Romance often leads to marriage, and marriage often leads to divorce. The latter is not only emotionally painful but legally complicated, which is why most people hire lawyers to help them. The following conversations are with lawyers who specialize in divorce, who spend most of their time helping untie the matrimonial knot.
Would you please tell us about yourself? How long have you been practicing law, and what percentage of your practice relates to family law, specifically divorce issues?
I graduated from law school in ’89, and I spent the first five — really seven — years after law school involved in child-advocacy work. I taught the child-advocacy program at USD, the clinic that they had in child advocacy for law students. I worked with adolescents and teenagers who had legal problems and a variety of mental-health and school issues. Then I was really the creator and leader of a movement to reform county services for children in need of mental health.
I started practicing family law around three years ago — two and a half, three years ago — joining this practice as a partner. Our firm is primarily dedicated to family law. I still do a fair amount of work in the juvenile court as well as guardianships for grandparents and relatives who are caring for children. I also serve as minor’s counsel in family-law matters when appointed by the bench. So all of my work is exclusively to family proceedings, and about 80 percent of it is in the family court on both dissolution and property matters, custody and visitation matters…the gamut that we all cover.
You have a particular focus, I take it, in child issues.
I do. I certainly handle all the matters in the cases and have been very successful in all facets of it, but I tell my clients, “You know, if you want to argue over your property with your spouse, soon to be ex-spouse, argue as much as you want. You’re going to spend a lot of money, you’re probably going to fritter a lot of your money away that would be saved if you would settle and both come to some agreement. But don’t argue over your kids. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
If you’re retained by a mother, your task is to represent that mother and her claim, her interest. If you’re retained by the father, the same is true. Within our system of adversarial advocacy, do you ever find yourself saying, “You know, I don’t want to represent either one of these people. I just want to help this child”?
Not very often, and I’ll tell you why. If someone walks into my office and their position is really, I think, damaging to their child, I won’t take the case. I’m not going to advocate for a position on behalf of my client that I can’t go to sleep at night without being concerned I’ve done something wrong. Now, short of that, there’s a lot of gray area.
When people come in and they have the distress that goes along with divorce, whether you want the divorce or not doesn’t matter, it’s still always very stressful, very anxiety-causing. It’s one of the major emotional, physical, financial traumas in people’s lives, no matter what. And when it comes to children, nothing is more traumatic. You feel so vulnerable as mother or father as to what’s going to happen in the future on so many levels.
I can have a very great impact as counsel, both being responsible for my client’s legal rights, as well as counseling them as a lawyer. I can have a great influence over how they approach the case, what type of information they’re going to be given, what type of information they’re going to further seek out, how they’re going to approach the other parent. I can have an even greater impact if I know the lawyer on the other side shares my perspective and the perspective of most professionals who understand child custody and divorce, which is that people need to communicate. They need to talk, they need to get to a common ground. They’ve got to recognize that both parents are important in the child’s life fundamentally, that that’s true. Even when there’s been abuse and domestic violence, both parents are a significant presence in the child’s life. Now, how that presence gets interpreted and how it physically plays out is totally different when you have abuse or difficult domestic violence, but it doesn’t decrease the significance of the parent figure in the child’s life.
So I very rarely feel, “Oh gee, I’d rather be minor’s counsel in this case.” Because it’s a mistake to say that we can take responsibility for the child’s health and well-being out of the decision-making process between the parents. They’re responsible ultimately, not society, not the court, not me. If they can’t figure it out, the child’s going to be damaged by it. My job is to help them figure it out, as well as do what I can to, frankly, take it out of an adversarial posture if I possibly can. If I cannot, to have that process go as well as it can.
What changes have you seen related to children’s issues?
There has been a change in the court process. Part of it is statutory, in that, over the last ten years, California has moved towards requiring that the parents have mediation that’s provided by the court. Very controversial. The fathers’ rights groups put up posters against this process. The mothers’ groups who think they’ve been abused put up websites against the process.
The process of mediation?
Yeah. And I totally support it. I think the court is much better off having what’s called mediation. In our county I wouldn’t really even call it that. Before you get into court with your custody matter, you’re required to go see a mediator that’s provided by the court, which is called family court services. That’s the arm of the court that does that, custody mediation. Or you can opt to go to a private mediator. In either case, the court is asking a professional who meets certain requirements set out in state law to make a recommendation to the judge as to what should be done. But they only make a recommendation if the parents cannot agree. So it at least ensures that there’s going to be some point, if people have filed a motion, that they’re going to have to talk to each other or talk to someone else, ’cause sometimes the parents won’t sit in the same room. That’s an improvement. That didn’t use to happen. As a result of that, there’s a lot more consciousness by the judges that these things need to be resolved out of the courtroom.