“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”-the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16
I used to be a take-no- prisoners litigator leading families to the arena (court) to shed blood, exploiting every conflict I could to “win” the case. I lived this mindset in my own divorce, spending years in blame and unforgiveness. Both circumstances took a toll on my life and my soul.
Somehow I “woke up.” I chose to forgive the father of my children and myself. I redesigned my law practice and became a peacemaker. I healed my life in mind, body and spirit and wrote a book encouraging other lawyers to do the same.
Now when clients come to my office we set goals for them and for their case. Suffering from betrayal, loss of love and loneliness, clients suggest goals of blame, revenge, hurt and pain. I redirect them, having a frank conversation with them about “the long game.”
The long game recognizes families are entwined for life, raising children post divorce. EVERYTHING THEY DO IN THE DIVORCE SETS A PATH FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. As their lawyer, I leave a legacy with my intervention. My client is either buoyed for dignity, forgiveness, respect and calmness or left to pick up the rubble of the destruction I leave behind.
Choices in the divorce must be suited for the long game. We discuss future family gatherings with the children and grandchildren such as graduations, weddings, and funerals. We envision the cost of the choice to blame, emphasize petty differences, or disparage their co-parent. Even if we have serious issues (substance abuse, domestic abuse, and other important issues that endanger children) we proceed with transparency, integrity and dignity for all, while firmly and wisely protecting the children. Clients insistent on “going low” are referred to another lawyer. As a result of this choice of practice, I sleep well and see lives transformed in my office every day.
In one case, my sad client whose wife had filed for divorce joined me in discussing the long game.(I represent equal numbers of men and women). He embraced the approach noting that he and the child’s mother were both good people and good parents. They’d both been there for prenatal care, and child’s dental and medical appointments. They’d both transported child to daycare, shared day to day parenting responsibilities and effectively made many joint decisions.
I called the lawyer on the other side to discuss the case.
“What are the problems with my guy having shared care?” I asked him, beginning to negotiate settlement.
“Nothing” he assured me. “My client is a first time anxious mom, wanting primary care. There is nothing wrong with your guy.”
We were optimistic about settlement when we went to mediation.
“They report nothing that would preclude shared parenting other than mom is anxious,” the mediator said in our private caucus, then adding “mom’s lawyer is strongly advocating against settlement.”
I wondered if the lawyer had abandoned seeking compromise and simply decided they would “earn their keep” by supporting mom’s anxiety based position. We were headed for temporary hearing.
In my jurisdiction temporary matters are decided on sworn affidavits. No testimony, no clients, and 10 minutes to plead the case across the desk to a judge with no court reporter. Affidavits are exchanged a moment before walking in to see the judge making the process “trial by ambush.”
My client and I prepared affidavits that supported our request for shared custody with coparenting from two good parents. My client’s parents signed affidavits supporting both parents and describing a future where the mother would continue to be welcome. We buyoed the long game.
“My wife asked me not to read the affidavits she and her lawyer prepared for the hearing until tomorrow and she is moving in with her parents over the weekend, ” my client stated as we met at the courthouse.
“Search your soul and tell me what you have forgotten until now; what’s the worst thing she can say and be brutally honest,” I asked my client as my anxiety spiked. No porn, no drugs, no mistress, no tax fraud, no domestic abuse. My puzzled client came up empty.
Outside the courtroom I handed opposing counsel our affidavits. “No surprises. High integrity on what we’ve said all along. Two good parents, history of calm waters.” My adversary shoved affidavits in my hand while looking down at his feet and shuffling towards the courtroom door.
Wife’s affidavit magnified every petty disagreement since the child’s conception describing my client as a “bully” giving wife emotional distress. Wife’s mother substantiated with an affidavit saying the same. Wife’s father noticeably did not join in.
My client held back tears. “We took the high road and she attacked despite what they have said all along. I feel betrayed again. I want a pound of flesh! What good did it do me to be high integrity?”
I left my law clerk to calm the client while I went in to argue my 10 minutes. The other attorney animatedly described my client to the judge as a bully, oppressive, mean to his wife. I calmly argued the facts; pre-natal care, child’s doctors appointments, daycare pickup, joint decisions. I pointed out wife’s affidavit was “she saids” while our evidence proved differently.
The judge granted wife primary physical care minimizing dad’s contact. “I will never trust her ever again, as long as I live,” my client said as we left the courthouse.
Thanking me for my work, my client said he had believed in the high road and the long game until he was blown up in battle. We agreed I’d transition him to a gladiator colleague equipped with depositions designed to embarrass his wife, highlight her after-discovered boyfriend (although fault is not relevant under the law), and engage in other aggressive tactics of war to win the final hearing. War that cost thousands of dollars of the child’s college savings money.
For a moment I second guessed my strategy. Did I just get out-lawyered? Did my adversary’s choice to lie about the case and hold back the evidence until the end make him the better lawyer? That lawyer now holds a permanent spot on my “untrustworthy” list where he’ll stay long after we both forget the two clients we represented that day.
When that moment passes I ‘m grateful that I provided my client and his family a chance for healing, dignity and respect. I dream of difficult conversations at the mediation that would have allowed for problem solving without venomous affidavits and court intervention. I pray for the family involved and for my young opposing counsel who may not see the toll such situations leave on the world, on a family and on his own soul over time.
And I ask, who “won?”