Placing your cards on the table in a family law case

Some weeks when I sit down to write this column its very easy. I write about a subject that I’m dealing with in my practice, that I’m asked about all time or that is in the news. But during other weeks it’s a struggle to find something that I think the readers might find interesting in this crazy world that I live in.

Over the weekend I read an article about the high suicide rate among lawyers and I found myself wondering what it is I love about what I do and why so many lawyers are unhappy.  There are days when I come home when I think I would literally rather dig ditches under the high Oklahoma August sun than step foot in my office again. On the flip side, there are days when I can’t wait to get up and go to court because I live for the thrill of the hunt. Today was not a thrill of the hunt kind of day, but Monday seldom is for me anyway.

I started my day in family court.  Opposing counsel was late due to a scheduling problem, my client was nervous and edgy and we were at the end of the docket.

Opposing counsel and I had never worked together on a case before and he was a new lawyer so we sat and talked for a while and got to know each other in addition to talking about the case.  In doing this I told him a little about my philosophy about family law. It’s a philosophy that is born out of being a lawyer, having been the child of divorced parents with half siblings and step parents, going through a divorce myself and  parenting children through divorce and remarriage.

Each of those experiences has helped enrich my practice and expand my point of view in and out of the court room.  It has also helped my professional happiness and stress level.  I also told this young lawyer that while clients would come and go, we would be seeing each other again, that the client’s problems were not our problems and when we left court we should be able to shake hands, have lunch and tell war stories.

Some client’s do not like it when the lawyers are friendly with one another, they want a blood bath at all times but that rarely works out for anyone.  The law is a field where we are paid to fight and we are evaluated by the size of our kill.  But in a family law situation the unintentional “kill” is often the children and it is incumbent upon the lawyers to protect the children when the parents lack the willingness or the ability to put the children’s needs first.

The young lawyer was a little surprised when I told him my philosophy about family law, I could read it in his face.  At the same time, something very interesting happened.  I watched him soften a little too, not with weakness but with humanity and trust, that I was not interested in taking a child away from a parent but in making sure that the needs were being met in the best way possible.

Suddenly the other lawyer showed a willingness to listen to me about why I was proposing certain things for this family and I walked away from the Court hearing getting virtually everything my client wanted and I believed were best for the children in terms of visitation, support and the like.  I did not attack his client, I did not say all the awful things I could have said about his client, I did not tear apart the other parent in the many possible ways that I had the ammunition to do.  Instead of focusing on the negative aspect of the parents, I focused on the positive aspects of the children and how to best meet those needs. In that case it was clear that one parent better filled those roles and we set goals for the other parent to meet so that the child did not suffer.

Sometimes the scorched earth litigation tactic, even in family law,  is appropriate, but most of the time, just taking the time for cooler heads to prevail and discuss what it is that you want and why is all that is necessary for things to work out.

I think lawyers and litigants would be a lot happier in the process if we were encouraged more to be real about the process and to lay our cards on the table about what we think.  Since I’ve started doing that I’ve been amazed at the difference I’ve seen in my practice and the response from opposing counsel in general just like the response I got today.  The court and opposing counsel have come to know that I believe and advocate strongly for both parents to be involved in a child’s life.  I believe children need a mother and a father who are involved on a regular basis.  Because this is the position I always take, I also believe when I take a different position the Court and opposing counsel notice and give my reasons more creditability because they know regardless of whether I have mom or dad I want to see both parents involved with the kids and If I’m making a recommendation for someone to have less involvement that must mean I have serious concerns.

Finding ways for attorneys to reach common ground and work for the greater good for the clients is better than a “win” for the particular attorney and should be our overall goal in family law.  At the end of the day, I want to make sure that my client’s family’s needs are met more than I want to make sure that I have a verified “W” in my win/loss column because a satisfied client is always a win and I am then always a happy lawyer.

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