Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holidays Proposals & the Year that Follows

On this day 15 years ago, I got engaged down in Florida. Ironically, my father was probably only 10 miles away at that time, but we were not in contact back then, so the celebration of the engagement and Christmas Eve occurred solely with my fiance's family. Immediately the questions began about possible dates, location, etc. Honestly, I just wanted to elope and avoid all the drama and hype. In deference to my now ex-husband's family, however, we went forward with a traditional wedding with about 80 guests in Washington, DC. Learning to stick to a budget and compromise on major decisions was actually an incredible lesson for us during that year-long engagement, and navigating the various family personalities was quite the bonding experience. During that year, I learned why so many of my married friends said that the whole wedding experience itself was a right of passage-- it definitely is not the same as just agreeing to shack up together and merge accounts.

According to the Sunday Style of tomorrow's Washington Post, 33% of the engagements in the DC Area occur between Thanksgiving and New Years, and the average cost of a wedding around here will be $33,727. Looking at that figure, I'm definitely more inclined to go with my original inclination to just elope-- only problem is I still need to find a groom first, but it is also easier for me to say this because I have already had the big traditional wedding once before. For those about to take that first walk down the aisle, I say enjoy the year-long engagement. Work out a realistic budget, don't let family dynamics corrupt your love, and accept that everything may not be absolutely perfect on the final big day, but who cares? As long as the vows are exchanged and you have officially changed your legal status to "married" then you have accomplished the mission of the day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Unplugging During the Holidays

I'm not sure about others, but what I am looking forward to the most is unplugging during the holidays. Just a few days of peace and quiet, without checking emails or voicemails. Courts close early tomorrow, most of the city shuts down as people go away for the last week of December, and real emergencies are reserved for hospitals and 911 calls.

Everyone these days seems so attached to their electronic devices, and I'm sure many will want to play with their latest gadgets over the holidays, but just as we try to limit our children's time on Wii or their Nintendos, perhaps we should consider applying some limits upon ourselves. Nothing beats quality time with someone-- uninterrupted by beeps, rings or typing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Alarming Demise of the Legal Profession

Over the last decade, we have made tremendous strides in communication, and technology has helped make information readily available to many. Now a lot of employers will allow for telecommuting and flexible schedules, as long as people remain accessible via cellphones or the internet. An amazing new set of options now exist that did not just 10 years ago, and yet with all these gains I am painfully aware of the losses to our privacy, personal boundaries and above all to the corrosion of the legal profession.

For some reason, people seem to understand that you have to pay for most services-- whether it is your hairdresser, doctor or even your mechanic. Some public services are covered through your taxes, such as public schools, the fire department, police, etc. And yet inexplicably when it comes to legal services, so many people seem outraged by the lack of free consults or payment plans. Personally, I don't know of anyone else that does work for free or delivers a product first without any assurance of payment. Perhaps it is the hourly rates that seem to not sit well with people, but the fact is that 1/3 goes to taxes, 1/3 goes to overhead, so the actual amount received by the lawyer rendering a service is the remaining 1/3.

A lot of information and sample documents are now readily available on-line, so the overall client base across many fields of law has decreased. Furthermore, as a result of the recession, many litigants are attempting to navigate the legal system on their own. The remaining clients that want legal assistance now have souring expectations about an attorney's availability without any regard to the sanctity of family time, or our need to simply decompress.

Unfortunately, the increased competition within the profession has resulted in a rapidly evaporating sense of loyalty within firms. It used to be that an associate would put in 6-8 years at a firm, and eventually s/he would make partner with the firm acting as a safety net ensuring a secure, promising future for that attorney. Now, there is little assurance of a partner track, and once you are partner, the pressure to make it rain for the firm never seems to end-- the second you do, you might well find your partners have turned their backs on you and left you out in the cold.

For the last three years, after each of my lectures at the law schoools, I am constantly asked by law students to provide some insight into firm life, what firms are looking for, etc. For their sake, I try to remain optimistic, for I do know of a few good firms run by partners that still have a soul-- but the key word is few. This harsh corporate mentality is undoubtedly having a trickle-down effect that impacts the entire profession in private practice. For those of us that went to law school to help people and believed in the practice of law as a profession, not a cut-throat business, it is disheartening to see so many sharks take over and muddy our waters.

If revolts across the Middle East and other parts of the world could start with use of the social media, then perhaps that is the best place for some of us rebels within the legal profession to start. Using the very source that may be the cause of the demise of my profession to help fix it is ironic, I realize that, but then again my life is full of ironies-- the greatest one being that here I am the poster child of divorce, when all I ever dreamed of was an intact family. Luckily, I have a strong spirit, and just as I hold out hope that one day I may get my wish in my personal life, I continue to believe it is possible for those in my profession to return to their original mission-- to assist those in need with dignity and respect.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Difference Between Casual Dating & Dating on a Mission

When you are casually dating, you really are just looking for someone that you enjoy hanging out with-- you are far more willing to overlook certain things, not pay attention to your dealbreakers, and options seem limitless when you are not specifically searching for certain characteristics in a person.

Dating on a mission is a much more methodical process-- you have your dealbreakers front and center in your mind, and your ability to screen out inappropriate matches can occur at lightening speed. A lot less time is wasted when you are on this mode, but it certainly does not leave you feeling like the world has endless possibilities.

Is it possible to merge these two styles? I'm not so sure, but perhaps a nice compromise approach might be to rank your dealbreakers and must-haves. If someone hits any of your top 5 dealbreakers, you should train your mind to visualize a red flag that is directing you to hit eject right away. Meanwhile, if there are some reasons for concern, you may want to picture yellow flags directing you to proceed with caution. Similarly, having a top five list of must-haves can help narrow your search and eliminate unsuitable candidates.

Ultimately, we are all working towards a common goal of finding a great partner. Keeping that in mind, there is something to be said for enjoying the journey itself. A methodical exercise in cross-examination techniques is best suited for a mock trial, not the start of a budding romance. That said, jumping into something head first (primarily driven by lust, not love) is a recipe for disaster. Tempering the desire for fun with some basic ground rules to keep us for veering too off course is perhaps a nice compromise approach to the Dating Game.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Finding Inspiration From Our Elders

So often I find that people focus on success stories and accomplishments, and I truly don't mean to be dismissive of those things, but I do believe it is equally worthwhile seeing how someone handles loss, disappointment and/or setbacks in their lives. How we recover from devastating blows speaks volumes about us, and in many ways can define our lives. Some people implode, while others find the courage to persevere, and I truly believe that at these critical moments we need to find inspiration from our elders.

Both my parents were immigrants, and their lives have not been easy. In my conversations this past year with my father, I have discovered an amazing inner strength within him that has truly inspired me. As I have been making the rounds at the local holiday parties around town, everyone can see me glow as I talk about the insight I have gained from reconnecting with my dad. There is a tremendous sense of loss as a result of all the years spent apart as a result of an erroneous court order, but as best we can, we are trying to make up for lost time, and at least I found him before it was too late.

This holiday season, as so many head home to be with relatives, I encourage the younger generations to try to talk about their family's past-- how people fell in love, their various interests, passions and any struggles that others experienced. These stories actually can provide us with great insight and inspiration in our own lives, and it may just be the best gift that our elders can give us without even having to drain any financial resources.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holidays and Gifts for Loved Ones

While running on the treadmill today, I heard on the news that the average American household has about $15,000 of credit card debt. To add to that over the holidays just does not make sense. Obviously children expect gifts under the tree, so I am not advocating that we cut out presents for children, but we can certainly start to set appropriate expectations for them and our other loved ones, with just a few gifts and emphasizing other ways that we can express our love and gratitude for one another. In fact, according to Love Languages, there are 4 other ways we can express love: (1) Quality Time; (2) Touch; (3) Words of Affirmation; and (4) Acts of Kindness. What is best about all these other ways of expressing love-- no one can take them away from you. Unlike gifts, which can get lost or are easily forgotten over time, the other methods for expressing affection can last a lifetime.

As parents, I think the sooner we can start teaching our kids about holidays being more about spending time with family, and less about the gifts, the better we prepare them for healthy adult lives. Let's face it, rarely will anyone be better able pick something out for you than your own self. Everyone has their own taste, style, and preferences, and as a result gift-giving occassions are always full of stress and often disappointment. Therefore, the sooner our children can learn that it really is not about the gift but the thought that counts, the less stressed out they will be during special occassions and the more apt to just enjoy themselves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Talking About Taboo Subjects

Traditionally, we have been taught not to talk about politics, religion or sex when we first meet someone-- but if you are dating, those are probably the three areas you care about most. Don't you want to know someone's core beliefs sooner rather than later? I really don't care very much where someone went to school or grew up-- although I know that is the polite place to start. Really, how refreshing would it be to be able to just say- I'm a moderate in politics; go to church; and I've had my fun in the dating world, but now want to meet someone that I can introduce to my family?

