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.