Category Archives: Family Law

FEED MY SHEEP: A Pandemic Tale

Being in quarantine is difficult for everyone, but it’s particularly difficult when you are a family lawyer doing it alone. You have nobody to decompress with or hug after long hours of working on stressful cases on a computer. If you decide to go off of social media because of the tone of the rhetoric there, and you don’t have cable tv, there is even more isolation.  Days are spent triaging highly anxious family law clients and nights are spent asking yourself weighty questions.

You read an article that says you will discover who your friends really are by the ones who reach out to say “are you ok?” and realize that while you think you have many friendships, if that is the criteria, only maybe one or two of those friendships are very deep. You rarely or don’t ever hear from “friends” and maybe only one asks if you are ok.  It seems like you are the one checking in on people but other than your children nobody is checking in on you.

Most of the people that are calling you want something. Your legal expertise, your help in filing for unemployment, your take on how they can survive the pandemic, your interpretation of a custody order in light of social distancing. All the people you’ve helped, guided, loved on and taken care of over the years are preoccupied.  They assume you are strong and must be ok.  Some who you reach out to texting “I hope you are safe and doing well” don’t even take time to respond.  You remember what you’ve done to help those people over the years and wonder what it is that made them so detached they couldn’t even take a quick moment to send back a thumbs-up emoticon.

At night with a dog sleeping at your feet and the “pink moon” glaring through the window you start asking yourself big questions.

What has my life been about up until now?

  If I catch the virus and die, what is my legacy? (After all, at age 62 I am in the “endangered species” category.)

 Who and what did I let drive my life in ways that were not, in retrospect, beneficial and may have even de-railed me?

 What did I miss along the way?

 IF I live through this how will I show up differently post-pandemic?

I started seeing a terrific new therapist before the virus hit, because I was so miserable in the practice of law. He helped me see that I’d been suffering for many, many years and for the first time (because he was a former attorney himself) someone “got” the suffering I’d been feeling for years.  We began to dissect it with the intention of figuring out what I would do with my “last act” of life and how, and if, the law would a part of it.

But then the pandemic hit.

Suddenly I am faced with having this weighty reflection front and center as I navigate 10 hour days of client matters every day while trying to pay attention to what is going on with the virus, whether I have to Clorox my groceries, and whether my 84 year old mother and 60 year old brother with advanced MS are safe in their homes. What was previously a stressful job now has become even more mentally taxing.  But what I know from previous life devastation is I have to somehow navigate staying present and awake for all there is to learn.

As I ponder the “suffering in the law” question amidst all of this, I’ve come to a clear realization. It isn’t the clients, even the most demanding ones, who cause the suffering.  They are actually the bright spot.  It’s the other lawyers. It’s the value system of the practice of law. It’s the idea that more money is made by lawyers the more parties are fighting and litigating.  It’s that it’s all about winning, including thinking it’s a big victory to take a child away from a parent or to get a vocational expert to say a lifetime stay at home parent should all of a sudden be making $50,000 and therefore minimizing the amount the other parent has to pay to support their children.  It’s mentally stressful hearing sad stories in a system of deadlines and rules of engagement that make people’s life traumas the source of ego gratifying wins and competitive gamesmanship. The idea of family justice seems so bizarre and illogical.

I’ve loved my clients and loved on them for over 35 years. I’ve sat with them for hours hearing their hearts, encouraging them to find their highest selves, helping them find new footing in the new normal of their lives during and after legal interventions. I’ve had many profound experiences sitting side by side with people who were bleeding emotionally and watching their lives fall apart. As I was helping them, my clients were my own spiritual guides as I found new pieces of myself in them, and new understanding of suffering and transformation.  I’ve sometimes floated home from the office whispering to myself about what a privilege and honor it is to do such important work for my clients.

But back to the suffering as a lawyer. After confiding  to mentors and confidantes I was encouraged by one mentor about 7 years ago to write about it, and to start sharing the message of change in my profession. This is where my path might have gotten off course (but as is always the case, that diversion brought me back home).  I proceeded to spend years writing and imploring lawyers to reclaim the beauty of our profession as a healing profession. I wrote “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014. I’ve been on the speaking circuit explaining to lawyers that they needed to do things differently. I’ve spoken with passion and a sense of urgency.

Most who have heard me figuratively patted me on the head and said, “Good little Kimmy.”  They’ve dismissed my message and just keep doing things the same way. Why would they change? It’s a good gig, even if studies show a large number of lawyers feel their line of work has adversely impacted their mental health. Plus, any sense of changing to be more collaborative, loving, compassionate and kind is largely viewed as a sense of weakness, frailty, not being a “real” lawyer. And it’s no secret you end up billing fewer hours for cooperation than for combat.

I’ve given speeches at the law schools imploring faculty to offer coursework on topics like collaboration and emotional intelligence  and to place emphasis on being a “whole person” above emphasis on things like class rank. That message has gone over with a thud. Those subjects aren’t on the bar exam after all and bar passage rate is one of the components of measurement by US News and World Reports.  Yes, legal education hasn’t changed in decades and now it is held hostage by a magazine that nobody reads.  So lawyers are continually turned out in the same competitive paradigm that is part of the dysfunction of the profession.  Some studies show that incoming law students change their whole world view. When they enter law school most do so to “help people.” During the three years, law students change their goals to wanting to be the exemplar student,  to complete law school with a high class ranking to ensure a shoe-in at a lucrative job in “Big Law” and to make a name for themselves.

At night with shutters open in the light of the beautiful pink moon, laying in my bed during the quarantine, I put my hands over my heart and comfort my wounded self. What in the world were you thinking when you took on this crusade?  What in the world made you think that you could be the champion of change?  And what now?