Dating is an exercise in trading information. We can all carry on polite conversation-- but how many people do you actually like hanging out with? If you are a college grad, you won't even relate to 75% of the U.S. population, so let's face it, finding someone of the opposite sex, who is available and that you can connect with (beyond just appearances) after age 21 is not easily done. When clocks start ticking and you are feeling like windows of opportunities are closing, I think it's time to just be honest and not waste time-- get to the hard stuff sooner rather than later. Just remember, no one is perfect; we all have baggage-- you just need to find someone whose baggage is compatible with yours.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Setting Your Own Timeline

I went to an intense high school full of bright young students eager to be the future leaders of America. The timeline was pretty much set for us at age 14-- and it did not matter what type of family you came from, the point is once you actually got into Andover, expectations were set pretty high although some were far less stressed about meeting these goals than others, and I'm pretty sure that had a lot to do with the family dynamics going on in the background.

For twenty-five years, I ran on that treadmill hoping to meet everyone's expecations-- wanting to please everyone and not let anyone down. I graduated from top schools and worked at top firms, accumulating all sorts of awards and honors along the way. I also got married and produced an heir, and to everyone around it would seem I was hitting all the right points at all the right times dictated by social standards. Yet, my story this year highlights my greatest lesson of all-- who cares about timelines and how others define success?

My greatest joy in life has nothing to do with my accomplishments as an athlete, in academics or as a professional. Becoming a mother and finding my family have filled an incredible void, and none of them care in the least about all the things the rest of the world seems to focus on so much. Funny thing about life is that so much of what we do is structured around timelines, and yet the one thing we all seek most in life-- LOVE-- follows no such rules and structure. It finds you when it is meant to happen, and this year, even though it was not according to my desired timeframe, I am just so glad it found me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning to Laugh At Yourself

It is Dec. 3rd, and all my holiday cards have arrived safely to their intended destinations. This week, I shipped all the presents that needed to arrive for my family in Florida in time for Christmas. Everyone laughed at me for being so efficient, and I have to admit it is funny. The stress of crowded stores, post offices, possible delays, etc. is all too much for me to bear, which is why I plan ahead and get things done early most of the time. It is a skill that has come in quite handy in my professional life, but in my personal life I have had to learn to tone it down, and the payoff has been incredible.

If you plan everything out, then there isn't much room for spontaniety. It is also hard to adapt when plans change at the last minute, and yet that is exactly how real life generally tends to work. Both my father and brother flew to DC this year to meet me at the last minute leaving me without much of chance to plan anything, and their laid back attitudes and fluid concept of time have left me baffled-- how is it possible that we look exactly alike and yet we can have such opposite attitudes towards something so fundamental? They find me hilarious, and my son is so relieved to have found allies in his way of thinking. It's taken all 3 generations to come together to prove to me it is okay to not always have a plan, and when things are not going as originally envisioned, the best thing to do may just be to let go and laugh.

So this week, the non-planner in me was greatly rewarded. A friend I had not seen in years came into town, and because I had not meticulously planned out my week, I was actually able to get together with her and have an amazing time. Three other people were also able to get on my calendar without having to wait for weeks because I no longer try to jam-pack a million things in at once. Finally, tonight I was able to make time to go see a friend's concert because I had not committed to anything, and the best affirmation that this new attitude is paying off came from my own son, who said he digs the more laid-back version of me. I had to chuckle at his comment, as I thought to myself, "I do too little man!"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Volunteering- It is an excellent form of therapy

Today, I volunteered to help at my son's school. I'll be honest-- it wasn't just about helping out the teacher, it was a great way for me to feel useful and connected to my community. I felt exactly the same yesterday after I volunteered to speak at Georgetown University about family law litigation and alternate dispute methods for families that want to preserve goodwill and funds by focusing on settlements outside of court. Volunteering for over 20 years has been part of my passion, and I think it is perfectly fine to admit that it is not just about doing a good deed, it is healthy and normal to enjoy the rewarding feeling that fills you while you are helping others.

Especially in this economy, where we may not be able to be as generous with funds, we can certainly make an effort to find some time to donate to a good cause. For parents with young children, I think it is important to foster in them a sense of responsibility to the community at an early age. If they cannot volunteer yet, but they at least see you do it, you are planting a seed by modeling the behavior for them. Up until now, I have not involved my son much in community service efforts because he is only 8, but he at least knows that I am doing these activities and that soon enough, we will be looking at things to do together in this vein.

My clients who are feeling down about their personal situations have all told me that one afternoon of volunteering at a shelter did wonders for helping them put things in perspective. Many friends looking for Mr. Right has told me that they have met wonderful people with common interests while doing a good deed. There are great resources for finding ways to volunteer in your local community. My alma mater, Georgetown, regularly sends emails with projects for alums, and Bethesda Magazine recenty did an article on charitable activities. There are also various websites, including that post opportunities regularly. Especially during this holiday season, if you cannot donate money I urge you to consider giving some of your time for a good cause-- not only will you be helping others, you will be helping yourself. I promise, it will lift your spirits!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Collaborative Law in the GLBT World

Today I had the privilege of lecturing to Georgetown Law students about alternate dispute resolution methods, including the Collaborative Process. Afterwards, a student approached me and asked whether this has been marketed in the GLTB (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender) community. I honestly do not believe it has been promoted within that community, but of all people that might benefit from this confidential process that seeks a fair resolution outside of the court system, I would imagine the members of the GLBT would be my ideal candidates-- especially as my office is in Dupont Circle.

I am not sure how one can spread the word about this process to the GLBT community, but I imagine blogging about it and spreading the word through social media would be a great first step. So, I encourage anyone who has a friend, family member or acquaitance in that community to share this idea with them. Unlike marriage, which has to be recognized by a state according to laws that not all of us may agree with, the Collaborative Process is open to anyone that wishes to settle a dispute outside of court looking at fairness standards that go beyond what the law may recognize or require.

Good ideas can arise from the most amazing places, and I truly appreciate the fact that this student spoke up in class today. Learning institutions that promote an open discussion and exploration of new ideas are truly special, and all the students in today's class were a great inspiration for me. I only hope that I was also one for them as I shared with them my explanation of the paradigm shift from litigator to mediator/collaborator using my own personal story as the best example for how that can happen. GU you made my day!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tips for Parents With Special Needs Children

Over the past decade, I have increasingly worked with families that have special needs children. These are truly difficult cases because a child's special issues have to be taken into account when creating a time-sharing schedule, and the extra-ordinary expenses can be astronomical and have to be addressed carefully in an agreement. Beyond the legal logistics, there are such complicated emotions involved for these parents. Often one parent has taken on the primary responsibility for dealing with doctors, therapists, school officials, and the process of obtaining an Independant Education Plan ("IEP"). That parent tends to feel overwhelmed and abandoned by the other parent, who for a variety of reasons may not have been available to participate fully in the challenges of obtaining all the right services for a special needs child.

Sadly, there is over an 80% chance that parents with special needs children will get divorced. If some of the child's issues are genetic, you may be dealing with a parent in denial or grappling with tremendous guilt. Not everyone knows how to deal with the complexities of a divorce involving special needs children, so carefully selecting an attorney is critical for these families. Hopefully, they will pick someone who has the child's best interest at heart and will guide the family through a dispute resolution process that preserves as much of the family's wealth and resources as possible.

I have learned so much over the years from these families-- many have incredibly gifted children, who have learning difficulties that just require special accomodations. There are plenty of great resources in the DC Area, including the Lab School. Many books have been written on this growing issue, and one of my favorites was one written by Sally Smith, who founded the Lab School of Washington. A great magazine that I found helpful is Attitude, and in this Winter's issue there was a fantastic article written by Frank South called "Parachutes for Parents." He encourages parents with children that have ADHD to try and remain calm, be patient about chores, let them experiment and goof off a bit. He confirms that these children have impulse control issues, are easily frustrated, and resent being controlled. These kids are not easy to parent, but he emphasizes the need to listen to them and show them unconditional love each and every day.

Last year, I had the honor of attending the Lab School's Gala, and the keynote speaker shared a beautiful story about her own experience overcoming learning difficulties and becoming a successful adult. She explained that children with learning difficulties realize they are different, and what they crave most is simply acceptance and love. Interacting with many L.D. children over the past few years, I have learned to see the world quite differently. They have amazing insight and an incredible way to challenge your way of thinking. I have no doubt that these children will grow up to be wonderful adults given how bravely they face their early childhood challenges, and hopefully their parents will see this too.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Together Forever?

Growing up, all my friends came from intact families. I had every expectation that when I got married, it would be forever. Even when I began practicing family law and saw people's relationships fall apart on a daily basis, I still never dreamed it would happen to me. No one I have ever met has ever said they thought it might not work out, but they gave marriage a shot anyway. Understanding that the expectation was that something would last forever, is exactly what helps explain why is it such a devastating blow to someone when things don't work out.

Whether you are the one leaving or the one left behind, there is always pain, regret and sorrow. People cope with feelings differently, however, and some lack the skills to work through their emotions effectively. Some will misuse/abuse the legal system to get their pound of flesh, and the consequences of all the games can be devastating beyond belief. I guess I should be grateful that I got to see this first hand for so many years before my own divorce, because that is exactly how I realized that is not what I wanted for my own family, and it is not what I want for any of my clients.

