Tag Archives: Divorce

Easter Lamb

Anastasis-Icon-finalΧριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.—Christ is Risen, the song sung by Greek Orthodox at Pascha (Easter).

It is “Greek” Easter. I’m home alone, and the lamb is in the oven. Scents of  Greek seasoning waft throughout every nook and cranny of my small townhouse. As I do every year, I wonder if any of my children will continue the Greek traditions that I have established. The traditions were not present during my own upbringing until I took the initiative to embrace them when my now adult children were toddlers.

I recall the Easter lamb I cooked the year my father died and remember where we  were in the kitchen as I took it out of the oven. He was sitting at the kitchen table with his ever present smile and a line of oxygen under his nose, attached to a portable oxygen tank. He was delighted that he would have Easter lamb, and it made me happy to make him happy. A few weeks later he would be moved into my own home to be monitored by me and his hospice nurses as he lived his last months. I’d had reservations about moving him in, as my children were adolescents and I wanted to shield them from the ugliness of death. But my Greek Orthodox priest convinced me it would be fine. “In Greece the cycle of life is very natural. Papou dies downstairs and a baby is born upstairs,” he’d said and he’d been right.   I think back for a moment to the poignant goodbye around my father’s bedside with my mother, my children and me kissing him as he took his last breaths.

Dad’s mother, my grandmother Josephine, taught me to cook the lamb “the Greek way” which was interesting because she was full blooded Polish. Devoted to my grandfather and all things that made him happy, she was a better Greek cook than many of the full blooded Greeks I’ve known. I absolutely adored her and her kitchen always smelled like mine does now and I look at my hands working and in my heart’s eye I see her hands on tope of mine, guiding them.

Earlier in the week there’d been talk of my mother baking a ham this year, and a “we don’t want to inconvenience you” disingenuous pitch from those who will eat the lamb, greek style green beans, potatoes and salad with ample crumbled feta cheese. We go through this dance each year when we all know how the menu will pan out. Besides, my mother is not Greek and Easter to her side of the family means bunnies and bonnets. To Greeks, Pascha is the most important day of the year, the culmination of weeks of fasting and repentance and realigning ourselves to God and His mercy.

I check the lamb to see how it is coming along knowing that it will turn out perfectly as it always does. Although I don’t enjoy cooking as a rule, the traditional Easter dinner reminds me that I am an excellent cook and I wonder why I never dabble in it except on Pascha. There was a time I did enjoy cooking more, and as I tend to everything to synchronize the timing of the dishes I remember back to my short marriage to FP and the meals we would enjoy preparing together.

Although part Greek himself, FP wasn’t trained in Greek religious food preparation and I loved teaching him to make his first loaf of prosfora, the blessed bread we use as the body of Christ for communion. I watched him press the etched seal into the top of the fluffy powdery loaf we’d made, with the seal given to me by the 83 year old Greek Orthodox woman who had taught me when I was a young mother. “Pray for me every time you use this,” she’d said when she gifted me my first prosfora seal and I do pray for Marie every time, releasing the seal to observe the intricate religious design passed down for generations on the top of the holy bread.

FP had also never made the koliva, the memorial wheat that is traditionally used at memorial services for the dead. I taught him to make it in the first year we were married, before my father’s memorial service.  FP and I had boiled the wheat berries and set them out on a pristeen white cloth to dry the night before the memorial, knowing we’d be mixing them early the next morning with the nuts, raisins, powdered sugar and the delicate pomegranate seeds that represent the blood of Christ. I’d left to run an errand and when I’d returned I saw FP had placed a vigil light next to the drying wheat berries along with a photo of my dad, and a photo of his own deceased grandmother. It touched me that he had made such a special memorial and I’d felt the presence of the Greek ancestors in our respective families joined together.

Later I would teach FP’s youngest daughter from his first marriage to make prosfora and I’d give her a seal asking her to pray for me each time she uses it. I’d also taught her to make koliva and I added the memorial shrine layout to the tradition as though it had always been a part.