Trying to mentor young lawyers to practice in a new way, by approaching and recruiting those who I thought could share the vision, only added more suffering.  I realize that while I thought they shared my dream and mission, for most of them, that wasn’t it at all.  It was instead that my dream and passion for the cause was contagious to them. I got them excited because I was so excited. They weren’t really excited on their own.  When the money starts coming the vision gets lost because the old way is a good gig.  Frustration, heartache, kicking myself for the time invested, the giving, giving, giving of myself to those I thought would help multiply the change. Suffering from those fractured relationships in the law that hurt worse than other personal and family heartaches.

Also, in that pink moon a ray of light through the clouds illuminated another pandemic induced realization. In my crusade I’d lost something.  The connection with my clients. Yes, it’s always there to a degree but the “mission” became paramount to the delicacy of the client’s hearts. My own mind and heart have been split in two these past years.  I’m still “feeling with” the clients but doing so while a big part of my heart has been dedicated to my agenda of legal reform. The “movement”  has permeated a big part of my body, mind and spirit that only have finite resources.  The personal satisfaction of the  legal reform mission is much less gratifying than the profound joy the work with the clients  in the trenches has given me.  If anything, “the mission” has fed my ego and made me more driven to be “seen and heard” and stolen a big chunk of my humility, stillness and center.  And then last night, a bold ray of moonlight pierced through the clouds with such brightness it was startling, and a bible verse came to the forefront.  “Feed my sheep.”

“Feed my sheep” is what Jesus said to the disciples when they were trying to convince him how much they loved him, and he was telling them how to prove it.  (John 21:15-17) That verse, at that moment, answered one of my big questions.

How will I show up in the world post pandemic?

Before the onset, I had been focused on a legacy of being an instrument of change in the legal profession.  While I know I have been making a difference in the lives of my clients, I’ve thought that individual impact was “too small” of a mission. I remember a friend who had a business with an important message, and she shared that she’d been convinced she would “reach millions.” Somehow that went into my subconscious and I thought of all the good that could be done in the world by lawyers, sitting with the most vulnerable in our society, if my message of compassion in the law would reach millions.  A few sheep surely weren’t the same caliber of importance.

Laying alone in the middle of a pandemic brings clarity about how inconsequential you are in the scheme of things at the end of the day.  And yet there it was; “Feed my sheep.”

I go to the dog park this morning shortly after sunrise like I do every pandemic day. As usual, nobody is there that early but my dog and me, and this morning I’m thinking about “feed my sheep” and asking for more clarity of what it means.

As I pull into the parking lot, NPR is interviewing Andrea Bocelli who will sing day after tomorrow at a cathedral in Milan, where there will be no audience. He says that having no audience is beautiful because to him it is not a concert, it is a prayer.  The interviewer asks his wife if it will seem odd that he won’t be in front of a packed house and she says no. She tells of how at times, on Sundays, he does church with a few people who are very sick or dying. There may be only five people bedridden and Andrea Bocelli sings just for them. She tells that it is beautiful because they all view his singing as a prayer offering for the healing of the few people that are there.

I start to sob as he proceeds to sing Ave Maria, alone in my car in full pandemic loneliness as his music feeds me, and my dog licks the tears as they come down my cheeks.

I’ve realized that each intervention with each client I meet makes a monumental impact. It’s not just me impacting them, but them impacting me. Meeting someone on the path of suffering and helping them navigate that part of their journey, is the highest calling I have on my life.

There are politicians and special interest groups clamoring for healthcare reform, change in our government, big systemic changes like I was preaching. And those things are worthy, and necessary.   Yet there is also a nurse sitting with  one person dying of the virus who can’t be near family and would be alone without that one nurse.  That moment is a crucial transformative moment for both of them.  Calling someone in quarantine to check on them when they are suffering is a huge transformative moment for both people.  Sending a thumbs up emoticon during a pandemic to someone who is reaching out to ask how you are, can trigger a transformative reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has dropped bombs on the law. Big Law is disintegrating before our eyes, with associates and staff being downsized all across the country. Lawyers who are client centric are surviving (and dare I say, thriving) during the transition and other firms of  billing machines are panicking.  Law schools have had to scramble to move to online instruction and now discussion of pass/fail grading, doing away with bar exams and equipping lawyers to be more client centric are part of the zoom discussion.

What will be left standing?

Of course, there is a part of me that wants to roll out my publications and say, “I told you so” and reinvigorate the crusade. This time in my mind’s eye I’m carrying a flag out front of the pack leading through the rubble of singed yellow legal pads on the ground to higher ground.  But what I know now, is if I do that, I will be lost again.  And my current round of suffering will be for naught.  You see, the practice of law has been dysfunctional for years and apparently, I wasn’t the only one who noticed it.  The change is taking care of itself through the path of COVID 19, which lawyers would call force majeure or “act of God.”  It’s not just the law that will change dramatically after this extraordinary phase of life.  It’s most every business, system, government.

But what about us as individuals? Will we change? And how will we show up post-pandemic?

For me, never again will I minimize a small word of encouragement, a hug with a suffering person, sharing the heart stories and sitting beside (or across the screen from) a client while we navigate their life through change. It may be a change caused by a legal intervention or, as happened this week,  a pandemic that makes them realize they want to learn skills to better communicate with their co-parent. Either way, I’ll be paying rapt attention to what is happening with the people I will serve.