The other day, after reading Mr. & Mrs. Twit by Roald Dahl to my son, he asked me "why would anyone stayed married if they hate each other so much?" Excellent question- I ask myself that every day. I suppose for some there is a major economic dilemma with respect to creating two separate households and dividing assets; for others it may be the fear of the unknown or being alone that keeps them in an unhappy situation. At least Mr. & Mrs. Twit did not have any children that had to witness their dysfunctional relationship, but for those with young children, I do wonder what message they are getting seeing their parents under one roof, sticking to their vows, but miserable. While I regret that my son does not get to see both his parents living happily together, I have to admit I was relieved to learn that he understands it is okay if together forever does not work out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Talking to Kids About Divorce

If a couple decides to divorce, probably the hardest thing they will have to face is telling the kids. Many studies have shown that how this message is delivered is actually a significant factor in how well the children will cope with the news. Ideally, the parents should strive to present a joint statement and reassure the kids that 1) this is not their fault; 2) they will still have both parents involved in their lives on a regular and frequent basis; and 3) that the goal is to minimize the disruption to their lives. The worst situation is when one parent has already moved out and the other is left to deliver the news of the separation without any knowledge of the time-sharing schedule the family will be implementing.

Children crave continuity and stability. Home is supposed to provide a sanctuary from all the outside chaos, so the sooner parents can help reassure their children that everything will be okay, the sooner they can return to worrying about kid issues, and the parents can work out the restructuring of family ties. Telling kids the details of the divorce negotiations, financial arrangements, or pending litigation issues are not appropriate-- parents need to find other outlets for venting when necessary.

Most parents will try to avoid any discussions about a divorce for the next few weeks, and I do encourage that so that a child's holiday memories are not associated with his/her parents' separation. But usually right after the holidays, there is a spike in divorce activity, so for those contemplating that option, I would encourage finding some books that provide advice for talking to children about divorce. For those with little children, you may escape the need for any explanations when they are young, but as they get older, the questions will come up- so just be prepared.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Going the Extra Mile to Help Others

Today, I had a meeting in Baltimore, and managed to arrange time for coffee with a client that lives out there rather than have him commute into DC. Tomorrow, I am teaching a divorce workshop at Universities of Shady Grove, and afterwards will meet another client for coffee near his house instead of having him travel to meet me. I actually do this quite often, as a minor accomodation for my clients. Also, if people just want to do retainers for limited scope representation, such as flat-fees for drafting certain documents or reduced retainers for advice and consultation without any commitment to appear in court, I am willing to work with people and their budgets, and I hope that I am not alone.

People need help, and these days we all need to think about how we can go the extra mile to assist those around us. Unfortunately, unless you are that 1% of the population with plenty of money to spare, the ability to just pursue a basic life is becoming increasingly difficult. The numbers just don't make it possible-- if the average college grad is leaving with $25,000 of student debt, then the average wedding costs $20,000, and the average cost for raising one child through age 18 is about $150,000-- that is almost $200,000 that a young adult has to fork over just for the privilege of a college degree, getting married and having a child-- not including the expenses for housing, food, transportation, clothing, and quite modest entertainment. If the average household income is $50,000-- how can people afford all these things?

Sadly, those pursuing graduate degrees are not faring much better because although they may stand a better chance of higher salaries, they also tend to graduate with far greater debt-- most law schools do not provide scholarships, so many are taking out $100,000 in loans to cover those extra three years of school. Medical students tend to leave with a whopping $200,000 of debt. These are major sums of money that can take up to 20 years to pay off. Essentially, most of us are walking into decades of indentured servitude for the privilege of these higher degrees. So why do it? Certainly not for the money. Anyone going into these professions these days has to be motivated by the sheer love for medicine or the law, and the desire to help others by using the gift of knowledge for a greater good.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Optimism v. Pessimism

Most people in my personal life seen me as an eternal optimist, but a few years ago a friend told me I should try to be more "cautiously optimistic." At the time, I did not fully understand the meaning of that, but I have always appreciated that my friends don't always view things with the same rosy colored glasses that I like to use to view the world around me. Never before has their tempered view of situations proven more useful to me that this past year, and today I truly learned why.

In the December 2011 issue of Psychology Today there is a great article by Annie Murphy Paul entitled "The Uses and Abuses of Optimissim and Pessimism." She goes on to explain that while an optimistic view is great for providing us with hope, pessimism is a useful protective mechanism for our ego. If your expectations are low, you can only be pleasantly surprised; meanwhile eternal optimists run the risk of being greatly disappointed. Ultimately her point is that you need to have both outlooks, and use them appropriately in the right situations.

Remaining optimistic these days, given the state of our economy and morale in this country right now, is not easy, but it is actually critical to our survival that we continue to have hope in better days ahead. The same is true for anyone currently dealing with a difficult personal issue or relationship in crisis right now, especially right before the holidays. We all need to be able to believe in a brighter future, but not without thinking about some measured steps to protect ourselves and try to fix some of our own problems. With optimists and pessimists uniting everywhere, perhaps we can embrace a cautiously optimistic view-- still hoping for the best, but not expecting it to just happen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beware of Those Addicted to Instant Gratification

Modern technology has helped us stay connected, reduce communication costs, and decreased wait times for responses. In many ways, these are incredible advances that have helped businesses, allowed more women to stay in the workforce while working from home, and facilitated the continuation of many long distance relationships. With all this gain, however, there is some loss, and increasingly what I see is a decreased amount of patience. Everyone seems to have developed an expectation for instant gratification with immediate responses. Unfortunately, life does not always work that way.

In boarding school, there were 16 girls in Junior House, and we all had to share one pay phone. There was no internet-- no cell phones-- no other way to communicate with the outside world except by taking turns and sharing that one phone or sitting down and writing a letter. For 10 years, the only form of communication I had with my penpal from Spain was letters-- until finally technology crept into our relationship, and now we can use Facebook, Skype and email, which is all great, but I have to admit I miss those letters.

It took years to earn my degrees and build my legal career, and as everyone knows it took me 38 years to connect with my dad, and my brother had to wait 27 years to have me in his life. Only now is my son finally appreciating all the work that went into helping him become the person he is today. None of these endeavors were achieved instantly, and that is part of what makes them so special. Yet in this modern era, I definitely worry about our ability to instill this appreciation for delayed gratification in our children. At least when it comes to teaching adults in either your professional or personal life are concerned, you only need to remember one word: boundaries.

While patience may be a dying virtue, it is completely within your control to set a pace that works for you in each relationship. Those into instant gratification tend to have high expectations that are impossible to meet and will only drive you crazy. Avoid the insanity-- the earlier the better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Preparing Yourself for the Holidays

Holidays can be a great time of year, especially if you have special people in your life to celebrate with you. For those of us with children, the holidays are an especially magical time. I have to admit, I've never experienced a greater joy than seeing my son's face Christmas morning, as he dashes over to the stockings at the crack of dawn to see what Santa has brought for him. Same thing with the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy-- although I'm pretty sure this might be the final year that he'll still truly believe in all those characters.

For those in an unhappy situation or recently separated/divorced, however, the holidays are a particularly difficult time. Find friends to join you in the festivities and treat yourself to something fun. Sometimes, you have to find your own fun and make your own adventures, until you find the right one to share your time and celebrate with you.

Often, in an estranged relationship, a person will have a difficult time coming up with gift ideas for the other parent. A home-made card or art project from the child is always a great idea, or even a Hallmark card with a gift card at least acknowledges the occassion. For those with children, I truly encourage you to think about the impact on those innocent little ones, who would not be here but for that other person who helped create them. You don't have to go overboard, but a token gift from the child to his/her other parent sends an important message to the child.

I have heard parents, who try to assert that all holidays should remain with one parent-- for the child's sake, so the child is not confused or worried that Santa or the Easter Bunny won't come. Half jokingly, I try to point out that as parents, part of what we can tell our children is that among the many magical powers that Santa and the Easter Bunny have is a tracking device that tells them where all children will be on that holiday. Seriously, I understand how hard it is as a parent to miss out on certain moments, but imagine then how that other parent must feel-- or how that child would feel if s/he never got to spend some special holiday moments and make some lasting memories with the other one that helped bring him/her into this world.

Ultimately, I find holidays can be the best times to figure out where you are versus where you want to be. I think back to last year, when my son was with his dad for the holidays and I decided to clean out my closets. In doing so, I found my uncle's card from 20 years ago. With just one phone call, an entire family was transformed. Amazing to think what a difference one year alone has made. So my point is this-- even if you are not where you want to be right now, knowing that is half the battle. The power to change our own reality is within our own control. Use the holidays to gauge what you have to be thankful for, and plan for what you have yet to achieve.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Rat Race- What is the Point?

From as far back as I can remember, the pressure was always there to get good grades, get into good schools, build a good resume, then get a good job. Many seem to think this is the perfect formula to a happy life. Well, let me say flat out-- it is not. The pressure to perform doesn't end, it just keeps building. The more money, the more stress-- and as I have repeatedly mentioned, lots of people lack good coping mechanisms for all this stress, which is how they wind up needing my assistance with a divorce.

In the end, few of us will be remembered for what we did at work. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, are all a dime a dozen and firms will always believe that anyone can be replaced. Yet, what people will remember most are the acts of kindness and relationships we formed while we here. Just this week I realized that the most gratifying moments were being able to come through for my step-brother and son. Making time to help them both and spend quality time were the most satisfying moments of this week-- not the huge court win (although that was a nice bonus).

