With the new year comes new reflection.  I’ve often wondered what it means to be a great family law attorney.  Does it mean “winning” cases?  Does it mean being able to recite all the rules off the top of your head?  Does it mean getting as much as you can for your client at the expense of the other side, or worse, your reputation?  Or is it something bigger?

Recently we have had serious tragedies directly involving family law litigants.  Some of those tragedies have even resulted in the death of children.  That got me wondering; did the parent who took the lives of innocent children believe that result was the ultimate “win” for him?  Is there something inherent in litigating family law cases at any cost that fuels this mentality?

In addition to the tragic outcomes, there can be a financial impact as well.  Some of us have made it through this recession untouched, others did not fair so well.  My office was very fortunate.  We do not advertise, we work exclusively off of referral, we enjoy great relationships with our clients, and the recession had almost no impact on our cases or our revenue.

I am convinced that screening out “bad” clients who are self-destructive, or only want to use the legal system to inflict some sort of pain or revenge has helped tremendously.  Refusing to provide that type of service if someone does slip though our screening process further helped that stability.

The clients I do choose to help must be the right fit for the philosophy in our office.  Each one gets to hear my “Orange” story at the very beginning of their case.  I am sure most of us practicing family law are very familiar with that story – for those who are, please bear with me….:

On a hot summer day two people began fighting over the same orange.  They kept fighting and arguing over who would get the single orange.  Finally, they decided to cut the orange in half and go their separate ways.  As they walked in opposite directions one of them peeled the orange, threw away the peel, and ate the tasty fruit inside.  The other person peeled the orange and threw away the fruit, because she only wanted the peel in order to zest a cake that was already made.

The point of telling this story to our clients is to help them begin mentally getting away from their limited “positions” and begin to explore both their own interests and the possible interests of the other side in order to potentially find a solution that will benefit both sides.

Positional based bickering certainly does not take any intellect or tact – we’ve all been taught how to demand our positions from the day we were born.  Just watch two five year olds fight over the same toy.  It is much simpler, and a lower form of problem solving, that takes much less skill and finesse than working on an interest based dialogue.  Doesn’t watching two five year olds argue strikingly remind you of the typical family law case?

Positional based bickering is similar to a used car deal.  Remember the last time you bought a car.  Likely it went something like this – “My boss needs to get $20,000”…and you may have replied.  “Well I’ll only give you $15,000”, and so on and so on.  Each offer they made you would “loose” something, and each counter offer you made they would “loose” something.

Playing the “used car game” in a legal case is fine when there is no vested interested in maintaining any future relationship.  Perhaps it can even be applicable in family law cases with no children where the parties can truly part ways forever.

But what about cases involving young children?  What about the need for parents to eventually re-build some sort of a relationship because they will need to continue interacting for years to come?  What about the larger wounds that are cut during a dissolution or custody issue create larger scars once the attorneys are long out of their client’s lives?

During a family law case, we all have a choice to make – do we want to part of the problem, or do we want to part of the solution?  Hopefully, we are all smart enough to know every client that comes in is telling us less than half of the story (and just the version they want us to hear). 

No doubt being part of the problem pays a lot better.  I guess being a part of the problem can be a good source of short-term money, but I am convinced it is a long-term loss.  I believe family law clients are good people caught in a bad situation.  After the dust clears, and they regain their clarity, they will look back and know if they were taken care of or taken advantage of. 

Who cares?  We are just doing what our clients want and hired us to do, right?  We are simply “zealously” representing them, right?  I propose it becomes a terrible cycle that’s easy to fall into.  If our clients later realize we fuelled their self-destruction, sent their kids to therapy, and scorched the earth on all sides, then that attorney will soon need to begin advertising.  The more clients that come through the door from advertising the less loyalty and smaller relationship they have with their legal professional.  Consumers who are taken advantage of when they are vulnerable realize it after the fact and never refer their friends or family.  Like a funeral home director who sells a Bose Stereo System with the top of the line casket because “wouldn’t you want your loved one to have the best” – professionals out for the quick buck usually do not fair well during hard times.  All we need to do is look around at those businesses in any industry that did not fair well during this recession to know the ones without loyal customers.

Having a bad professional stop damaging people is a good thing.  It’s good for consumers, it’s good for society, and it’s good for the profession as a whole.  But what about the damage left behind that cannot be undone?

As a police chief I spent years cleaning up the messes of family disputes.  I can tell you first hand it is not enjoyable cleaning a teenager’s body out of her Dad’s closet after she put his .44 magnum pistol to her head and took her own life.

What about the father in Thousand Oaks going through a litigious divorce who recently took the lives of his children?  What about one of our respected colleagues recently being physically threatened right in front of his children while dropping them off at school by an abusive husband, and then the husband’s attorney snickering when she was informed of her client’s behavior?

We are not only the gatekeepers to the legal system, but often and more importantly, we are the tone setters in how a family’s tragedy is handled.

I think former Yale University Chaplain, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., once said – “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat”.

What does being a good family law attorney mean to you?