Category Archives: hopefulness

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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Story Catching

 

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The butterfly net on my fourth floor windowsill .

At Stamatelos & Tollakson, we love the way our law and mediation office is decorated, and one item in particular carries a special meaning. A butterfly net is perched on my fourth floor windowsill. It represents the fact that as compassionate peacemaking attorneys we are story catchers.

Each family has a story, an emotionally laden narrative, unleashed once we’ve invited a client into the sacred, safe space of our inner office. Catching the story is our most important job whether the story is rich with detail or spewing with venom; whether spilling out unfettered once the storyteller opens their lips or coaxed out in slow, staccato pieces through the guidance of our gentle questions.

As we listen, we are figuratively sitting in the dark using our mental butterfly net to sweep in grief, shame, fear, guilt and the details that created them, ultimately dumping out the contents of the net on the conference table for deep examination. Side by side with the client we dissect the narrative, looking for nuggets of understanding and clues for what we might do to move them through divorce using creative problem solving to begin healing their lives and families.

After listening to thousands of stories and navigating the legal system to keep families out of court, here’s what we know about the stories we hear.

1.Divorcing people must choose a compassionate listener. Lawyers are busy people and they are constantly carrying lots of information in their heads. Unless they are intentional and focused, they may not be mindfully present during the story delivery. Compassionate lawyers are easily recognizable. They are the ones that make eye contact, listen with only limited and thoughtful interruption, and empathize with a client’s story. They aren’t the ones that listen sporadically, write down lots of notes and then respond to a story by quoting fees.

2. Failing to get out the entire story short circuits healing, and courtrooms are unhealthy places to tell one’s divorce story. Judges are scrutinizing the stories determining whom and what to believe. Lawyers are listening with an objection in mind, pouncing on pieces of the story that shed a bad light on their client. A judge’s ruling can keep one or more parties stuck in the old story, with more wounding added to an already devastating circumstance.

In mediation or at a collaborative divorce table, alongside their compassionate peacemaking lawyer, clients comfortably share their stories while having empathy, intensive listening and empowerment applied as first aid. This provides our clients relief from their suffering, allowing them to see the possibility of opening to a new post-divorce story.

3. Divorcing parties must let go of pieces of the story that no longer serve them. Divorce client’s stories have common underlying themes: betrayal, struggle, disconnection, abandonment, loss, and grief. Each party is often actively choosing to be the victim or victor in their stories, often identifying the other party as the sole perpetrator. When clients stay “stuck” in their victim story it becomes a tape on automatic replay in their head fueling their heart sickness and sadness. Victim stories and attacking the other spouse can play well in court, where the stories are memorialized in a legal transcript that marks the victim indelibly in perpetuity.

Good lawyers know that clients who stay stuck in their grievance story block pillars of healing like forgiveness and letting go of blame. We are not the heroes of the story, riding in to “fix” our clients’ problems. Instead we are the wise and caring guides who walk alongside them pointing out the path to the future with one hand, our other arm around their shoulders supporting and empowering them when they become weak on the journey. Along the way we are offering them peaceful methods of resolving the divorce and healing their lives.

4. Children of divorce have their stories written by hurting parents. Is it really fair to ask a child to choose one parent over another? As a parent, is “winning” custody of a child making a better story for that child? Most children love and crave time with both parents. Compassionate lawyers unearth the source of fear and worry about a child’s time in the other parent’s care. Through calm and non-accusatory dialogue, expectations can be clarified and communication skills can be strengthened.

5. Clients’ stories are interwoven into other divorce stories. Plot twists happen to our clients when new paramours come on the scene, co-mingling pieces of their own divorce stories. Each adult and each child brings their own wounds or healing from the divorce to the new family dynamic. If brought in early, problem solving lawyers can coach clients before blended family conflict escalates to the point of courtroom intervention. These lawyers can also be resources for therapists, coaches and other professionals to assist families with the complicated transitions.

6. The client is the hero of the story. Peacemaking processes for divorce such as mediation and collaborative law allow the client to write a healthier closing chapter of their marriage. In these processes parties don’t ever see a courtroom, typically spend less money and use specially trained lawyers who are committed to peace for families. Instead of telling the story, the client can live the story, not letting the divorce be the crescendo of their existence. Living intentionally, the client can choose a life of significance and wholeness post divorce, making the most of who they are and what they have, and making a difference in their lives and those of their children, day by day.

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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.

Just Love, and Then Love Some More

spinning bikeWaking up at 4AM without an alarm has become second nature and today is no exception.   I move into the kitchen to brew a strong cup of dark coffee, adding just a tad of half and half, and ultimately find my way to the bar table in my small kitchen. There I switch on the “happy light,” a full spectrum light box that wakes me up and wards off the winter blues.

With the light in my eyes I open my bible , finding today’s passage. As I take the first delicious sip of steaming coffee, I think of Tich Nat Hanh’s directive: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

Today’s Bible reading is a good one; lots of juicy quotes from Jesus that are controvertial at first blush, and that warrant my popping up the laptop to clarify through online commentaries. I smile as I read them rapidly and zero in on the basic teaching point: “Just love, and then love some more.

Hurrying to put on my gym clothes, I notice in the mirror my morning “look” is rather frightening. But my 5AM tribe at the gym is used to it by now and they each have their own morning persona as well.

At the gym I greet the “towel guy” Preston. “Good morning sunshine!” I say to him in our usual ritual and he smiles and hands me a towel.  We exchange brief updates on our lives as I head into the darkened mirrored room for cycling class. Befriending Preston makes me feel good. I’m connected to someone I wouldn’t otherwise know and I have an accountability partner who admonishes me if I don’t show up on a weekday morning.