An old friend from high school was shocked to learn about my "Jerry Maguire" moment at work this summer. He never saw that coming from me, and indeed either did I. I confess I was once sucked into the rat race, but truly what is the point? You can't take it all with you. I am more concerned with enjoying a work-life balance while I remain here, helping others attain that, and making sure that what I leave behind is a clear message that happiness is something we can all attain by finding the courage to love.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Finding Balance in Life is Hard, But Not Impossible

Last week, I went to a seminar for women in business, and suprisingly a great deal of time was spent talking about happiness and fulfillment. Various lecturers emphasized the need for balance in life and the importance of being self aware. Among the best recommendations I heard was the need for a periodic internal audit. To find joy in our work, most of us need to believe it is meaningful and that we are connecting with others. To feel engaged and energized, we have to get both emotional and intellectual stimulation. If we are missing these things at work, we need to come up with new strategies to obtain these key elements in order to truly succeed.

This all seems so simple, but when my clients are encountering multiple challenges at once it is hard for them to focus and find clarity. When people are hit with a mid-life or existential crisis, they may need help figuring out the path they should take to get to a better place. Increasingly, people are relying on life or career coaches to help them identify the problem areas in life and find a happier path. These professionals actually graph out areas of life that a person may want or need to address in order to get to a happier point in their lives. I finally saw one of these pie charts the other day and laughed at its simplicity-- not that addressing these areas is easy at all, just that it is strange to see life broken out into about 8 basic categories that can define our entire existence. Here is a sample list:

1. career
2. home
3. health
4. finances
5. relationships
6. fun
7. community service
8. personal development

After an individual has ranked the list in terms of what is most important to him/her, the goal is to delve into a deep analysis to see what is working or not in each category. While I don't think we all need help performing this, I do believe it is a worth while exercise for everyone to do on a periodic basis, just to make sure we are not neglecting any major categories, and so we can develop plans for improvement as needed before some catastrophic event occurs that sends us into crisis-management mode.

Looking at these major areas of life that we all have to balance, one thing definitely became crystal clear-- it will never all be 100% right. It is a huge juggling act, and Christine Brown-Quinn (author of Step Aside Super Woman...) is right that the sooner women can learn to let go of the Super Woman image, the more realistic their chances of finding true happiness. Life does not have to be perfect-- it will never be perfect-- it just has to be good enough.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Turning the Other Cheek, It Is Not Easy

As a little girl, I did not understand why they would encourage us to "turn the other cheek" when someone did something hurtful, and I hated the saying that if we all believed in "an eye for an eye, then we would all be blind." Growing up in NYC during the 70's and 80's, if you could not stand up for yourself, you were in big trouble. What I lacked in size, I made up for with a sharp tongue. But as time wore on, I came to see the flaws in this approach.

I have probably now seen over 1,000 bad break-ups as a divorce lawyer, and as a result I have witnessed many people at some of the lowest points in their lives. When they are angry, afraid or insecure they tend to lash out at the other party. It really does take a strong person to walk away from the bait and instead take the high road. The alterative, however, is to get sucked into a vicious cycle that isn't productive for anyone.

Moving on is never easy, and turning the other cheek does take a strong character. Yet every day I see people tapping into their inner strength to avoid being consumed by ugly and unnecessary battles. Some need a little help to make this tough choice, and that is completely normal-- we all need a guide at some point in our lives to help us navigate difficult paths. I've had many wonderful guides in my own life, and I am a firm believer in paying it forward.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Erroneous Court Orders Can Have a Lasting Impact

For years I have tried to warn my clients that the courts can make mistakes, and that sometimes those errors can have dire consequences that last for generations. Little did I realize that I would become the best living proof of that statement, until this year. In 1978, a Florida court found insufficient evidence to support a finding of paternity. As a result, I grew up without a father, uncle, cousins or any siblings. My son, who was born decades later, would still have been impacted by this erroneous court order-- except for one thing, I refused to let that happen.

In 2011, using all the mediation and collaborative skills that I have acquired over the last several years, I went in search of some answers. Seeking to simply understand what happened back in 1978, without passing any judgment and having zero expectations of what may transpire, I made contact with my alleged father. We eventually took a DNA test, which confirmed that the court's decision was in fact wrong.

This weekend, Bethesda Magazine released a story "Finding Family," which summarizes my journey over the past year to piece together a family that has been torn apart for decades by nasty litigation. It is not a coincidence that as this story was unfolding I decided to resign from a firm that focused on litigation to instead open my own firm that seeks to promote a kinder, more humane way to renegotiating family ties.

While I enjoy lecturing and writing about Collaborative Divorce, I realize it is not an option that many will use in their own divorces. It takes a very mature couple that values the preservation of goodwill and confidentiality to opt for this process. It is not for couples with major trust issues or high-conflict situations. But plenty of people are opting for Collaborative-style or "cooperative" divorces that seek to keep things civil and outside of our courts, and that is really my hope for most. The courts should only be a couple's last resort, and all you have to do is remember my story to understand why.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

It would be nice to think that bad things only happen to bad people, but if bad things never happened to good people I suppose most lawyers would be out of a job. Professor Hall wrote a beautiful essay about how the law was created as a safety net to ensure some base level of civility when all other social norms failed. Unfortunately, this purpose in the law has gotten lost with all the games that some people like to play, where the law is actually used as a weapon. To right this wrong, maybe we should start asking lawyers to take a hippocratic oath, like doctors, to do no harm?

Some of us became lawyers because we wanted to help people; others simply wanted the prestige and prospect of a lucrative salary. I suppose no amount of required Continuing Legal Education courses or minimum pro bono hours will ever help the latter type of attorney convert to a kinder, gentler soul. Thankfully, the true power lies with the clients, who can choose to seek out those attorneys with a proven track record-- those dedicated to taking on-going trainings and giving back to their communities.

We may not always see immediate rewards for our good work in life, but I am a firm believer that you reap what you sow. We will all have our share of heartbreak, disappointments and setbacks, but it is how we choose to handle these situations that defines our character and makes us who we are as individuals. In relationships, these challenges will create those make-it or break-it moments. For those that stay stuck in anger and want revenge, there are attorneys that will feed off these emotions and go for scorched earth litigation. These types of cases destroy families for generations and give the rest of us divorce lawyers a really bad (undeserved) reputation.

In the end, I realize I cannot stop bad things from happening to good people, and I can only hope to end their pain as quickly and gently as possible. For those that choose to practice a different way, all I can say is that another firm belief I have is that if bad things happen to good people, REALLY REALLY bad things happen to bad people.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Different Roles Family Lawyers Play

Today, I began my day by lecturing at GW on alternative forms of conflict resolution, and someone asked me whether this is all I do. I laughed as I explained that family law attorneys rarely play just one role in their practice. Here is a quick run down of what a full-service family law attorney can do:

1. Negotiation/Litigation of all aspects in a divorce or custody case;
2. Prenuptial or Separation Agreements;
3. Mediation;
4. Collaborative Divorce; and
5. Child Counsel.

Most of the roles listed above should be self-explanatory, except perhaps for the last one. Sadly, according to various national studies about 20% of the family law cases filed with the courts are considered "high conflict." When parents cannot agree on custody, the courts can order custody evaluations to be done by mental health professionals and/or counsel to represent the children's best interests in the legal proceedings. I just recently completed the requirements so that I can now begin getting appointments as counsel for children in contested divorces.

Until I had all the other trainings in place, I do not think I would have felt competent to take on the role of a child counsel in high conflict cases. I am confident that the skills I have learned in my prior trainings will be very useful in these litigous situations, but what many people do not realize is that in Maryland and DC, attorneys are not currently required to take any further Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") classes after they pass the bar. While most other professionals need to complete a certain number of CLEs in order to maintain their licenses, somehow lawyers in my area do not need to take any further trainings in order to remain a member of the bar in good standing-- amazing.

For those of us who have opted to be court-appointed mediators, however, the MD courts do require a 40-hour training and minimum of 3 years experience. To be a Collaborative Professional, in addition to mediation training, you need to do a 3-day class, and then most practice groups require regular meeting attendance and 1 additional class per year. Furthermore, to be a Child Counsel, there is another 6.5 hour training that Maryland requires in addition to a minimum of 3 years in active family law practice.

Not everyone will want to go through the number of hours I have spent over the last five years to get all these additional trainings, but those of us that do go through these efforts do it because we love what we do-- we love helping families in various capacities. We also tend to enjoy learning; we read psychology books for fun, and we volunteer a tremendous amount of our time to make our communities better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Faulty Logic Seems to Run Rampant

Throughout the years, as a divorce attorney in DC I have heard lots of crazy things. Tons of brilliant professionals make poor choices in their personal lives, and I guess part of the problem may be that we place so much emphasis on our work here in the nation's capitol, that when things get difficult at home, many of us just focus on work, where we have a high probability of being rewarded for our efforts. Unfortunately, avoiding problems at home does not make them go away, it just makes them get worse.

Often I have had couples tell me that things were already tense before they ever had children, but they thought starting a family would make them bond. Seriously- how can any rational person think that adding sleepless nights, raging hormones and a million more responsibilities to the mix would make things better? Don't get me wrong, kids are wonderful, but they are hard work, and they usually cause a lot of stress in adult relationships.

