Tag Archives: Family Law

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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Choose Happiness

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

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

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

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

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Musings of a Mediator

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

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