I will go forward and embrace my new role, which is the role that I’ve had all along but took for granted.  But first, I’ll be watching the Andrea Bocelli Easter concert live streamed. And I’ll cry tears that contain many profound emotions while he sings as I sit alone in quarantine on Easter Sunday. Through his concert that’s really a prayer, I’ll proclaim once and for all that I am enough, if I simply choose to be the change I want to see in the law.

shallow focus photography of white sheep on green grass

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

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Finishing Well

I was asked to contribute a lesson for the book “50 Lessons for Women Lawyers-From Women Lawyers,” by Nora Riva Bergman, which is available soon on Amazon.  Here is my contribution:

In a few  months I’ll be 62 years old. Actress Jane Fonda recently announced she is in her “last act” and although I hopefully have many more years of life, the finish line in my life as a lawyer is more clearly in view.

I want to chart an intentional path for my last act, living mindfully and finishing strong. As I begin the process, I’m struck with paralysis. Where do I want to go? A good starting point might be to reflect on where I’ve been.

I was the youngest in my law school class of 1981, graduating at age 23 and entering full time law practice at age 24.  I’ve had many legal jobs: in-house counsel, associate at firms of varying sizes, solo practitioner and even senior partner at small law firms I’ve formed.  I’d gone to law school to “help people.”  I was a kind and compassionate problem solver, a good listener, and a lover of people from the time I was a little girl.

I launched from law school in one of the early waves of females deployed into the profession. Our role was clear; act like a man.  After all we’d been told that we were taking a spot rightfully belonging to a man with a family to support.

“Mr. Durant died right here at his desk,” I was told by an associate at my first law firm job as he pointed to an office with an empty desk. It was as though Mr. Durant was a warrior who died in battle saving the world.  I got the message.

I dove in as the only female in the firm’s litigation section, charting my course as a workaholic, billing hours like a trooper. I silenced my inner voice and went full speed ahead, learning to be tough. Law school and the lawyers mentoring me convinced me that compassion was a weakness and aggression was a strength.

In my private life I paired with a man also constrained by his job, traveling for business  five days a week. We married and had three children. What was wrong with me? I loved my babies but I was obsessed with being a lawyer.  I heard a new term called “work-life balance” so  I joined the part time work committee of the local bar association. The all -female committee soon disbanded with the summary finding that for women lawyers,”part time” meant shoving all your full -time work into fewer hours and getting paid less.

I navigated as best I could with no women mentors to guide me.  I’d race to little league baseball games, editing documents in the stands while waiting for my son to bat so I could wave and give a thumb’s up, and then race back to the office. I tried to be nurturing but I never took off my lawyer hat, often telling my children to “toughen up” instead of acquiescing to the sorrow of childhood bumps and bruises.   Nannies were enlisted to help assuage working mother guilt. I’d try to mother my children when I came home exhausted from the office.

My marriage began to deteriorate so I stopped practicing law and tried staying home. I was an outcast among the other mothers.  Their conversations were boring and their obsession with their children seemed unhealthy to me. I prepared spreadsheets for class cupcake volunteers and felt incompetent in my new role. I became depressed and like an addict who needed a fix, I yearned for the office.

At the same time, my lawyer father became ill at age 65 and came into my home for hospice care as he was dying. Towards the end he would hallucinate often saying he saw dead lawyer colleagues in the room.  I wondered why the lawyers would show up to him instead of cosmic visits from loving relatives or his golfing buddies.

My father died and I was divorced. Even though I wasn’t working I was “imputed” with the income of a lawyer in the divorce. After all wasn’t that who I was? I had to recreate myself and start making money quickly and the most logical step was to reclaim my lawyer-self.  When I went back to inhabit her skin, I noticed she was different. She was weary, having sustained a whirlwind of life, tragedy, and brokenness.

I set up a law practice focusing on family law and mediation. I’d experienced devastation similar to what my clients were facing. I encouraged clients to find healing, forgiveness and compassion and decided to claim those things for myself.  I still fought for client’s rights and equity, but I did it with dignity, calmness and compassion for all.

I felt more authentic as a person and a lawyer. I began to write. I transported my brother diagnosed at that time with cancer to his chemotherapy appointments. I watched the IV drip, drip, drip of the drug infusing him with life. The writing did the same for me. Each moment in the chair typing was life-giving, healing, rebuilding, and renewing myself.

I wrote and self-published “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014 and started speaking to lawyers about compassion in the practice. I mentored several lawyers and helped three women lawyers start their own firms.  I encouraged lawyers to be compassionate problem solvers and for women lawyers to realize we should celebrate our unique gifts and skills as women.

I continue to practice, write and teach about what I’ve discovered.  Earlier this week I saw a woman lawyer in her first few months of practice aggressively tell off a male lawyer on the phone and then hang up only to burst into tears. ”I’m such a wimp for crying!” she declared.

I told her that being tough and aggressive is uncomfortable for many women. We can do it, probably even more biting than men, but is it really who we are? The crying was undoubtedly from the adrenaline but it was also a warning sign of living outside her authenticity. It hurt to watch her minimize her body’s warning and I tried to tell her so, encouraging her to use compassion and dignity instead.   I’m guessing it fell on deaf ears as it would have to me at her age when I ‘d set out to “make my mark” as a lawyer. But at least she is getting a message I was never told.

In my last act, I see a woman enjoying life, available to her three children for long talks instead of saying “I’ll call you after this meeting.”  She is a compassionate, kind person to all she encounters. She practices law in an authentic way that is uniquely hers, until she decides it’s time to stop. That woman will die as far away from her desk as she can get.

From the moment she walked into the doors of law school her identity as “woman” and “lawyer” were permanently fused together. She’s learned many lessons as a woman lawyer. She will claim her journey without regret but with gratitude for the wisdom she’s gained.  And most importantly, she’ll  live out her last act with compassion for herself.

 

 

 

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When We Go High And They Go Low: What Happens To A Family?

ch-6-dove-and-serpant “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?”

 

 

 

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A Divorce Lawyer’s Caution to Stay at Home Parents

Super Hero Mom

After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”

No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).