In the dating world, I have heard people suggest that marriage might be the solution to stopping all the bickering. Again, how can anyone think that if a couple is incapable of getting along while they are supposed to be on their best behavior that things will improve once they are living together 24/7 without any safe havens they can escape to for a few days to decompress?

Staying in sync with someone beyond the "honeymoon phase" is hard work. It is challenging to give up independance and autonomy in order to be in a relationship, and when things are difficult, it is best not to try and take on more responsibility in other areas, but rather allow yourself the time and space to think through the problem rationally, generate options, and then work on a mutually agreeable solution with your partner. If you are not sure you are seeing things clearly, ask some objective friends that you can count on for great insight. Those of us that are detached from the situation are far more able to see things clearly, and hopefully will point out your faulty logic. No matter what, just know that you are not alone--I am surrounded by it on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Growing Trends Support Adopting a Broader View of Family

This week, I was fortunate enough to connect with someone who had sought out his biological mother when he was about my age. It was wonderful to hear his story about how he went in search of his birth mother, and although she had passed away by the time he discovered her identity, he was still able to connect with others in her family. He described how strange it was to see her picture and see how much he looked like her. He admitted how he could not get enough of the photo albums, and I understood exactly how he felt. The connection he has been able to develop with his biological family is something that he cherishes, and yet something so many take for granted.

I grew up not looking like anyone around me, no one talked about my father, and there were no pictures anywhere that made me feel in anyway connected to others that might share some of my DNA. Sadly, I was told all the pictures burned in a fire. So when I finally found my dad, I cannot describe the joy I felt seeing that I actually looked just like someone else. Seeing my cousins and half-brother and being able to find similarities between us is just so cool, and I admit, I never grow tired of seeing their pictures, which are all over my house these days.

Unlike me, my son is growing up with both his parents in his life, even though we are in separate households. He knows exactly who he looks like, where he gets certain traits, and hopefully as he gets older he will be able to take from the best of both our personalities. In addition, thanks to my discovery this year, he also now has two complete sets of grandparents, two uncles, and a ton of extended family that will hopefully help him feel more connected and loved in this world than I could ever have imagined possible. That is the best gift I could ever give him-- even though he may not realize it for many years to come.

After a divorce, most people lose connections and family ties are usually strained. Ironically, it is probably as a direct result of my divorce that I went in search of my biological father and now have 8 wonderful new people in my life. The point I want to make in sharing my story is this: we are the masters of our own destiny, and divorce does not have to destroy families. Furthermore, in a society where over 41% of our children are being born out of wedlock, it is critical that we broaden our minds and open our hearts to include as many family figures as possible in our children's lives.

Whether a child was adopted, created through artificial reproductive technology, or the product of some fling on board the Love Boat, it is human nature that s/he will want to meet his/her makers. Let's not lie to our children-- and above all I don't believe we should kill someone off or sever an entire family line needlessly. We may have to put aside some of our own pain, sorrow or dissappoint in order to foster connections for our children, but it is a small price to pay to have well-adjusted, balanced individuals with a healthy perspective on family.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Being Able to Laugh and Commiserate is Therapeutic

Throughout the years, I have heard from others that they have really benefited from going to AA meetings, group therapy, or workshops for different reasons. I had never experienced anything like this really-- until today. I went to a parenting class taught by a psychologist, who provided tips for more effective ways we can get our children to listen to us. One of the interesting theories she proposed was that part of the problem so many of us are finding it so challenging these days to parent our kids is that the way we were raised, primarily under an authoritarian model, no longer works. Being incredibly permissive does not work either, and vacilating between the two styles is just too confusing and ineffective. Her suggestion was to adopt a more democratic style of parenting, where the children are given limited choices appropriate with their ages, and that this way they feel empowered and respected while being guided in the right direction.

There are obviously many books out there about parenting and articles that we can all easily access, but the beauty of this class setting was that when people started to ask questions and share their stories, we all started to nod and laugh in a way that made us all connect, even if just for that one hour. In that room full of parents that want to improve their skills, we all understood each others pain and frustration. I have no doubt that everyone in that room who voluntarily made time to attend this lecture loves their kids, and yet our greatest sources of joy are also are biggest challenges. Knowing that there are so many others going through the same thing, and hearing people's success stories of how they were able to surpass certain hurdles, can provide great comfort and hope.

Parent Encouragement Programs in Montgomery County are quite affordable and incredibly useful to parents of children in all age brackets. I am sure there are similar programs in other areas, and I truly encourage parents to seek these out if they find themselves in need of a little guidance-- not to mention some good laughs!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What Do You Do WIth A Used Wedding Dress?

I have to admit, I still have my wedding dress. Six years post-divorce, and I have somehow not managed to get rid of this thing! The dress is now so old that the charity Brides Against Cancer will not take it-- they only re-sell dresses that are from 2005 or later. Donating a dress made of Italian lace with silk that cost over $1000 requires some careful consideration, and although I thought about holding on to it for my family's sake, what are the chances that anyone will want to wear a dress from a wedding that ended in a divorce?

So today I was reading about a book that is coming out soon-- 101 Things To Do With My Ex-Wife's Wedding Dress. This guy has a blog, and it has some pretty hilarious pictures of what he did with the dress after his wife moved out! Let's just say, the dress is no longer in any condition to be donated anywhere-- except maybe as filling for a punching bag. What struck me was his ability to find humor in what must have once been a very painful situation. It is really a healthy sign when we can laugh at some of the crap that hits us in life, and his ability to laugh and find love again is truly inspiring.

Thanks to this random find today I learned of a new charity that takes wedding dresses and has them re-sown into burial dresses for children that are still born or die in the NICU. Families going through this grieving process can barely deal with basic decisions, let alone find time and funds to purchase proper dresses for their little ones funerals. I finding it to be quite a worthy cause, and also amazingly proper that the dress should be buried. Divorce is like a death in one's life, and finally I found a way to properly commemorate this tragic loss while helping another family. For those interested, the charity's site is

Monday, October 17, 2011

Becoming a Good Spouse May Well Hinge on Our Parents Skills

For some time now I have been polling people as to what they think makes someone a good spouse, and there are definitely some traits we all seem to look for in a partner. What struck me about these common characteristics that we are seeking in our mates is that very few of them are innate. In fact, most of these skills need to be taught to us by our family or friends in our early, formative years. Here are some examples of what we most want to find in our significant others:

1. Someone who is considerate.
2. Someone who can listen well.
3. Someone who can effectively communicate.
4. Someone who can compromise.
5. Someone who is able to show his/her affection.
6. Someone who is responsible and trustworthy.
7. Someone with an upbeat personality.
8. Someone you like spending time with.
9. Someone who wants to create a stable home environment.

As adults, we will face many challenges in life. Having a rock that can keep us grounded when everything else seems out of control is a key survival tool. As parents, we need to ensure that we teach our children the skills to form solid relationships, because the fact is that we will not always be there for them, and they need to be able to bond with others. They need to be taught to trust and to attach not just to immediate family members.

The adults I have encountered that have the skills set forth above all had wise, loving parents that provided them with roots to come home, but also the wings to fly. While it can certainly occur that we can learn from our parents mistakes, and we can chose to be the opposite, it is far easier when parents model good behavior for their children. The task may not be easy, and we may have to take some courses and read up on developing these skills ourselves, but I can only imagine that the payoff in seeing your children blossom into well-adjusted adults has to be a parent's proudest accomplishment.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Should We View Dating as Car Shopping?

The other day, I was commenting with friends about how sometimes in the Dating Game you can get caught up in the games and lose sight of the end goal. It is quite common to get wrapped up in the fun of 20 questions and veer off course from your initial objective. When this happens, you might feel as if you are shopping for a car without knowing what specifications you need. That is a tell-tale sign that it is time to take a break and regroup.

No one goes out to test drive cars without having a budget and knowing the basic qualifications they need from a vehicle. Similarly, in dating it would be helpful to have a top-five list of characteristics you are looking for in a mate. Without this list, it is very easy to wind up way off course distracted by great eye-candy that has little if any long-term potential. To avoid going for the 2-seater Miata when you really need the SUV that can carry a family around, allow yourself some time to carefully think through what the real objective is in engaging in the whole dating exercise.

Some people may just be in the market for a weekend car-rental; others may be ready to negotiate a long-term lease; and then there are those rare gems that are prepared to embark in a commitment for an out-right purchase. You just need to be honest with yourself to know the category you fall into, and then seek out those in a similar place. Then, not to be crass, but it really is helpful to have a realistic budget. Too many out there seem to have a champagne taste while working on a beer budget. All I can say is why even bother trying to negotiate a test drive on a Porsche when you know you can't even afford the insurance on it?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Viewing Life in Chapters

The hardest cases I have ever had all involve clients that share a common view-- they feel their life is over. They tend to believe that the divorce makes a mockery out of their entire married life; they see no glimmer of hope in the future; they regret ever walking down the aisle and saying their vows. In other words, it is nothing but gloom, and their negative attitude taints their ability to properly assess settlement offers and make sound, practical decisions. In the world of psychology, they attribute this to "situational depression." I can only hope to get them out of the legal situation as quickly as possible so they can get to a better place, but if I could interject a non-legal opinion to those that find themselves in this kind of rut, it would be this: try to view life in chapters.