Inside the darkened spinning room the usuals take their usual bikes, making the necessary functional adjustments so they can spin to their heart’s content. Our favorite teacher is on deck today and we begin with some raucous music as we all wake up our cycle legs and settle in.

The usuals are all accounted for: front row man who adoringly watches his spinning form in the mirror throughout the class oblivious to the instructions of our leader; the guy who is suited up in bike regalia as though today’s class is really the first leg of the Tour de France; the woman who spins with reckless abandon breathing hard until her face is beet red  making me worry she will stroke out; and the three in the back who chat through some of class annoying the rest of us.

Today, at the  7 minutes mark an interloper appears on the scene. A millennial man in long sweat pants with a long sleeve shirt under a bright orange t-shirt endorsing a race of some sort, with an undeicpherable hashtag on the back. He has three towels, obviously expecting to “sweat it out” and he hops on the bike right next to me disrupting my usual cycling vibe.

Millennial man  spins his legs quickly  and once he is with the groove he starts to sing. To every song. He is a regular karaoke affiicanado seemingly knowing the words to every song of the instructor’s playlist, including songs from my generation, which is a good thirty years earlier than his.Soon he begins to play air drums all over the bike handles, and up in the air shaking his head in beat to the bass. I ‘m annoyed but then  I remember “just love and then love some more” so I relax and welcome this disruptor of my continuum.

At once my annoyance turns to amusement. I began to enjoy his performance, delighted in the fact he’s infusing new energy into the spin class, and giving me a chance to just love and then love some more. Just as the endorphins peak,  the playlist offers up a spiritual song in perfect tempo “and not a tear is wasted, in time you’ll understand, I’m painting beauty with the ashes, your life is in my hands….”

The millennial stops playing the drums and sings the song softly, with great tenderness. “you’re not alone stop holding on and just be held….”

I’m shocked. I’m amazed.  I get the message. I just love and then love some more that this millennial man has come into my cycling class today shining a light into the dark spinning room. And he is my brother.

The song ends and so does the moment, and Pink starts wailing about raising a glass.  The instructor shouts something about lactic acid and we spin like we’re expecting the bikes to fly into the sky,  the millennial breaking into full blown song and air guitar accompaniment. Class ends, and I offer him a fist bump: “It was great to spin next to you today man!”  He fist bumps me back, “I’m going to keep riding till they kick me out of here!” and for all I know he is still spinning.

I change out of my bike shoes and don my sweatshirt and coat as Preston comes up to tell me about the high school basketball game from our mutual alma mater.  I soon walk out into the cold dark morning, pausing to look at the sky thinking about the rest of the world just now waking up. Gratitude overwhelms me.  I have a faith, a healthy body, a genuine caring for people, and a full day awaiting me with chances to just love and then love some more.

 

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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

The Compassionate Alliance

Recently, attorney Ashley Tollakson and I opened a new law firm.  We wanted a name that depicted our style of practice of law. Why do we call Stamatelos & Tollakson “The Compassionate Alliance?”

In a world full of lawyers with different approaches to the legal practice, my partner and I share the same values and a vision for a law office that isn’t a run-of-the-mill model. We meet regularly and have ongoing conversation about our shared values and how to best help our clients. We also set goals for continuous improvement and love to innovate to expand our ability to serve. It’s more than a partnership; we stand in an alliance with a bond and accountability for our values and vision.

Compassion is usually defined as: “a deep awareness of the suffering of another, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.”

Where does compassion come into play in our firm?

1. When clients come to see us we recognize they are suffering.

As we sit with clients during their darkest times, they tell us stories of how they are suffering in their families. Marriages are dissolving, children may be having physical symptoms from conflict or even acting out, house mortgages may be overdue, debt is often mounting, and lives are shifting.

In many instances there are layers of wounds not clearly visible. Clients carry shame, guilt, grief and fear. In the midst of their suffering they courageously seek us out to provide clarity to their chaos, and shepherd them through family conflict. In our law office, we recognize the depth of this suffering for our clients, and we don’t view it as just another day at the office.

2. We recognize the impact of our work can change clients’ lives.

Does the client accept a settlement offer or hold out for more? Should they agree to a suggested parenting plan, or will that impact their future relationship with their child? Will they settle the case or risk thousands of dollars to have a judge make the decision?

As lawyers we help alleviate clients’ suffering by using our intelligence, experience, wisdom and skill. We know the outcome of our work literally puts our client on one life trajectory or another. We take our work seriously and make decisions by working with our client as a strong team. We bring in experts from other disciplines such as finance, mental health or child development, if we believe additional insight would guide us to better decisions.

3. Most clients don’t want to swordfight in the coliseum when they are suffering.

We have been trained in courtroom tactics and we have extensive trial experience. Yet statistically, only a small number of cases actually go to trial, and most clients shudder at the thought. Going to court and turning over the outcome to someone who only hears parts of the story, spending large amounts of money on legal fees, and being publicly humiliated can re-wound our client. So can an uncaring or rude opposing lawyer who minimizes our client in front of everyone in the courtroom.

Instead, we put ourselves in the client’s chair, and rather than preparing from day one to go to war we pursue peacemaking efforts. We develop a strategy for conflict resolution through the most peaceful and least expensive path available. We view one of our most important roles to be a wise guide walking alongside clients and keeping them thinking clearly.

4. Lawyers acting as peacemakers must exude leadership, firmness and wisdom.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a push over. When did it become a sign of weakness to care about our fellow human being and to try to keep families from further pain and humiliation?

In dispensing compassion we use many important skills including negotiation, mediation, collaborative law, creative problem solving, conscious contracting, coaching and listening. We help our client identify what they really need even if they are unclear themselves. This is not the work of wimps or people who want to “hug it out.”

We are grateful to be able to practice law in a way that is authentic for us, and to help clients and their families in ways that move them forward.

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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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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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