As I put the finishing touches on the Easter lamb meal and set the table for the hungry family that will soon arrive, I feel tears welling up and an ache in my heart that is painful at the core. Perhaps it’s brought on by the fatigue I feel from being at long services throughout Greek Orthodox Holy Week. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep after midnight resurrection service. There is a deep mourning for my ancestors who always come to mind as the lamb bakes, and a clear and present sense of momentarily missing my ex husband despite our divorce being over six years prior, his remarriage, and a healing balm of forgiveness that has washed away the drama that separated us.

Rather than stuff down the emotion, I let the tears flow, and hum the tune “Christos Anesti,” –Christ is Risen, the traditional Greek song that we will sing victoriously in the upcoming weeks. Then I do what I strive to do each day, each hour, each minute. I turn my life over to the Resurrected Savior and surrender to His lead for this moment in time. For just this very moment, I trust through Him, that everything is as it should be.

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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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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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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

 

butterfly net

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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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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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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What if?

help-life-preserver-belt-sky-rescue-17173335Dear God, Please heal my romantic wounds, that I might give and receive true love.  Teach me how to let love in, and how to let it stay. –Amen

From “The Age of Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson.

 Recently I was contacted by a group of people working to promote the preservation of marriage.  It seems humorous to think a divorce lawyer,  herself twice divorced, would have something to offer the group.  But I’ve come to marvel at how God uses our mistakes and wounds, once healed, for His most important work.

I always ask clients who come into my office seeking divorce whether the marriage can be saved. Sometimes mediation first round discussions involve the question of whether the the divorce should continue. Clients will say they have tried to save the marriage, but that one or the other wouldn’t commit, or refused to give up a third party or a debilitating habit.  Many have tried marriage counseling.

The statistics the preservationists showed me indicate that in 75% of divorces at least one spouse is having second thoughts one year later.   In one survey 31% of men and 13% of women said they “wished I had worked harder to save my marriage.”

As we brainstormed ways lawyers could help in a marriage preservation initiative, I couldn’t help but think of my own divorce from FP. Even five years post divorce I ask myself that question every now and again.  “What if I had stayed?”

After years of hearing divorce stories and creating two of my own, I am convinced that the most important part of staying married is a commitment for the partners to “do their personal work.”  We are all wounded, some more than others, but until we have the courage to heal ourselves we can never reach the fullness of life that God created for us. If we are not whole, we can’t sustain an intimate relationship.

In her book “The Age of Miracles” author Marianne Williamson writes that in relationships, couples are ” drawn to each other in a way that our neuroses form a perfect fit. The ego’s intention is that they trigger each other’s wounds, but God’s intention is that they heal each other’s wounds. Which it will be is up to them. Whoever is willing to do the work in a relationship, seeing it as an opportunity for self-healing, will receive the blessing whether the other person makes the same choices or not. ”

“This is soon going to be a runaway train, ” I told FP shortly after filing for divorce, knowing how the legal process worked. “I think we both need to fix ourselves.  I am willing to do the hard work. If you will do it too, I will walk alongside you and hold your hand.   This is a defining moment that I will remember fighting for our marriage. Will you commit to doing the work?”

He stayed silent and continued eating a bowl of cereal.

I had a choice. I could stay, or cut loose for my journey of self to heal wounds that I had carried in to two marriages. I knew lessons we don’t learn will come back around until we have embraced them.

A couple we were friendly with came the next day and moved FP in with them. The marriage preservation folks say that friends who enter our story at this time have a great deal of influence over whether the marriage ends. They say that friends should be empathetic and listen, but should not encourage divorce. Instead they should refer us to resources that support entering upon a healing journey.

I often wonder what FP told those friends. They never had a conversation with me. I wonder what might have happened if, instead of whisking him away, they had sat us both down and counseled us to do the hard work. Interestingly, those friends have since divorced.

What makes some of us have the courage to heal our lives while others stay stuck?  Is it fear of the pain of looking in the mirror? Unwillingness to put forth the effort?  Lack of commitment to our partner, or to our marriage?  A combination of the above?  With FP, I will never know. One of the most painful things a partner in a marriage can do is to disconnect from someone they still love in order to embark on a journey of self.