I loved being a gymnast and competing across the country. It was an amazing experience to spend summers in Bulgaria or at the Olympic Training Center; I met some of the most talented and dedicated athletes in the world, and when I retired from that world at 18, I was sad-- I lost a huge part of my identity. But I made a choice to focus on academics, and so I closed that chapter of my life as an athlete and moved on to the next task at hand, which was focusing on getting my law degree.

My academic years were filled with incredible opportunties to meet some of the most brilliant minds in the U.S. I studied abroad and had wonderful internship opportunties that helped prepare me for life post-graduation. I admit, I miss my Ivory Towers, where I could lose myself in noble and lofty visions of an ideal world; where I also took for granted that everyday was filled with possiblities for meeting others that were equally gifted and driven. But that chapter also had to end, so that I could step out into the real working world, where I would apply the knowledge provided by my alma maters to hopefully make things better for others.

Married life was certainly not something I saw ending, especially after being together for over a decade. But our partnership did end, and we had to work very hard to renegotiate our ties as co-parents for our son's sake. Together we have shared some of the greatest joys and sorrows in life, and it is sad that our partnership could not last, but it is that experience that helped spark my professional transformation and led to a far greater understanding of the struggles my clients face in their own lives. Closing the chapter of my divorce was not easy, but necessary in order for me to forge ahead on the unexpected journey that lies ahead.

Whatever we learn from our past life chapters, helps us form what we believe is our mission in life, gives us a vision for what we want, and establishes our values. There is plenty that we will continue to carry with us from these other phases of our lives, but sometimes in order to move to the next part of our journey, we have to close a chapter, and it will not be easy because it will involve some loss. Unfortunately, most great opportunities involve making difficult choices, and it is these very choices that will define the full story of our lives.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It Is All In the Delivery

When I primarily litigated, I often wondered what made a marriage fall apart. Now when I am mediating or doing a Collaborative divorce, I rarely have any remaining doubt. With both parties in the room, able to speak freely without fear that what is said can be used against them in court, I often witness the dysfunctional dynamic that led them to by office: both have important points to make, but 99% of the time, their delivery of that message sucks.

Dr. Gottman has repeatedly warned about the "Four Horsemen" that routinely appear during arguments: (1) criticism; (2) contempt; (3) defensiveness; or (4) stonewalling. As soon as any of these start to creep up in a meeting, it is my job to try and stop it. Unlike Gottman, I am not trying to repair a marriage; I am simply trying to help people address their legal issues so they can go their separate ways, but I constantly find myself having to remind people that negativity does not help, just as focusing on the past is irrelevant when the task at hand requires us to figure out how we are going to move forward.

The beauty of mediation or Collaborative cases is that in our sessions, we are able to point out to people better ways of communicating by enforcing certain rules of engagement, including the need to stick to "I" statements, such as "I feel like my input does not count when you do..." We ask people to avoid name-calling, which simply makes the other person tune-out or become defensive. If we see people getting too emotional or shutting down, we take breaks to make sure that the person can engage in meaningful settlement discussions while feeling calm and secure.

This is all so much easier said than done, but with practice, I do believe it is possible to rein in our emotions so that we can communicate more effectively. For those of us that did not grow up in a household that modeled good communication or conflict resolution skills, this will take a lot of practice-- it is not something instinctive, it might even be counter-intuitive to how we are wired, but it is not impossible to learn, and the sooner the better. We all want to be heard, and with that goal in mind, it is key to remember that sometimes, it really is all in the delivery.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Top 10 Signs It Is Time to Bail

Dating is supposed to be fun-- it is an exercise in gathering information, but it should be entertaining. So, when is it time to call is quits? Here are some tell-tale signs you might want to bail:

1. When things you once found funny about that person are now annoying;
2. When making plans becomes a chore;
3. When you have lost interest in being intimate;
4. When your eyes start to wander, or worse;
5. When receiving texts, emails or calls becomes annoying, and you cannot bear to deal with responding;
6. When finding a gift for a special occassion becomes an overwhelming burden;
7. When that person has ceased to make you feel loved or special;
8. When you no longer care whether you connect or not;
9. When you have become two ships passing in the night, not even exchanging basic pleasantries; and
10. When you no longer like the person you have become in the relationship.

Break ups are never easy, but can you imagine living under the conditions described above? Many try to grin and bear it for a while until they finally hit a wall. Life is too short-- if you don't think there is hope for fixing the situation, I say you eject as soon as possible. If things are not working in the early stages, do not delude yourself into thinking it gets better over time. I have never seen it happen-- NEVER.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Setting Realistic Expectations, It is a Work in Progress

Throughout life, I have been repeatedly disappointed whenever close relationships have faded away because someone moved or there was a change in life circumstances, such as a new job, new boyfriend, or new baby. I have also routinely been disheartened when people have not done the right thing, or they seem incapable of looking at a situation from another person's perspective. Yet, the fact is that most people have a hard time juggling multiple relationships, and the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome seems to be quite prevalent in our society. Having the capacity to view a problem from various angles and to value different perspectives is not a common trait. Over time, these qualities have proven to be a blessing, and also a curse for me.

This year, when I found my father and extended family, I had no expectations as to how anyone would react. Precisely because I did not have any expectations in what would transpire, I could only be pleasantly surprised if even one person showed an ounce of kindness. The glorious homecoming was not only made possible because the people I found were so warm and friendly, but also because the bar was set so low in my own mind as to how they would react. This amazingly rare set of circumstances is what enabled the "Gang of Eight" to become part of a very rare group of people that have ever managed to exceed my expectations.

With any relationship, it is normal as time wears on, to have expectations build. And this is why, it is also quite normal that we will eventually disappoint one another. It is impossible to always say or do exactly what another one wants us to say or do. We all have our bad days or our narcisstic moments, and that is why when times get tough it is the best test to whether a relationship is solid or not. We can all get along when we are on our best behavior, but what about when we are not? Times of conflict are not just the best times for us to test the strength of a bond, but also a time for us to look inward and maybe reassess the expectations we have for our work colleagues, family and friends. Often, the problem is not just one-sided, and the best solution may be for us to readjust our thinking and reset our expectations. It may not be easy to do this, but if the choice is to readapt or live a lonely existence, I for one am opting for the former.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Do You Live to Work or Work to Live?

I think it is safe to say that most people work in order to live, but some of us are fortunate enough to love our work, and it may be said that we live to work. We love what we do, it is a passion that consumes us, and it is a huge part of our identity. For those that fall into this latter category, I think it is really important to be aware of this characteristic within ourselves and to appreciate that most people are not like us. This becomes particularly critical when picking a partner-- for it can really be a problem if one person hates to work, while the other is a workaholic.

When people meet early in life-- such as high school or college sweethearts, it is still too early to tell whether someone is going to be addicted to his/her work. Later on, as careers are defined and take on a key role in someone's life, if the other partner cannot adapt to this change, it can cause an insurmountable divide between the two parties. There are some who meet already entrenched work-junkies and delude themselves into thinking that this person will change his/her priorities for the right relationship. Others are quite drawn to the intensity exhibited by a person driven by his/her work. In either case, as time wears on, it is often the fact that the partner not married to his/her work eventually starts to resent the time and effort that his/her partner is putting into work commitments. If these concerns are not addressed and a compromise is not reached early on, I believe these relationships are doomed.

After observing the dynamics describe above for some time, I am convinced that the best partnerships for career-driven people are with those who share that same core value. Those that are equally work-motivated will have a level of respect and understanding for each other that few others can share. Finding time to coordinate calendars and schedule time together may not be easy for such "power couples" and yet if there is love I believe they will find a way to make it work, precisely because they have to realize that meeting someone with whom they share not only a spark, but also a major philosophical view towards the work/life balance, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

If you are lucky enough to find that needle, don't discard it with haste the first time you hit a hiccup in the romance. All relationships require work-- and especially ones involving power couples, where you have two very dynamic personalities. In the heat of an argument, which is bound to happen sooner rather than later with two fiery personalties, ask yourself this: how often does someone really get you? When you find that person that completely syncs with you, and is not out to change your work ethic but actually loves you because of it, make sure to take a step back and appreciate the gem you have just found.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Trust Your Gut, and Cut Yourself Some Slack

After a bad break-up, it is common to doubt your ability to judge someone. Some of us have a tendency to be particularly hard on ourselves and wonder how we could have ever made such a stupid mistake being with an inappropriate partner. But the fact is everyone has at some point or another let someone into their lives that they should not have, and the real question is whether getting involved in the beginning made sense with the information available at that time.

Dating is an exercise in gathering information: (1) who is this person? (2) what is this person's background; and (3) where is this person heading? As soon as your gut starts to tell you this is not a good fit, trust it and move on. There is no point in wasting anyone's time, money or emotional energy. As soon as I realize, I could be better entertained reading a book at home, or deep-conditioning my hair, I know it is time to eject. Our time off the clock is precious, and we should be picky about who we choose to share it with-- it should be someone that we enjoy and are at peace with, someone that can make us laugh and comfort us during trying times. A partner in life that you could see yourself with every day is an incredibly special role that not just anyone will be able for fill.

