Category Archives: Family Law

TREES ON A LAWYER WEBSITE?!

logo jpegRecently my law partner and I launched our new website.

We wanted a look that demonstrated that we aren’t just your “ordinary lawyers.” We ended up with a prominent display of trees.

Why does the website of Stamatelos & Tollakson prominently display trees?

We chose imagery that depicts our alliance in compassionate lawyering, as well as the journey we take with our clients in times of family crisis. When we began working with our web designer, they showed us numerous logos with letters, symbols and other traditional graphics. Although skillfully designed, they didn’t seem to speak for what we try to provide through our work as Central Iowa divorce attorneys at Stamatelos & Tollakson.

Ultimately, we landed on a drawing of two strong trees standing over a smaller, barren tree. We feel this most accurately demonstrates our philosophy and the synergy we create between lawyer and client.

What do trees represent?

Antiquity and enduring strength. The roots of our law firm began with Kim’s father, Dan Stamatelos, who was born in 1934 and began practicing law in West Des Moines in the 1950’s. Kim continued the legacy beginning in 1982 and Ashley joined her in 2015. Both Ashley and Kim are lawyers educated by Drake University Law School, an institution that began educating lawyers in 1865. These roots provide us with strong direction and a clear sense of purpose.

Expansive canopy of protection and shelter. Clients who come to our firm are often wounded, hurting, grieving and lost. They may be suffering from depression, betrayal, financial hardship, fear and disappointment. We want them to feel safe telling us their stories and sharing their fears. We are strong active listeners and we zealously guard confidences. Our clients feel safe and protected when they work with us, like one does when sitting under a tree with vast protective branches.

Intuition and inner wisdom. A tree gathers its experience from the earth and intuitively moves that life force through its foundation. While we are educated and experienced in legal matters, we also find that life experience and inner wisdom is an integral part of our work. It’s not only our inner wisdom and experience, it’s helping our clients tap into their inner wisdom. Together we use these resources to design a customized approach to peacefully resolving our clients’ family conflicts.

Balance and transformation. Since we live in the Midwest, we are used to seeing trees lose their leaves and become barren. Yet we know that in Mother Nature’s perfect timing, they will regenerate and bloom again. Fruit-bearing trees will bear new fruit, leaves will blossom and flower buds will open. Providing hope and encouragement to our clients, and reminding them that this will happen in their own lives, is part of the joy of being a family lawyer.

Rooted in the earth but dancing in the sky. Clients have their past and history, and those stories remain deep in the roots of their lives. Many of them have left marriages willingly and others under protest, but all have an opportunity for new beginnings that cause them to grow, stretch and transform. We help clients look upward to the future, and encourage them to use the divorce or family conflict as a chance for personal transformation and to soar into the future that they choose for themselves.

We hope that you will visit our website at

http://www.thecompassionatealliance.com

 

Wisdom From A Witness

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”― Fred Rogers a/k/a “Mr. Rogers

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I sigh as I get out of my car and begin the walk to the Polk County courthouse for my 9AM hearing. Even though I’ve been coming to court for over thirty years, I never enjoy it. Maybe it’s the feeling of handing my client’s problem over to a stranger with the power to make a life changing decision for them. As a peacemaker attorney, I know decisions are usually better when they are talked through by the stakeholders in a calm and safe environment, rather than the result of carefully crafted spin introduced into evidence.

At the parking garage elevator I meet a handsome man and woman adorned in Sunday morning finery, holding hands with a small boy and girl dressed like mini-me’s of the couple.

“How darling; are they twins?” I ask. I’m told “no” and that the children are ages 3 and 4.

“Say thank you” the mother directs the young ones after I lean down to say how nice they look. The children dutifully echo “thaaank youuuu. “

“God bless you,” the mother turns around to say to me as the family walks away. I feel good seeing a happy family and it feels even better to receive a blessing from a stranger. While in my morning journey for justice, I will be on the look out for the blessing as it was ordered up by the stranger.

Reaching the steps at the courthouse entrance, I find the attractive family waving into a camera navigated by a photographer capturing their every move. “It’s adoption day!” I hear someone say and a weathered man smoking a cigarette on the ledge in front of the courthouse says “I ain’t never seen kids dressed so nice.”