“Healing can hurt,” writes Williamson. “Whether it’s the healing of having to face the shame of our own humiliation, or the pain of having to turn our backs on someone whose patterns are unhealthy for us to be around though we love them still.  Either way, the pain of the healing is far preferable to the pain of remaining at the effect of a neurotic pattern.”

I am a totally different person having made the difficult choice to leave.  I found life.  I don’t know exactly how to articulate this to my marriage preservation friends, most of whom describe long term healthy marriages where they have both committed to do the hard personal work.  What would they have done if their mate had been unwilling to join them on the journey?

I mourn for the marriages where only one chooses to heal. I wonder where I would be if FP had joined me. Where we would be. Even if we had done the work together would we have ended up a stronger couple?  Or would our mutual healing have led us to separate places?  I will never know.

According to Williamson, “Each must choose. The one who learns and grows will mature and ripen with age.  The one who doesn’t will just grow old….”

Divorce was a necessary step for me.  When I meet with clients, in addition to asking whether the marriage can be saved, I now ask them if they have explored deeply the idea of “doing their personal work together.” Some I send off to discernment counseling, a unique way of counseling around the question of “will we commit to try to save our marriage?” Others, I refer to individual counseling so that the pain of divorce breaks them open to finding themselves. I feel that by softly asking these questions and encouraging people to transform their lives, I am not just a machine filing divorces for the people who bring me a retainer.

The most important part of my healing journey was of course, strengthening my connection with God. “The problem with not yet leaning on God is that we tend to lean inordinately on other people. Failing to embrace a love that will always be there for us, we become vulnerable to ones that won’t be,” writes Williamson.

Whenever I ask myself the “what if” question, mine is worded a little differently.

“What if I had stayed,

And missed my life?”

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GUEST BLOG-“Plus One” by Robin Bourjaily

_DSC0190_1Thank you to my beautiful friend Robin for the following post.

“What are you doing September 7?”

Did he hear me catch my breath in July when he invited me to be his plus one for a wedding two months later? The relationship still today feels new; back then it was in its infancy and I couldn’t be sure we’d be interested in each other a week hence let alone in two months. But the day came and with it new shoes, a new-to-me skirt, and a handbag borrowed from my daughter. I like weddings, I told myself; it’s marriage that’s a problem.

So I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop I felt when we were sitting on the patio of the park lodge, looking at the tulle, lights, and bows and waiting for the wedding party and I realized—I hadn’t been to a wedding since I’d been divorced.

The very first wedding I attended was my cousin’s in her parents’ backyard garden where the patent leather shoes and little gloves my mother sent me in made me the most formally dressed guest. I was five. The bride wore flowers in her tumble of long dark hair, a loose, flowing dress and in my memory her feet were bare. The groom, all angles and limbs, was causal and comfortable. One of the most loving and supportive couples I know, they have been married more than forty years.

A series of classic, Iowa country weddings followed, those of our neighbors’ many daughters—the country church decked out in flowers, the groom and his men looking rather like beetles in their rented tuxes, the pouf of a wedding dress and the giggling girls full of youthful energy. The menu at the Lion’s Hall or the Elk’s Lodge would be sandwiches, relish trays, cheese squares and cake. There would be pink lemonade punch and a cash bar. The bride would dance a dollar dance—a dance where the best man would stand and wait to take money from any gentleman who wanted to dance with the bride. If the wedding party was particularly sassy, the groom might also be pressed into a dollar dance of his own, the best man and maid of honor competing to see whose dancer could raise more cash. The money would be stuffed into the groom’s pocket for extra spending on the honeymoon.

My first year of college, my brother’s wedding was an elegant diversion—twenty-six guests including bride, groom and celebrant, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In spite of a last minute lost wedding band that sent the two of us around the corner to Tiffany’s to buy a new one, the evening was a celebration that launched another marriage I admire—two talented children and two vibrant, nurtured careers to be marked by their thirty year anniversary in January.

