any belief I had left in marriage. As it was, it took me quite some time to recover. Quite some time to realize, "I don't ever want to be like that," and more importantly, to realize I didn't have to be.
When I started to get into family law, I approached it from the DV standpoint. With DV, sometimes our clients make bad choices, and sometimes they don't know what they are getting into. But in DV cases, I know who I want to win and it's never the abuser. In cases with really poor clients, who are who I represent now, you know they aren't wasting your time just to make the other party miserable. They just want to get out of the relationship with what is left of their spirit intact.
I have clients who have an amazing resilience, an enormous capacity to handle pain and heartbreak. I have clients who are poor, bitter, broken shells of the people they used to be. Clients who say things like, "if only I had kept my job and stayed in my apartment, I would be better off right now."
I think if you don't consider the divorce rate, and the reasons why people get divorced, and you get married anyway without realizing that it could happen to you, you are deliberately blinding yourself. And to walk into a marriage simply saying, "marriage is hard, but you make it work" can also be a devastating mistake.
Some marriages don't work. I understand this. Some marriages are going to fail, from the first day when you put on the dress and you walked down the aisle and said that you did. Sometimes it's because you didn't. Sometimes it's because he didn't. So make sure that this is somebody you can spend your life with - not just in a romantic sense, but in a practical sense. Does he or she treat you well? Does he or she genuinely respect you? Respect your thoughts, your beliefs, your actions? Do they listen to you when you speak and consider your ideas about things that matter? Do they let you make some of the decisions?
I find it difficult to deal with my clients who say things like, "I never should have married him." Because I sit there with my ring on my finger (sometimes really feeling self conscious and hoping they don't realize its an engagement ring) and I make plans and I intend to pledge myself, wholly and fully, to a single other person, for the rest of my life. I wonder if I will be like them in ten or twenty or forty years, sobbing over the wreckage of my life and wondering how I could have wasted so much time on somebody who wasn't worth it.
I know that part of why I do the work that I do is that I believe firmly and fully that my clients are deserve real happiness. They deserve what I have. They deserve somebody who really respects them, who will support them and help them to be the best person they can be. They do not deserve to be with somebody who wants to break them down, to insult them so they have no self esteem, to be with somebody who pushes them to use drugs or alcohol to make them feel better. For the most part I don't tell them this, and I would never tell a client that I was engaged unless asked a direct question that I couldn't avoid. I simply try to listen, and I remind them that nobody deserves to be hit, or to be called a lazy bitch, or anything along those lines.
I'm not sure that I will ever go back to rich people divorce - yes, an attorney can make a lot of money, but I'm not sure that I can stand to watch people throwing it away on making each other miserable, or using their kids. Ultimately, I've found that the really bad divorces all hinge on the same element - there is not enough respect. Love, it turns out, is irrelevant. Respect is what matters. If you respect somebody as a person, you can make a clean break - you can say, "we are simply too different people to make this marriage work for any longer." When you don't respect somebody, you try to control them. You try to make them feel the way you want them to feel, because it makes you feel better.
Ultimately, the way to be an engaged, or married, or single divorce lawyer without losing your soul is to constantly examine and reexamine your own realationship, considering what similarities and differences you have with your clients. Don't pretend there aren't any, that will not help you. When you see similarities, consider how to work through them. If it's a really tough similarity, consider bringing in third party help. Often though, talking to your partner about it and about why it worries you will help to bring the issue to light and can help a lot as long as you are both aware of it.


  1. *Bows down*

    I couldn't do it. I'm an attorney and made it about six months practicing family law. It DRAINED me. Constantly depressing, and totally felt like I was "losing my soul". I do appreciate what I learned because I feel like it will help me make my relationship stronger, but I couldn't handle the day-to-day slugfest. But more power to you if you can!

  2. Haha - we'll see how it goes. I don't plan to do family law forever, it's more of a jumping off point into broader women's issues hopefully it won't kill me by the time I'm forty. All of the older private practice family law attorneys I know really have lost their soul - they are the very definition of sharks...