I make my way towards the fourth floor family court looking for my client, passing a line of shackled young people wearing green and white striped jail attire, being led by a deputy to a different courtroom. One of the prisoners is a young woman with beautiful black hair down her back. She appears to be my daughter’s age, and I wonder what has led her to this moment in time. “God bless you,” I whisper under my breath, mystically directing the invisible energy of the blessing to the woman. “Intervene in her story Lord,” I add, knowing the court holds her destiny in its hands.

I look for my client, a young mom, a case assignment from the Volunteer Lawyers Program. She is missing so I call her on my cell phone and am informed she will be a good 20 minutes late. I’m mildly agitated knowing that the court likes to keep things running on schedule.

A beautiful woman with warm dark skin standing nearby makes eye contact and introduces herself as a witness for my client. Our matter is a simple default hearing and I didn’t contact any witnesses. The husband did not respond to the divorce petition, so my client’s testimony and her husband’s documented long record of criminal offenses and sexual assault will suffice as evidence. We are asking the judge to prohibit the child’s father from having contact with the couple’s child, and to grant a divorce.

I sit on the bench outside Room 413 and begin to make small talk with the witness, thanking her for coming but letting her know it’s likely the judge won’t need her testimony. She says she’s “like a relative” and she’s come to testify to protect the child. “I’m Native American and I take my responsibility seriously,” she says while looking directly into my eyes.

As we wait, the witness tells me her story. I’m grateful that I am a magnet for people’s stories, and I’ve trained myself to provide a safe listening space for their hearts.

“I’m from the Winnebago tribe, placed for adoption as a child because my own mother had many problems. I am grateful for my adoptive family.”

I ask her more about her story. “My mother has recently come into my life again. She explained why she could not care for me. She still can’t be a mother to me, but we spend time together and she is teaching me about my culture. She helps me make costumes for pow wows and tells me stories of my ancestors as we sew.”

“What will you tell the judge today, if he decides to hear from you?” I ask.

“My people have a saying: ‘We didn’t inherit this land from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children.’ For me this is true for all we pass on to our children. It’s not just the sanctity of the Earth, it’s the heritage of family. If there are patterns of dysfunction, we have an obligation to step in and change the path so it is not passed on. I must speak out about this child’s father even though he is on my side of the family. If I do not, then I have failed to help break a cycle.” By placing this woman for adoption when she herself could not care for her young daughter, the witness’ own mother had begun to live out the culture’s command. Now, our witness would continue the legacy, affecting more than one child with her testimony that day.

My client appears and we begin our hearing. The judge hears my client’s testimony, reviews the husband’s court record, and grants the default divorce giving my client sole legal custody and prohibiting the child’s visitation with the husband. My client bursts into tears and hugs me so tightly she won’t let go, thanking me over and over. The witness smiles. I’m disappointed that the judge didn’t hear the witness, but I know her mission has been fulfilled, just by stepping forth.

At the bottom of the stairs I pass a top notch trial attorney from a big downtown law firm. “What are you doing here I never see you in court!” he says.

“I just finished a VLP case,” I respond.

“Oh, my last three VLP cases have gone to trial. That’s always fun isn’t it?” attesting to the fact that the pro bono cases often take the most effort.

Walking outside I breathe in the fresh fall day, immediately sensing relief to be out of the negative energy. The adoptive parents were probably official by now. The young woman from jail has heard her sentence and her fate is cast, the witness has honored her legacy of family, the judge has protected an innocent child, my colleague from the downtown firm would soon volunteer for a new pro bono case.

Today they’ve all been here: the helpers.

And my blessing was that I got to be one too.

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Lawyers: A Secret Weapon in Marriage Preservation

cakes-i-made-078As the court expands the definition of marriage, lawyers in the trenches guide couples through the painful process of divorce. Some cases involve blended families, some are high conflict, and some have children caught in the crossfire of parents divorcing for a second or third time.

Traditionally, family lawyers have been surgeons dismantling marriages with a scalpel of skilled advocacy in a courtroom, mediation or collaborative four way meeting. Until now family lawyers, and lawyers in general, have overlooked our role as a resource for another option: marriage preservation.

A group of collaborative lawyers in Minnesota noticed some clients who came for consultations had mixed feelings about whether to divorce. In response, they teamed with University of Minnesota professor Dr. Bill Doherty and his marriage therapist colleagues, to explore the issue. Guided by studies that show one year after divorce 31% of men and 13% of women said, “I wish I had worked harder to save my marriage,” and research that showed 50% of divorces were from low-conflict marriages, the lawyers and therapists named this phenomenon “divorce ambivalence.”