I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”

To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:

  1. Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
  1. Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
  1. Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention.  Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
  1. Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
  1. Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
  2. Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay  at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
  3. Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
  4. If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law.  If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner.  Consult with a family lawyer  to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.

Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.

 

 

Catching the Emotional Virus

depression-is-contagious

“Peace begins with a smile.”-Mother Teresa

I believe that each of us navigates life with an ever-present stream of malaise that runs inside of us. Sometimes it’s a low trickle, and other times it rushes as a result of life’s storms that fill it to capacity.

I’m working hard to navigate internal rushing waters at the Phoenix airport, returning to Iowa after a week long Arizona visit. I’m leaving behind in Scottsdale my three children and best girlfriend and her husband. My children’s father is here as well, and we’ve spent the past week as an emotionally healthy post divorce family having some quality time together, reminiscing about a past that was simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Our time has included the seriousness of my former husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease that is ravaging his body.

My gate to Des Moines is full of sleepy passengers, some eating gross burritos and thick crust pizza from the food stands near our gate, even though it’s only 8AM. Most are tired, flat affects, biding time before being smushed into a small plane with luggage and their souvenir cactus in a box.

I decide to grab a nonfat chai latte but Starbucks is too far of a hike, so I find my place in the reasonably short line at a nondescript coffee kiosk. I let out a deep sigh as the wellspring of emotions continues to bubble up.

I look ahead  in line to see which coffee cashier will serve me, and am immediately drawn energetically to “left cashier.” A 40-something striking African American woman with a big beautiful smile and bright eyes, she beams with light greeting each weary traveler with a vibrant “Good morning!” and pleasant small talk while making direct eye contact. “Right cashier”on the other side of the kiosk has a low grade smile and is not nearly as exuberant.

I try to jockey into position so I can end up with left cashier. I want to suck in her emotional state because I feel immediate internal calming just from studying her from my place in line.

This phenomenon of reacting to another’s emotion has been proven scientifically. It’s “emotional contagion” and studies at Yale and elsewhere confirm that every encounter we have produces an invisible impact of emotions that transmit between us. Our emotions have the power to nourish others or produce toxicity.

It’s thanks to our brain mechanisms including the amygdala and the basal areas of the brain stem that regulate reflex and automatic response. Once the physiology kicks in the path is open for the emotions to flow. My low energy crowd at the gate was bringing me down and left cashier’s glow zapped my brain into receiving a whole different emotional path.

Studies in emotional contagion prove that both good and bad feelings spread, although the research is mixed on which are more contaigous. Objective measures show those impacted by the virus of good emotions register higher in cooperation, fairness, collaboration and overall group performance. I have seen this in my work as a professional mediator, watching upbeat emotion and a positive outlook in the private meeting rooms result in more settlements.

We’ve all experienced the brain circuitry of emotional contagion; think about when someone smiles and we smile back without even thinking about it. When I train mediators, I assign the students to  make eye contact and smile at every person they encounter,  from the grocery clerk to their children and spouse,  after they leave our training day. Debriefing confirms the emotional contagion process is real, and the trainees are exhilarated by the exercise. Past trainees often tell me they still practice the exercise.

A New York study  confirms that emotions are highly contagious in our most emotionally laden relationship: marriage. Humans react most severely to negative emotions including pain, sadness, and fear. Thus, one spouse’s depression is likely to trigger a similar depression in the other spouse. This begs the question of whether a spouse who sets an intention to consistently exude positivity can counteract one who’s consistently sad.

Some of us are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others, and a good indicator is how much your mood changes when you are around strong emotion.  I identify as a happy, optimistic person but also I am an empath. Empaths are people who are hyper-sensitively tuned in to others’ emotions such that we sometimes take them in without even realizing it, often causing strong emotional swings. I’ve learned to be vigilant putting up a mental shield to negative emotions, which can be difficult in my work as a family lawyer and mediator. I also try to consistently emote positive, healthy emotions to supercharge the atmosphere around hurting clients. If I am not rested or I’m “hangry” (that ugly state of being hungry, low blood sugar and grouchy) I easily take in the low energy emotions of those around me.

Despite my attempted maneuvering, I end up in right cashier’s line. I make direct eye contact and smile: “Hi, I’m Kim how are you today?” and she smiles back saying she is doing well. I find out she is Michelle and we have a light hearted smiling exchange as she rings me up, making direct eye contact, and tells me to have a wonderful safe journey. I’m hopeful that the virus now permeates the entire coffee kiosk line and maybe even the whole airport. I sip my warm latte, noticing the malaise river is back within it’s shores. I pull my shoulders back triggering erect posture and walk purposefully to my gate. I board the plane to Iowa, off to do the work I know I am called to do.

If you are interested in coaching or mediation training contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

 

 

 

The Lawyer as Peacemaker

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
― Aristotle

9787f890e1d1f8abc8c09826b868568dInvested in the grievance stories magnified by their lawyers, family law clients often become repeat customers. Whether through initial actions, modifications or contempt proceedings, family law practice can be steady business for the lawyer, but often leaves festering wounds for the families we represent.

Hard fought family cases can also hurt family lawyers. Our suffering clients call us non stop, email us long diatribes, even show up at our office unannounced and agitated. Fueling the fire by delivering scathing interrogatories or through biting cross-examination can wear on an advocate’s mind, body and spirit.

In response, family lawyers are starting to expand their practices to focus on peacemaking. What makes a lawyer a peacemaker?

1. They practice law with connection and authenticity. Peacemakers don’t think it makes them less of a lawyer because they refuse to heap more hurt on hurting people, especially when children are involved. They genuinely care about the well being of their clients, their colleagues and themselves and believe that peaceful problem solving approaches are healthier for everyone.