The first chocolate cake I ever saw at a wedding was a second marriage for both bride and groom when I was in graduate school. The bride, a friend of my mother’s, had selected a cake that was wrapped in chocolate fondant with a white-chocolate bow. The inside of the cake was as delicious as the outside was beautiful.

And then in 1990 my friends started to get married—my college roommate was the first—and what followed was a spate of weddings, sometimes six or eight in a year, at the same time as a lasting relationship came into my life. Sitting in wait for the bride and groom to arrive at a garden wedding outside of Philadelphia, I counted on my fingers the number of weddings we had attended in the years we’d been together. When I got to twelve I turned to my boyfriend and asked, “you know we’ve been to a dozen weddings?” He looked at me and grinned, “Maybe ours should be the next one we attend.”

It was an exciting summer, talking marriage. A trip to my hometown netted an ideal location. We made no formal announcement nor did I consider us to be engaged, but the idea was definitely in the pipeline and it felt right.

It felt right.

The proposal came—that all-important question asked and answered—in November. We set a date for the following April.

My wedding is my favorite wedding of all time, and I’ve been to some great ones. The groom and I attended to every detail, paid for the lion’s share ourselves, made sure it was elegant and joyful, wrote a ceremony and vows that were meaningful, chose music and performers accordingly, found the perfect (chocolate) cake recipe, had dark chocolate bunnies made as favors (our wedding was the day before Easter), chose our own flowers and prepared them, figured out where everyone would stay, wrote and printed the invitations, and on and on and on. It was not perfect, but there were no unbearable hitches, nothing that would end up on a funny video show, and my only true surprise was that I was both bride and hostess. Another time, I made a note to myself in the far reaches of my brain, I’d ask someone else to maintain the flow from ceremony to meal to cake.

Another time … I never in my life thought there would be another time. I still don’t. But there must be a part of a woman’s brain that’s wired for weddings. Leading up to my wedding I found a whole storehouse of information about weddings, what I liked, what I didn’t, what was traditional, what we could do without. And even now, even when the very idea of any wedding makes me shake my head vigorously, no, no never again, there’s a part of my brain that starts to imagine: second wedding, huh? What would I wear? What would be fun and joyful? What would be meaningful? That’s one answer I know: What creates a meaningful wedding is the connection between bride and groom, and when the ceremony and celebration emerge from that place, it’s a good wedding. When it doesn’t it’s because the wedding follows a cookie cutter template or the mother of the bride or some other relative prevails over choices that spring from the love that sparked the wedding in the first place.

And that’s where my wedding, ceremony and celebration came from, pure love. When I was still married, my wedding day was one of my stories, something I told about as a significant life moment like the birth of my two children, my graduations, the purchase of my first car. When people spoke, as people do, about such events in their own lives, I had my story. I could chime in.

But not that September Saturday, when I was my boyfriend’s plus one for the wedding of people I did not know. I could not. The woman sitting next to me at the reception more than once evoked her own wedding. When it was my turn, I told her about my brother’s wedding, my friend’s wedding, how many times I’d been a bridesmaid. I talked weddings, how many I’d been to, the extremes, but I never once referenced my own. It felt like something I couldn’t talk about any more, not with a stranger, not on a date, not at a moment when we were supposed to be celebrating all of the possibilities and joys of a brand new union.

I’ve been thinking about it since—have I lost my story? The marriage shifted dramatically, ending in divorce, but does that change the wedding story, revoke it somehow? I walk my brain back through and remember one of the wisest things my former husband ever said: You don’t know what you don’t know. When we got married, we did so thoughtfully, with joy and pure intention and love. That moment—that story—hasn’t changed. The marriage that followed netted many amazing twists and turns and two of the finest people I know. And with that understanding I have come to realize that the only thing that has changed is that my wedding was a chapter in my story, but it is still very much a part of my narrative, one that I can celebrate, cherish, and in time, should the occasion arise, share.

Robin’s regular blog is “Overneath It All” found at overneathitall.com

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