The longer you have been playing the dating game, the more in tune you are (I think) with what you want and what you cannot stand. Malcom Gladwell's Blink helped me understand that those decisions I make in the blink of an eye should not be dismissed as rash, rather I should give credit to the fact that a lot of experience has gone into my ability to judge people quickly. For over a decade, I have heard the most initimate secrets in people's lives, and I have had to decide within one hour whether I want to work with a person or not through one of their worst moments in life. My professional skills can be carried over to my personal life, and honestly I am done apologizing for the fact that within 30 minutes I am either going to decide that it is time to get the check or order a second round. So my advice today for my peers in the dating world is to trust your gut, and cut yourself some slack.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What Will It Cost to Get Divorced?

At the end of all my initial consults, I always get this question- what will it cost to get divorced? Sadly, no one can answer this burning question. Divorce lawyers have an ethical obligation to charge by the hour; we cannot take cases on a contingency basis tied to a percentage of the assets. While we can all tell you what our hourly rates are based on our educational backgrounds, years of experience, and recognition with the community, no one can predict how many hours of work it will take to get someone divorced. So, in typical lawyer fashion, the response to this question is "it depends."

I have seen divorces cost as little as $700-- basically 2 hours of consultation time to review an agreement already written and help with the court documents. That is a client's best case scenario, which is almost unheard of and should not be considered a realistic expectation. On the other hand, I have seen nasty divorces where the parties spent over $300,000 in legal fees. The likelihood of a high-conflict divorce is only about 20% of all cases, so hopefully most will not have pay the latter some to obtain their freedom.

The more clients are able to handle themselves, the less they will incur in legal fees. If the parties are able to work out major issues themselves, then the involvement of an attorney will not be very time consuming. If they can go to a mediator and split the fee to have this professional work through the issues that need to be part of a formal agreement, again the parties will be saving themselves a tremendous amount in fees. If the parties want their own attorneys but are able to envision a Collaborative Process, where everyone works together to gather the relevant information and find reasonable solutions to the issues at hand, this should also be far less expensive than engaging in full-blown litigation, where the attorneys have to issue subpeonas, conduct depositions, make multiple court appearances, and deal with trial exhibits, experts, etc.

In the end, I wish I could eliminate the huge fear of unknown legal expenses for my clients, but I cannot-- because I do not control the other side or his/her attorney. At least with consults and mediation sessions, most of us can allow clients to operate in a pay-as-you model. Perhaps in the Collaborative approach we can predict that within 4 two-hour meetings you should accomplish certain things, and we can let you budget for those 4 meetings, then if a case is still pending and clients need time to obtain additional financing, we can stop the process to allow for this. Sadly, in litigation, these costs saving mechanisms cannot be applied, and large retainers are necessary to ensure sufficient funds are available to cover the extensive work that will be required of the legal professionals involved. Clients need to remember that the more they want to fight, the more it will cost. Ulimately, only a client can decide which battles are worth pursuing-- preferrably without losing sight of the emotional and financial costs associated with their choices.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Witnessing the Demise of a Marriage

This week, I witnessed the end of three marriages-- one was a decade old; the other two decades; the third was over 30 years. None were easy, and all were handled quite differently-- one was Collaborative, the other a negotiated settlement, the third went to trial and is in the hands of a judge right now. It may surprise you to know that the most difficult was actually the Collaborative case, which involved young children.

Being a divorce lawyer is like performing an amputation, without any anesthesia. The technical side of what I must to is easy, but it actually pains me to see people struggle to figure out the reason why they are getting divorced-- something that may plague them for some time, but that the courts may not give much weight to in determining a fair division of the marital pie. While people are wrapped up in the emotions, to the professionals it is a businesss transaction, where the sooner the person learns to detach from the emotions, the better off s/he will be in terms of making sound decisions.

Some people seem to think there has to be a major trangression to cause a divorce. Those are actually rare-- more often it is a culmanation of various factors that have built up over time. A couple's inability to resolve conflict, a lack of shared values or vision for the future, repeated affronts to someone's dignity and respect, and/or a failure to communicate effectively and show one another love and consideration, all add up until finally one person finds the courage to end this unhealthy existence in the hopes of something better--- even if that means possibly living the rest of one's life in solitude.

No one dreams of getting married and then getting divorced. 80% of Americans get married and obviously hope for a happily-ever-after ending together. Unfortunately, that won't be in the cards for half of us, even when you marry your best friend for all the right reasons. Feelings of anger, sadness, fear, betrayal and/or injustice are all normal, but to remain stuck with those sentiments is not. My goal is to get people past the worst point so they can move on to a better place-- so they can start a new chapter in their lives. As my own case shows, who knows what that might bring?

If I was following the Eat, Pray, Love model, I should have only spent a year soul-searching and then found love. Instead, I defied everyone's prediction that I would be remarried by now, and it has almost become a badge of honor that I choose to stay single because I refuse to settle. Meanwhile, I surprised myself this year with the amazing discovery of the family I had always longed for and an incredible sense of peace I never knew possible. Would I opt to be in an intact relationship with Mr. Right today? Absolutely, but not if it would have meant I would miss the opportunity to now have in my life my rightful family. This is one instance where the end does now help justify the means -- the last 6 years were not easy, but the payoff turned out to be beyond my wildest dreams. All this and more is what I will continue to hope for as I help guide others through what seems like their darkest hours.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is The Way We Fall In Love Genetic?

According to The Good Marriage, there are 4 ways people typically fall in love:

1) there are those with a savior complex, who want to rescue the one in need;
2) there are friends, who are equals and eventually develop a romantic spark;
3) there are those who just fall in love at first sight; and
4) there are those who believe in the traditional marriage roles, and appreciate the other for his/her ability to dutifully complete the tasks associated with those roles.

Research shows that the fourth model is dying out, and meanwhile there has been a dramatic increase in friends meeting in school or at work and then developing a romantic relationship, especially as women have consistently been gaining ground over the last 40 years in graduate school and the work force. Both of these models seem primarily driven by learned social behavior- but what about the other two? For those that seek the thrill of playing a savior role or love at first sight, contrary to every cautionary tale out there, could it be that there is a genetic component to what makes us fall in love?

Some of us are simply wired to want to fix things, help others and make the world as perfect as possible. The "savior complex" my brother sees in me serves me well at work, but I have learned that it is a disaster to try to play this role with your partner. You wind up taking on the role of a parent/care-taker,and they start to see you as a nag. Eventually, you both become exhausted and frustrated with the vicious cycle and the romance completely fizzles.

Love at first sight-- it may surprise many of you to hear that I have definitely been a victim of this, more than just once. I remember when I first met my high school sweetheart and had this "wow" moment, which is very difficult to explain, but it feels like you have butterflies in your stomach, and you get all tongue tied. Same thing when I first met my ex-husband back in 1993. Post-divorce, I am happy to say that even after suffering some broken heart moments, the fireworks are still possible in your 30's and 40's (and from what I've heard even in your 50's and 60's).

Having never witnessed a couple's intimate interactions growing up, and not ever being privy to how my parents felt about love, partnerships, and what defines "a good marriage" I guess I started my search for a life partner with a clean slate-- I use that term quite liberally, as I am sure NIH would have a field day testing me to see how I survived all these years. Anyway, my point is that I am keenly aware of certain genetic pre-dispositions that I have had to learn to control or rein in when it comes to falling in love. For those that want to maximize their chances of finding a love that lasts, I encourage them to dig deep and figure out what traits they tend to gravitate towards and ask relatives to share their love stories. Find what moves you, and look for patterns to determine your areas of weakness.  This way, you may be able to better guard against certain relationship pitfalls-- it is like using your DNA to innoculate yourself from repeated heartache.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Revisiting the American Dream

There has been a lot of debates lately about whether the American dream is still alive and whether corporations, focused on the bottom line and shareholder profits, are killing the American dream. While I do believe that there is a major problem created by the lack of social conscienceness in most private-sector companies, I think the real issue each individual needs to address for him/herself is what defines the American dream?

I grew up with the understanding that the American dream meant anyone, from anywhere who wanted to work hard could get a good job, get married, buy a house, drive a decent car and live happily ever after. Even though I was born to an unwed immigrant that lacked a college degree, and my grandmother, who helped to raise me never finished middle school or learned any English, I believed in that dream.

English is not my first language, and I did not come from a wealthy background, but by studying hard, at age 14 I won a scholarship to attend boarding school in New England. The gift of an amazing education, together with incredible internships and study-abroad experiences that were provided by my alma maters changed my life. By age 31, I was married and living the "American dream" with a solid law firm job, a nice house, a cool Mercedes, and a beautiful son. But there was this huge void in my life, and ultimately I forfeited most of the material things, and went in search of true happiness.

It has been quite a journey these past few years learning not to care so much about what others might think or expect of me, and instead finding what truly matters to me most. Letting go of certain attachments was not easy, and I realized that a large part of that problem was that the way we measure success as a society is so often tied to material things or our status at work. Yet all those things can so easily be lost, and will not matter at all once we are gone. My education, experiences and close personal relationships are the three things that can never be taken away, regardless of how the economy is doing, and thankfully what I have discovered is that these are the things that I have come to value most.

