Divorce lawyers (or, as we like to call ourselves, “family lawyers”) get a bad rap. A highly unscientific survey involving a group of people I was playing cards with and a couple of television characters has reminded me that divorce lawyers may be the least popular among practitioners of the highly unpopular profession of law. Arnie Becker of LA Law (for those of you under 35, Google it) was an inveterate lech who preyed on every hot female client – and sometimes a client’s wife – who came into his office, and because this was television and because the show was set in LA, they were all hot. The Good Wife’s David Lee, divorce lawyer to the rich and occasionally murderous, is probably the sleaziest among a group of across-the-board ethically compromised lawyers. (An aside: The Good Wife, a favorite of mine, has great writing and great acting, with well-drawn, engaging characters, but don’t watch it for legal practice tips.)
The card players associated family lawyers with their former spouses and with the exceedingly unpleasant and frequently expensive process of divorce. While, not surprisingly, they generally seemed to view their ex-spouses’ lawyers less favorably than their own, they also griped about their lawyers, who, they say, screwed up, overcharged, overpromised, or under-negotiated.
But divorce can be a very difficult experience for clients and can cause them as well to act in ways that harm themselves and others. There’s a saying not infrequently repeated in our office that goes: “[With apologies to the wrongly accused,] clients in criminal cases are bad people at their best; clients in divorce cases are good people at their worst.” It’s a rare spouse who is splitting up who doesn’t feel some combination of anger, grief, disappointment, anxiety, sadness, betrayal, vengeance, and in the case of parents, anguish about the emotional and financial consequences for their kids. Not all clients are able to work toward a resolution that’s best for their kids, them, and the family as a whole.
A caring divorce lawyer tries to go beyond the financial interests of his or her client. That lawyer tries to help the client chart a path in negotiation and even in litigation that prioritizes the well being of the children, who might be having the most difficult time of it, and the well being of the client, which includes his or her relationship with the children and with their other parent. We always advocate on behalf of their clients, while also encouraging the client to look beyond his or her specific interests and concerns to the future and how that should look for him or her post divorce.
Recently, in a conversation between a client, his friend, and me, the friend asked me what satisfaction family lawyers could possibly get out of what we do. The client responded for me: they make an awful experience more bearable. I’ll take that.