2. They use proactive early intervention. Peacemakers recognize that the parties will still have to work together even after the legal intervention, so they set a tone of healing instead of aggression from the outset of a case. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or simply meeting with the other lawyer to discuss the case, peacemakers agree to customize a strategy that works for both clients. They look for ways to streamline the legal process instead of letting it be driven only by court deadlines.

3. They use an interdisciplinary approach to conflict. Family lawyers are expected to be lawyer, counselor, financial advisor, parenting coach, communication expert, real estate analyzer and retirement guru. Peacemakers recognize the best use of the lawyers’ time is for legal advice, drafting and interfacing with the judge. They involve specialists including therapists, child development experts, financial advisors, realtors, and social workers to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for the family. Adding these experts mean the family has a highly specialized team often providing lower overall cost for comprehensive decision making. Lawyers focus on what they do best, and minimize the stress of trying to solve all the client’s problems themselves.

4. They encourage clients to “do the right thing.” Peacemakers don’t consider it a “win” to have someone pay as little child support as possible, if it means children aren’t financially supported at the other parent’s house. They don’t automatically fight to minimize a healthy and loving parent’s time with their children, at the request of a heartbroken client. These lawyers use words like “healing” and “forgiveness” and may set up infrastructures to improve trust and teamwork between parents. They help clients write a new forward focused story of life transformation that identifies the client as the hero, not the victim of the story.

5. They model emotional intelligence. Active listening, compassion and empathy are key skills used by peacemaking lawyers. “Patience is the greatest attribute of a peacemaker,” says Dick Calkins, a longtime advocate of peacemaking law. These lawyers don’t thrive on depositions with blistering accusatory questions so their clients can see their lawyer hurt their partner. Instead, they work together respectfully and cooperatively, modeling behavior families will need in order to heal. That may include producing documents voluntarily upon request and using calm reasoned discussion instead of threats.

6. They take the long view and encourage clients to do the same. Author of the ABA bestselling book “Lawyers as Peacemakers” J. Kim Wright puts it this way: “The upheaval of divorce can be very emotional and uncomfortable. It is easy to succumb to the emotions of the moment and strike out, do some damage, hurt you because you hurt me. Reacting provides short-term satisfaction and guarantees long-term conflict.

Peacemaking focuses on the long view, aligning with long-term values and goals. What relationship do these parents want to have in five, ten, twenty years? Who goes to the first day of school? Who will celebrate the team championship with your daughter? Will you dance at your son’s wedding or boycott because your ex will be there? The long view isn’t easy, but it is the path that focuses on the well-being of your child, not the emotions of the moment.”

7. They are creative in their approach to conflict. Each case is viewed as a unique set of circumstances requiring a customized approach of creative problem solving. Lawyers are creative people, but in traditional practice they aren’t encouraged to “think outside the box.” Peacemakers unleash creative thinking without feeling intimidated in putting forth a unique idea that isn’t borrowed from the standard stipulation template.

Often, the biggest impediment for peacemaking lawyers is the other lawyer. If opposing counsel makes aggressive moves or promotes themes of “fight to win,” or “let’s let the judge decide,” it frustrates peacemaking opportunities. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean you sing kum-by-ah and get eaten alive in litigation. It means you see the peacemaking approach as a higher calling because it results in much healthier outcomes and is more satisfying to your clients and your own soul.

A baby lawyer fully trained in peacemaking skills recently told me, “I hope for the day when a client calls asking to destroy the other side in litigation and a lawyer says, “I’m sorry, I don’t engage in that type of law, it’s not healthy for families.”

And then, they call the next person on the list and that lawyer says, “I’m sorry I don’t engage in that type of law it’s not healthy for families.” And then each lawyer down the list says the same thing so that clients understand that peacemaking and healing families is what it means to be a family lawyer.”

I may not see that total shift in the practice of family law during my lifetime. But I truly believe he will.

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The Poetry of Practice- Guest Blog

John Hardy is a recent graduate of Drake University Law School, and he just finished taking the Iowa Bar Examination.  He is joining Stamatelos & Tollakson once admitted to the bar. This is his first blog, and we are honored to have a lawyer of his caliber in our firm. Welcome John!

 

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A lawyer is a poet. Language is the medium of the law, and word choice matters. It matters when legislators draft the law, it matters in front of a factfinder, and it matters when a lawyer is counseling a client. Legal writing has a tradition and history, just like poetry, with technical formal requirements and stylistic conventions. A good attorney, like a good poet, is a master of the language and knows what to say and what not to say. But linguistics are only part of the job. As with poetry, being an excellent attorney also requires a deep understanding of the human condition. A good lawyer has a focused mind and an open heart, and when the two work in tandem, the practice can be a work of art.

The Human Element

The human element is the intangible needs of the parties to a legal matter and other people who are affected by it. For the most part, clients call on a lawyer when their lives are in crisis, sometimes they may even be at their rock-bottom. In order to truly serve their clients, lawyers must recognize the emotional and relational needs of their client, which means they must look beyond the facts and the law. Clients may be unable to wholly engage in the process or articulate their ultimate goals until they believe that their lawyer has invested the time and attention required to know who they are, what they’re dealing with, and, sometimes, how they are feeling. The best lawyers know that some fights are not worth fighting, even if they are winnable. A client may prefer to move on with their life and save their money.

Nuts and Bolts

It goes without saying that a successful attorney will cross every “t.” If a statute of limitations runs or the attorney fails to preserve an error, it will be of little solace that the attorney is a good listener. The primary function of the attorney is often to serve as the voice of the client within the system. In this role, attorneys’ primary function is to know the law and play by the rules on behalf of their clients. When people need a professional shoulder to cry on, they hire a therapist, not a lawyer. Of course, the lawyer may end up wearing both hats, but there is no substitute for diligent attention to the legal details. If the lawyer is an architect, designing solutions for the client, the legal nuts and bolts are the bedrock and foundation. Empathy is the interior design. If the house collapses, instantly the color scheme does not matter. Solid legal work sets the table for the client to thrive in the future.