Ironcially, if my own marriage had not fallen apart, I suppose I could have become the poster-child for the American dream. Instead, I gave up the stupid rat-race and went in search of answers. Having lacked a solid supportive family structure my whole life, I realized this is what I craved most, and it is truly nothing short of a miracle that the strangers I reached out to just a few months ago have welcomed this long lost family member with open arms. Finding unconditional love, acceptance and understanding within my own biological family has re-defined the American dream for me-- I truly believe it is what you make of it. Don't allow others to define it for you, each individual has to define it and pursue it for him/herself.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Importance of Family Role Models

I never had any heroes growing up, and mostly I learned from the mistakes made by those around me. I was not raised in a household with a full cast of characters, so I never got to see how a couple resolves conflict, nor did I ever get to have any fights with any siblings or cousins. It is almost like being raised in a bubble, and perhaps that explains why I was so drawn to family law, where I got to see first-hand the conflicts families encounter.

Many think that my work must be depressing, yet every day I see families making immense sacrifices and working together during a separation in order to minimize the downside for their children. On a daily basis, I see people make some of the toughest decisions-- risking emotional and financial security, in the hopes that by leaving an unhappy or unhealthy situation, they can provide their children with a happier, calmer, safer future. The clients I work with understand that they are role models for their children, and they do not want them to grow up thinking that it is okay to live in a miserable situation or that money can buy happiness, because they have already witnessed for themselves that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Obviously, in an ideal world couples would do their best to resolve conflicts and stay together in one household, but I have learned that conflict resolution is a rare skill. I marvel at the fact that my aunt (who is celebrating her birthday today) has been married for 34 years and raised two beautiful, well-grounded daughters. She is an amazing person, full of wisdom and patience. I wish it had not taken me 38 years to find her, but I am very grateful that Auntie B. is in my life now.

Family role models are truly special because generally only a catastrophic incident will sever that connection, and fortunately for most, those are rare. I will never know what it would have been like to grow up with people that looked like me or thought like me to help me in my early years, I can only imagine that it would have been great. Speaking as the child who always craved a family role model that could help guide me through life's challenges, I think it is critical to foster these family bonds, even when (actually especially when) the family is no longer in an intact household.

We all need some inspiration and assistance navigating life's difficult journey. Having a role model that is part of your family somehow make the challenges less daunting-- we draw strength from within our own clan. Family role models are the best-- they are the rocks that ground us, and even though it took me 38 years to find them, the rocks I found this year are like diamonds to me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Can Collaborative Save Us?

There once was a time when it was considered an honor to be a lawyer. Those times used to seem long gone to me-- until I was introduced to the Collaborative approach five years ago.

At a recent lecture, Ralph Nader posed the question whether the practice of law has become less of a profession and more of a trade? Indeed, I have heard numerous great thinkers in the legal field lament over the demise of our once noble profession. The problem, as I see it is that somehow in the last 50 years, we have allowed people to use the law as a weapon. Maybe people need to remember the original intent of the law?

Prof. David Hall wrote a thoughtful essay about how the law was created as a safety net for society when all other social norms failed-- it was meant to protect against gross injustice. Obviously, we can always aspire that our clients do more than the bare minimum, but that requires the attorney to embrace the role of a counselor, not just an advocate. Unfortunately, the latter skill has been emphasized in recent years, during which time many have misused the judicial system to gain incredibly unfair advantages by playing games of strategy without care or concern as to the greater social impact. These actions have now tarnished the reputation of so many in my field.

When I was beginning to lose hope, the Collaborative model was introduced to DC. In this practice area, professionals sign an agreement to work together on cases and not play games. We make a pledge to help families preserve their resources as much as possible, and we disqualify ourselves from taking a Collaborative case to court. We essentially take an oath to do no harm-- a revoluntionary way of thinking for some so accustomed to the gladiator model we use in courts.

The results in the Collaborative cases I have seen are not widely different from the settlements reached in a litigation model, it is simply the way the parties got there that is so vastly different. In a few civilized meetings, we work through the same issues that need to be addressed in court, without the posturing, the nasty grams, and threats. It is such a humane way to resolve disputes, and as this model has continued to gain popularity, it has restored my faith not just in the legal profession, but humanity as a whole.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

During Trying Times, Try Words of Affirmation

Many of us thrive on gaining external positive affirmation for our endeavors. We all need positive reinforcement for our efforts at home, work and in our personal relationships, but the key is to not rely too much on others to validate your existence. Sometimes, people are so wrapped up in their own lives and challenges that they won't take the time to recognize the time and energy you have placed in something you thought was quite noteworthy. Maybe there is also some underlying issue of jealousy or envy. It is so hard not to take this personally, but the best advice I ever got was that you should just do something for your own sense of fulfillment without ever expecting anyone else to appreciate what you have done-- if they do, it will be a bonus, but expecting praise from others is a recipe for disaster.

Most of my life, I have felt like the little boy in the Kite Runner, chasing that kite and waiting for that glorious day of ultimate praise. If you have read the story, you know how it ends. I cried when I read that book a few years ago, and it really made me reassess things. This past year, I severed all contact with one parent and went in search of the other; I also resigned from my firm this summer and decided to return to solo practice. These were not easy choices to make, and although the gains outweighed the losses, there was a significant amount of loss. Not everyone around me understood or agreed with my choices, but the bottom line is that it no longer mattered to me what others thought, I just needed to be at peace with myself.

Different events may create a trigger that sets a person off on a life-altering journey, but the most important thing to remember is that during these trying times, you will have to rely immensely on your own inner strength. During difficult times, you really do learn who your core group of reliable sources are, but these may not always be available for you, and there will be incredibly lonely times when you have to be able to validate yourself. Every morning I found it helpful to come up with three positive phrases filled with words of affirmation that made me look forward to each new day. Sometimes, we have to find our own hope within ourselves, and if you can find the courage within yourself to face the challenges that lie ahead, what greater affirmation is there than that?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's Apply the Golden Rule to Dating

The past several years, I have encountered all types in the dating world.  Here are the top 10 characters that I prefer to avoid:

1. Control Freaks
2. Narcissists
3. Problem Accumulators
4. Commitment Phobes
5. Players
6. Drama Queens
7. Socially Awkward
8. Emotionally Unavailable
9. Incredibly Insecure
10. Psychos

Not all these traits can be screened out right away, so as the saying goes, you may have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince or princess...

Luckily, I have met several perfectly decent guys, and sometimes there just isn't enough chemistry or we ruled each other out as geographically inconvenient. As long as we all had fun while it lasted, were honest with one another and treated each other with respect, I've found it is possible to maintain friendships with past lovers, and yes sometimes these lines may blur, but always there is profound respect because we followed the Golden Rule.

Now we may all disagree about if/when you owe anyone an explanation, and what that needs to look like.  I'm a big fan of an in person discussion with someone that I've been seeing for at least 5 months.  That's just my thing, but if you can't do it in person, then pick up the phone-- do not just send a text or email, a lot gets misconstrued when you cannot hear the tone in someone's voice.  And for the love of God, just keeping it simple.  I stick to either: (1) this can't continue any longer or (2) this isn't working out.  If someone has follow up questions, I may try to be more specific, like "I want something more serious" or sometimes when it's the opposite, "I don't want something so intense right now."  No matter what, there is no point in attacking someone's character or re-hashing past arguments.  You can vent your disappointment to another buddy another day.  If you want to exit gracefully, you need to deliver the message and get the hell out or off the phone fast.

Some of you may be wondering why not go into details, and well let me ask you this- if you are dealing with a narcissist, do you really think that s/he is going to take kindly to the fact that you think they are totally self-absorbed?  Do you really think drama queen will keep it together if you tell them that you can't take the emotional roller coaster ride any more?  I highly doubt a commitment phobe is going to be inspired to commit as I'm breaking up with him, and the only thing a control freak is going to want to do is try to re-assert control of the situation.  Do you get my drift?  Explanations with these folk is pointless, and in fact with those that have anger management issues you really have to think twice about the in-person good-bye because it may just not be safe.

I realize that closure conversations are hard, well except for me, I have to do them every day-- literally, I am often the one sending the "Dear John" letter on behalf of my divorce clients, and many times I've had to plan the escape plans and draft the final good bye messages for spouses.  So maybe this helps you understand why for me it is difficult to comprehend how some people out there can just go radio silent.  The question I keep asking myself when I hear these stories of people going MIA is how would that person feel if roles were reversed?

For those that may feel inclined to go radio silent, I am going to take a wild stab in the dark here, but I'm going to guess that you hate conflict.  Those that want to avoid conflict are the ones that will want to just run away from a difficult conversation, but I have to ask you how do you think it is possible to get through life without learning to confront challenging situations?  Maybe the best way for you to see the problem with just walking out is to ask yourself this: how would you feel if someone treated your mom, sibling or child this way?

We all have very different emotional capacities, just as our IQs can vary greatly.  Some people truly lack emotional agility, so for those of you that may be struggling because someone just left you in the lurch, let me just assure you that the lack of a conversation isn't a reflection on you, but rather on the other person.  S/he may really not be equipped to handle conflict and exit gracefully.  As one of my friends very nicely pointed out- which would you prefer silence or an out of control meltdown?  Having experienced both, I can honestly say that silence is hands down preferable to witnessing a terrifying emotional outburst.

The final point I want to make is that it is a small world, and here in DC it's a very small town, so if you don't behave with your dates, word will get out.  People talk, and they love gossip, so try your best to minimize feeding into that, and when in doubt just stick to the Golden Rule, or perhaps remember it this way: don't do unto others what you would not like done to you.