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.