The Poetry of Practice

The work of the best lawyers combines diligent legal work with a genuine concern for the well-being of the client. Here, everyone’s needs are met. Even the best lawyers with the best arguments can lose a case, or fall short of their client’s desired outcome. In a poetic practice, a skillful lawyer weaves together high-quality legal work, attention to the human element of the matter, and the lawyer’s own personal touch. Different attorneys can have vastly different life experiences, and their undergraduate studies can cover the spectrum from history and politics to music, art, and religion. Good lawyers draw upon their whole life experience to relate with the client as a human, and provide customized legal services to their client with wisdom.

Clients may come to the initial consultation thinking that they want to take the other party to the cleaners. The best lawyers will dig around underneath that to find out if the client understands the implications of that position, including the budget, and whether the client really wants that. Clients may have been coached by friends, family members, or anyone else, and they may have lost sight of what they really want. In a divorce with kids, for example, they may believe they want the house and six nights a week with the kids. But, in reality, maybe the mortgage payment is not affordable once the client is flying solo, and the spouse is a great parent. Maybe the client truly wants the kids to have a great relationship with both parents, and it isn’t worth fighting to reduce the spouse’s time.

Good lawyers can draw from their own experience, both as an individual and as an attorney who has been down the road before with other clients. Good lawyers can help a client to zoom out and take a holistic view of their situation and their family. Maybe the health and well-being of their children depends on having good access to both parents. And maybe there is enough money to go around and set up both parties for success, post-divorce. And maybe the long-term well-being of the children depends on seeing their parents setting a good example of mature, compassionate conflict resolution that the children can follow as they grow up.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent presentation to the Compassionate Lawyer Society at Drake University Law School by District Associate Judge Colin Witt. He opened with the reading of a poem: The House by the Side of the Road by Sam Walter Foss. The poem itself was the touchstone for concepts within his presentation, but also the choice to open with a poem, at all, served as a meaningful glimpse into who Judge Witt is, as a person. He emphasized the importance of focusing on human element in his role on the bench. This can serve as a reminder to the practicing attorney that providing excellent service to the client requires a keen understanding of the human condition. This, in turn, requires intentional and zealous self-care, so that the attorney is well-rested, healthy, and available to fully commit to listening to the client and advising and advocating for the client with integrity.

I Still Choose Happiness

1090786_52658058Here is my very first blog post, written in 2012.  Today it is more true than ever.

If you ask my three young adult children to summarize my motherly advice they would give you three words: “make good choices.” I could have easily dispensed other advice.“Don’t do drugs,” “Study hard,” “Eat your vegetables.” Instead, I concluded “make good choices” covered everything, and I made it my constant theme throughout their lives.

As they grew up, there were many opportunities to discuss choices with my two daughters and my son. There were also many opportunities to admit my own choices, good and bad, as I lived out the consequences of those choices right in front of their eyes.

The most important advice I can give to those involved with divorce is similar but more succinct: choose happiness.

I was divorced from my children’s father after 18 years of marriage. I entered into a second marriage but due to a series of devastating events, after only two years that second marriage also ended in divorce. I was so grief stricken that I could barely function. There were days I just chose to stay in bed. During that time, a friend called. “When your divorce is over, you’re going to SOAR,” she said to me.

SOAR? I was barely upright. But something in her words resonated. I WANTED to soar. I wanted to heal. Most importantly I wanted to be happy.

Through my own healing journey, and watching the thousands of people I have worked with in court and mediation, I have concluded that instead of being a victim, focusing on the sadness, and anger, You must CHOOSE happiness.

Even though I was laden with grief, I started to look up. I focused on the birds flying, flapping their wings over the lake near my home. Often there was only one bird in the sky all by itself, and I jokingly called it my spirit guide. I set my sights on soaring in happiness and used the birds as my guides.

My counselor told me “fake it till you make it.” I began to smile, laugh, speak positively about life. I took up salsa dancing. I was still in deep grief, shock even, that I was divorced. Yet I approached others with a positive, happy attitude. Consistently, I decided to choose happiness, to watch the birds, and to open my heart to life.

In his book The Untethered Soul, author Michael A. Singer says the key to staying happy is to understand your inner energies. “If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside you. When you aren’t happy your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So to stay happy, just don’t close your heart. No matter what happens, even if your wife leaves you or your husband dies, you don’t close.”

I once mediated a case where a father fled the United States after he divorced his children’s mother, leaving her unemployed, with four children to raise and $17 in the bank. He was gone 14 years. The mother told me that she had literally lain crying on the floor for days while her young children watched her. Suddenly it dawned on her that she had a choice. She could choose to be a victim, or she could choose happiness. She picked herself up off the floor, went out and got a job, took classes to refresh her teaching credential and ultimately became a teacher during the day and a sales clerk after hours. It was painstaking and slow, but she rebuilt her life.

The mediation was for the father’s failure to pay child support while he was out of the country. At one point in the mediation the two parties and I met together without lawyers in the room and the husband asked the wife “How did you manage after I left?” The wife told him, “I chose to be happy.” The wife looked at peace, very attractive and calm. She also said that as a result of choosing happiness, she was able to find forgiveness for her husband. Conversely, the husband who ran from his life circumstances was suffering with various physical maladies, looked older than his biological age and spoke from a place of regret and sadness.

Her success because of her choice is not isolated. Recently I received a call from another former client. When we spoke, she was teary and confided that since I’d seen her, her second marriage had collapsed after her second husband admitted an affair with a coworker. She was devastated.