According to Dr. Doherty, people considering divorce will reach out to friends, family, coworkers and divorce lawyers hoping to gain insight in the decision making process. As leaders in our social circles, lawyers are often these “marital first responders” among our friends and family, in addition to those clients who seek our services. Doherty’s research concludes that marital first responders have a great influence over whether these people actually divorce.

Although Iowa is a “no fault” state, people usually describe the reasons they are considering divorce. In Doherty’s studies the “hard issues” (abuse, addiction, adultery) are less frequently cited. Instead it’s mostly “soft issues” such as lack of attention from one’s spouse, money problems, inability to talk together or a spouse’s personal habits.

Doherty finds all marital first responders can influence the following depending on the advice they offer:

  1. Whether a couple ultimately divorces;
  2. Whether a couple talks through ambivalence so they gain clarity on whether that divorce is the best option for them;
  3. Whether a couple “airs out” the emotion and reasons for the choice to divorce, or carries unresolved emotion into a divorce proceeding.

Iowa Code Section 598.16, provides for “conciliation,” upon the motion of one party. In my experience, court orders forcing marriage counseling only guarantee a body sitting in a chair at a counselor’s office. Marriage counseling of unknown duration sounds unappealing to a spouse who may have one foot out the door. Many lawyers tell a client NOT to talk to their spouse, resulting in suppressed emotions while the lawyers begin to plan for battle.

Responding to this gap in resources, Dr. Doherty developed “discernment counseling” a counseling protocol of 1-5 sessions directed at the specific question “Should we get divorced?” not “How can we save our marriage?” After completing training for lawyers on this discernment protocol, members of my collaborative law practice group have begun to suggest discernment counseling to clients. We have also recruited some local marriage counselors to travel to Minnesota to train with Dr. Doherty.

Discernment counseling creates a “pause” before jumping into divorce. At the first session, the couple begins a conversation about whether they should continue in the marriage in it’s present state, commit to a fixed term of six months of intensive marriage counseling, or divorce. They identify as “leaning in” or “leaning out” of the marriage.

I notice a number of positive byproducts in my clients who have chosen discernment counseling.

  1. Spouses resisting divorce who may otherwise create barriers are less combative, indecisive, and feeing “pushed” by the divorce process and court deadlines;
  2. Strong emotions move out of the way faster, so I can offer higher quality legal work due to less triage of emotional outbursts;
  3. Couples easily plan healthy scripts to tell the children about the divorce together, so that one spouse doesn’t hijack the conversation to try to vindicate blame.
  4. The couple feels like they truly exhausted all options before divorcing.
  5. Couples work better as a team, often opting into collaborative divorce and creating a “softer landing”.

Although I am unaware of studies indicating how many marriages are preserved in this process, I am sure there are some. In each of my consultations I carefully guide clients through a discussion about whether the marriage can be saved before rushing into filing for divorce. I mention it often when I serve as a mediator, especially as I detect ambivalence in the stories I hear. I can’t remember ever having any potential client be put off by this and instead I have had incredibly good responses to this approach, including from the clients who have opted for discernment counseling then come back to go through with divorce.

Each of us is likely to be a marital first responder at some time, either professionally or personally. Do we say, “I’m so glad you are finally leaving him/her!” even when we are approached by friends or family? Or will we encourage those in crisis to reflect carefully about their decision to divorce? In our legal practice, should lawyers take down initial data and run to the scanner to e-file a divorce at the first visit? Or are we better gatekeepers for families in every walk of life to realize the influence we have on those contemplating divorce, and to encourage the possibility of a “pause?”

I know I have felt an increase in my effectiveness and satisfaction as an advocate for families, by providing a deeper exploration of divorce ambivalence with those who seek my guidance.

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Choose Happiness

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. Continue reading

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Musings of a Mediator

As a mediator for nearly thirty years, I have had the opportunity to sit with people in their darkest hour, hear their stories, and work with them as they process, heal, and resolve the most devastating circumstances of their lives. In this front row seat, I have gained insights beyond measure, on how people can heal from unthinkable betrayal, heartache, and fear. In this blog, I will share some of the wisdom that I have had the privilege to uncover in my chair at the head of the table. Until my next post, I want to reassure you of one thing…on the other side of your most devastating moments, there is an opportunity to soar.

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