Family Law Unraveled

The latest from Margaret's blog

The Divorce Credential

Friday, June 07, 2013

“Have you ever been divorced?”  The other day, I was speaking at a seminar geared toward women contemplating divorce.  Right at the beginning of the presentation, one of the women attending raised her hand and asked me this question.  No, I told her.  She smiled and shook her head.

Interestingly, in all the time I’ve been practicing, I can’t recall being asked this. It might come out later, in conversations with a client I know well, that I’ve been married to the same person for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever been questioned about my own divorce status as something relevant to my ability to represent the client; as, essentially, a professional qualification.  However, many clients who consult me about custody issues do ask right up front if I have children, and are visibly pleased when I tell them I do.  I think they are concerned that if I don’t have any kids I won’t be able to really understand what they are experiencing, that I just won’t get the enormity of parental love, the depth of the fear of losing time with their children.  Or perhaps that I won’t understand the specific details of the child-rearing life – the frantic rush to make it on time to the day care, the swell of joy when your child sings a solo at the spring concert, the bittersweet bonding during the college visiting trip.

As to this issue, I have a control group of one.  I did practice family law, admittedly very briefly, before I became a parent.  And I do think having children has made me more attuned to my clients’ experiences. For sure, the fabric of parental life is something I know intimately.  But it has also made me vulnerable.  It has caused me to look at my child sleeping in bed and confuse her with the child my client only gets to see every other weekend.  It truly has made me feel my client’s pain as my own. Is this a good thing? I’m not sure. Empathy is necessary in this field of practice, but so is objectivity.

So what about divorce? Does it add to a divorce lawyer’s knowledge and skills to have personally gone through that storm herself?  I’m not sure about this, either.  The question seems absurd when applied to other areas of law.  No one seeks out a criminal defense lawyer who’s served time, or a foreclosure defense attorney who’s lost his own house at sheriff’s sale.  But divorce is different, because the emotional component is so front and center, and a divorce client, understandably, wants to make sure her lawyer is sensitive to that.  For myself, I suspect being divorced would not make me a better practitioner. I already know lots about marriage, having been in one for my entire adult life. And I’d be concerned that I might confuse my own divorce with my client’s, even for an instant, and perhaps lose a level of professionalism so essential to giving good counsel.

But I can understand why a particular client might prefer a lawyer who has personally navigated the territory she’s headed into, just like she might prefer having a female attorney; she might take comfort in the familiarity of identity.  Hopefully that lawyer won’t be me, though – that’s one professional qualification I’m going to make every effort to avoid.

5 thoughts on “The Divorce Credential

  1. I am an accountant, attorney, and marriage and family therapist, but for the past 13 years, I have devoted my practice solely to divorce and post-divorce mediation.

    Many clients tell me that they felt “reassured” knowing that I have been divorced, with young children. There seem to be two primary reasons for this “reassurance”: first, that I can relate to the emotions and turmoil of divorce and co-parenting, and second, because I won’t judge or criticize my clients for their own failed marriages.

    I often joke with my clients that I got divorced twice because I needed “on the job experience.” This helps to relieve anxiety and tension. I then reassure my clients that “we will get through this together” because I have “been there, done that.” While being divorced may not be an essential qualification, it certainly seems to be a useful one for me as a divorce mediator.

    Yes, I sometimes experience moments of deja vu, but that has never compromised my objectivity. I realize that all relationships–including my own failed marriages–are unique, and that to varying degrees, both parties contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. After years of therapy, I have come to understand and accept my shortcomings and take responsibility for my role in the failure of my marriages.

    In my case, therefore, I can honestly say that “experience is the best teacher,” but that includes both my personal experiences with divorce as well as the lessons I have learned from each and every one of my clients through the years.

    Robert T. Stewart, MS, JD, MA-MFT

  2. Tinna Dutta says:

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  3. jack cooper says:

    Divorce is typically a painful process.The dissolution of a marriage is a legal act that may not always coincide with a couple’s emotional tearing asunder.divorce lawyer toronto

  4. Aaron Banks says:

    Family law can be a triangle of confusion going point to point never finding a clear answer to your questions. Your post really cleared things up for me. Thank You!

  5. Terri says:

    I do financial planning for women going through or post-divorce and have often worried if prospective or current clients will feel I’m out of touch because I’m happily married. I keep a compassionate professional demeanor, and generally they are most comfortable when we’re talking about THEM, not me, so it has not once come up!

    I can relate to them through my other client’s struggles…so I think your expertise as an attorney is just as valuable as the emotional connection of having gone through it yourself.

    Wouldn’t you allow a Doctor who has never had cancer to treat you if they were an experienced oncologist? :)

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