“I know you are hurting, but I promise you, if you choose happiness, you will SOAR,” I told her.

Some months after our conversation, I received a letter from the woman. It read, in part:

Dear Kim,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. As crazy as it sounds, our phone conversation changed my life in an instant. I was in a pretty dark hole and trying to deal with pain, unanswered questions and figuring out how to raise my kids when I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. You said some key things to me. The first was that I would experience great happiness and great joy like I had never felt. I made a decision that if I was going to feel those things, why wouldn’t I open my heart now instead of waiting until I healed, which might not happen if I didn’t move it forward. It was an instant mind shift on my part. I have such inner peace and calm. I see my kids and my friends in a whole new light. I take it all in. I am not living to please my husband. The more I gave, the more he took. It wasn’t pretty for anyone. I am living purposely. And I’m laughing….a lot!

The formula is not as difficult as it seems. According to Singer, “You have to stay conscious, centered and committed at all times. You will have to stay one- pointed on your commitment to remain open and receptive to life. But nobody said that you can’t do this.”

And, as my counselor said, “fake it till you make it.”

What does Singer describe as proof the process is working? “ If you remain open enough, waves of uplifting energy will fill your heart.”

Eight years post divorce, my children tease me about my affinity for watching birds, particularly when there is one that seems to be the only one in the sky for miles. “There’s mom’s spirit guide,” they laugh. To this day a lone bird in the sky symbolizes a choice I made at my lowest point: I chose to soar.

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Hope, With a Smile

IMG_0684When I passed the bar exam in 1982, I became the second practicing lawyer in my family. My father, a 1958 graduate of Drake University Law School was the first, and he taught me how to be a lawyer. In 1987 I took my first training as a mediator.   I trained my father and other seasoned attorneys in the process, feeling haughty that I taught dad a new skill.

Fourteen years after Dad’s death,  it is abundantly clear that Dad taught ME how to mediate.

My father grew up in a part of the city of West Des Moines, (known previously as Valley Junction,) where everyone knew him as “Danny.” He had a small law office in a remodeled house, and  as a young girl I would earn money answering the phone and noticing all of the interesting people who came to see Dad.  His clients were all colors, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds and they included flamboyant “nightclub people” who were in the crowd around his parent’s bar and steak house. Several spoke broken English. Dad once told me one of the things he loved about being a lawyer was that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door.” Whoever walked in got to see Danny, always with a smile on his face, and they never felt rushed to leave or like the billable hour clock was ticking loudly. As they passed my receptionist’s desk people always left the office with a lighter step than when they had come in.

When I was a little girl, Dad  served as “justice of the peace” performing marriages.  People would come to be married at our family home  and my two brothers and I would watch the wedding from the top of the stairs. I now see that many of the people who came to be married were unconventional couples for the times; interracial couples, hugely pregnant women, people who were obviously poor, people who were stressed and unhappy at the occasion. My father smiled and treated them all with respect and he let my brothers and me throw rice as the couple drove out our curving driveway.

Dad’s friends were the bankers, the insurance men, doctors, and other lawyers, but it didn’t matter if he was talking to a businessman in a starched shirt or a worker with dirt and grime on his clothes, he treated every person the same. He gave them respect, listened, joked with them, and of course flashed them that ever present smile. My dad was the first person people went to when there was any trouble not just legal trouble. Be it their house, their finances, their spouse, their children or their state of mind, people knew they could count on Danny to help.  Whether it was calling his friend the banker to see about a loan for them, sending them to his doctor friend to for a physical, even paying their utility bill out of his own pocket if their lights were shut off, my dad gave them each something that they lacked before they talked to him: hope.

Often on Sundays after we worshiped at the Greek Orthodox church, Dad would take us to the nursing home to visit the elderly Greeks and old Valley Junction folks, to say hello and let them know they were being remembered. I mostly hated those visits because I was a kid and I wanted to be doing something else. But I was stuck going, so I watched my dad interact with the people during our visit, sometimes listening to the same story week after week. I watched how tender he was with them, having all the time in the world to hear them, letting them know they mattered, and administering that same medicine to everyone: hope with a smile.

Dad always looked professional. Every day my mother laid out a suit, shirt and tie for him to wear. He always looked like a stylish Perry Mason. When people came to his office they saw a man who looked like he had wisdom and authority. He made you feel better just sitting across the desk from him. He looked like a lawyer should look.

My father did lots of free or reduced fee legal work. In addition to working through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Program, he helped people have access to justice through his office. When he died we found many clients on the books with hundreds of dollars of bills that they were paying off at $25 per month. I never saw my dad turn a client away.

Dad wasn’t perfect but he also handled his imperfections with class. An active member of gambler’s anonymous, he donated time to assist fellow gamblers with their recovery. He told his own story without shame, knowing that his testimony would help others who suffered with the addiction. Showing them that a smart successful lawyer faced his struggles head on, set an example for others to find their own courage.

When I first introduced my dad to the concept of mediation he said “This is how we resolved cases in the old days. The other lawyer and I would sit down and drink a scotch and when we were done talking the case would be settled. And we always kept our word.” I snickered wondering how he could have such a lack of insight. In mediation you had to ask certain questions, do risk analysis with the parties, employ skillful negotiation strategies. You had to write out a full mediation agreement. What did he know?

Turns out he knew a lot. After mediating for 29 years I have come full circle. I can’t tell you the last time I asked the magical five questions, did “the two number technique” or employed any particular mediation trickery. The most important thing  I do now is meet people with a smile on my face. I try to listen attentively to them as though we have all the time in the world. I empathize with them and give respect no matter  who they are or what I hear. I don’t worry about whether the case settles or not, or if I can claim a sterling settlement record. I act as a problem solver, exploring ideas to help resolve matters and providing options to the parties and their attorneys.

I sometimes have to translate legal ease to the clients when their own attorneys miss the fact that the client is too stressed to follow big words.  I help parties dig deep to find their highest selves and come up with an agreement that works for them. I don’t coerce them to sign something in the pressure of the moment.Inspired by Dad’s vulnerability in sharing his own story, when appropriate  I  share my own life experiences to let the people in mediation know they are not alone in navigating life’s struggles.

No matter what, as a mediator, I try to remember what every good lawyer knows. Hurting people look to us for help. In addition to our legal knowledge we can dispense respect, wisdom, empathy, and courage. And most importantly, the medicine developed by Danny.  Hope, with a smile.

The Four Types of Love in Family Law

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In May of 2014, I had the honor of being invited to a symposium sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, a private operating foundation established in 1962 by John Fetzer. The Institute’s mission is to “foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community.” The conference was called “Divorce: What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

 For three days I worked with collaborative law colleagues from all over the world, exploring love, forgiveness and compassion in our work. Are these concepts appropriate for lawyers to even mention? Do they have a place in our discussions with clients? These issues and others were discussed throughout the conference.

 This blog contains my realizations about love in family law, as a result of the issues we discussed at the conference. 

The word “love” is attached to emotions, experiences, memories and misunderstandings that often cause disputes leading parties to seek out a family law professional. Because of this complexity, the definition of “love” may polarize those seeking to determine the role it plays in family law.

Grateful for my heritage, I find clarity in the Greek language, which offers four different words translated as “love,” each with distinct nuances in their definitions. In my thirty plus years as a family lawyer and mediator, I have seen all four dimensions of love play out in my work.

Eros” is the source of the word “erotic,” and it describes love that is passionate, highly emotional and often electric. Eros is based on self-satisfaction and pleasure and has an intensity that is fueled by one’s attraction to another. It is usually accompanied by sexual connection and scientists describe complex body chemistry affixed to erotic love.

Most relationships have eros at the outset, but in time it usually diminishes or becomes intermittent, leaving parties craving its return. “Why can’t we get that feeling back?” couples may ask bemoaning the fleeting nature of eros and reporting they are no longer “in love,” or have “fallen out of love,” with their partner as a result of its departure. When eros doesn’t return or it shifts to a different type of love, parties may want to sever relationships through family law interventions.

Sometimes a party has entered into a relationship with someone new, thus rediscovering eros, and they come to the family law conference rooms to move out of one relationship into another. Their current partner may be grieving, feeling betrayed and shattered, and the family law practitioner helps both parties make clear headed decisions while navigating their respective intense emotions.

“Storge” is a love based on the natural affection one has for husband, wife, child, or even a pet. Storge is built as family members are “doing life together.” It feels secure and comfortable and stems from receiving unconditional acceptance by family members, despite one’s defects and flaws.

In family law, storge has to be shuffled and realigned, as legal actions divide households. Most parents aren’t able to see their children as often as they’d like, sometimes causing them to fear loneliness and rejection. Finances are redistributed, often resulting in a shortage of money after considering all factors.

“Will the children reject me if I can’t provide for them as elaborately as the other parent, after this divorce?”

This fear of the shifting of storge can cause anxiety and a resultant recalcitrance in positions at the family law negotiation table. Skilled family law practitioners craft creative parenting arrangements and design financial realignment that sustains family security. Once the plans are in place, family members may be reassured and confident to move forward.

“Phileo” is a love grounded in affection or fondness and is the type of love one has in friendships. It is a “brotherly love” that often grows over time, and involves giving as well as receiving.

“We have become more like roommates,” is a common phrase from parties seeking to end their legal relationships, reporting that phileo is now prevalent. Couples who have lived in friendly phileo relationships report long stretches without physical connection, and they are rarely high conflict when they enter the family law environment. These clients often work productively through a mediator, or together in the same room in a collaborative divorce, moving smoothly out of marriages seeking “something more.”

Friends of couples transitioning out of relationships under any of these scenarios can have a great influence as a result of their phileo love. Research shows that the most common person approached for advice when a marriage is in trouble is a female friend, followed by a family member, then a male friend, then a coworker. [1] Accompany their friend to a legal consultation or mediation session these friends offering phileo can impact the outcome of a family law case through their “loving” advice and must be managed by the family law practitioner.

While navigating all of these complex dimensions of love, compassionate family law professionals are able to demonstrate the most noble type of love. “Agape” flows from our passion for the well being of others, which is often the reason we have given our lives to the practice of family law. Agape is fueled by our strong desire to recognize those who are suffering and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering through our skills and gifts in family law processes such as mediation and collaborative divorce.

Agape is not based on merit, circumstances, fault, or actions. It is dispensed to innocent victims in the stories we hear with the same intensity it is given to the unlovable, unkind, unresponsive, or seemingly unworthy. Through the healing balm of agape love, we unconditionally invite all who are involved in family law matters to find their highest selves at a time when they are wounded, confused, scared and broken.

Agape love guides practitioners to see the parties, the families, the friends, the lawyers, the therapists and all who are involved in the legal intervention as fellow human beings connected together on the journey of life, despite their stories or circumstances. Deep listening, empathy, compassion, minimizing blame, encouraging collaboration and introducing forgiveness, are the ways family law practitioners exude agape. Some of us may even mindfully present ourselves as vessels through which God’s own agape love can flow.

What does love have to do with family law? Love has everything to do with family law. By operating through love and recognizing it’s complexity, family law professionals delight in the joy and satisfaction of our work. We are able to connect with our fellow human beings in a way that leaves an indelible mark on their lives, and our own.

[1] 2014, The Doherty Relationship Institute, LLC

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