Thursday, February 25, 2010

5 Tips -- If You Think it Will be Amicable

Many people contact me and say they want to have an amicable divorce or child support or visitation modification agreement. They understand the benefits that come from avoiding the negativity that often accompanies litigation. They don't want unnecessary work done and want to hold down the financial cost. Truth be told, they would probably prefer to have just one attorney represent both parties, but I always explain that can't be done. (It would be a conflict of interest for the attorney and it would violate our disciplinary rules.)

Generally, the best way to have an amicable legal proceeding is to use Collaborative Law. That process keeps the parties out of court, provides the means for thoughtful and creative decision-making and utilizes the tools necessary to accomplish the objectives of the parties. Each party would have his/her own attorney (trained in Collaborative Law), but the attorneys are focused on reaching an agreement that meets the needs of both parties. The attorneys are not concerned with following all the traditional steps of discovery, pretrial motions and hearings, depositions, etc. that are expensive and often are used to just wear down one of the parties. The Collaborative process involves gathering information informally, but using experts to help evaluate it, and then going through a brainstorming process that is effective in developing options and allowing the parties to come to agreements on their best outcomes.

Unfortunately, Collaborative Law isn't always an option. The most common reason, for now, is that one of the attorneys is not trained in Collaborative Law. Sometimes, one of the parties isn't convinced that Collaborative is the way to go. Whatever the reason, the parties in a family law matter sometimes want an amicable process, but don't utilize Collaborative Law. For that situation, I have the following five tips to help them work together peacefully and effectively.

1. Be prepared by gathering needed information. If this is a divorce, make copies of the essential financial records. I don't suggest that you grab and hold all the financial records. That would be taken as a sign of an uncooperative attitude, even if you really intended to share the information. In non-divorce cases, there will be other information needed, such as income and expense records, school records, health records, etc. It will save time later if you gather up the needed information early on.

2. Choose your attorney carefully. You should probably explain what you want to do and make sure your lawyer is comfortable with that approach. Some lawyers insist on following the same game plan for every case, even if you don't want to take certain steps. If you don't feel like the attorney will do what you want done, then talk to other attorneys. There are plenty of good attorneys and you should only hire one who fits your needs.

3. Expect difficulties. Remember that even if both parties say they want an amicable case, there will still be disagreements. There can be amicable disagreements that can be resolved when there are attorneys (and maybe other professionals) who are skilled negotiators. What you want to avoid is working with someone whose answer to conflict is, "If they won't do what we want, we'll just take it to court and let the judge decide." That's not amicable and that's probably not what either party is looking for. There are plenty of ways of resolving difficult questions without going to court, if your attorney is willing to work on it.

4. Be willing to accept helpful suggestions from your attorney. I have had people come in and tell me that they have everything worked out and they just want me to prepare a document for them. I can do that, but I feel compelled to point out problems and potential issues whenever I spot them. Attorneys will make suggestions for slight wording changes that can clarify an order and help avoid confusion and conflict later. Attorneys can sometimes point out potential tax or financial issues and help you save money and avoid problems. Attorneys often know of ways to do things to more easily accomplish what you want done. You should listen to your attorney and be open to considering implementing his/her suggestions.

5. Don't let the attorneys pressure you into using the standard ways of doing things unless you completely agree. This is the corollary to point #4. You need to listen to the attorneys, but sometimes you should disagree. Doing something just because it's the standard way of doing something is not good enough. The attorney should be able to explain better reasons or benefits for any proposed changes.

If you follow these five tips, you should be able to work out solutions amicably in family law matters. Keep in mind the possibility of using Collaborative Law to get the best results.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Male Victims of Domestic Abuse

Domestic violence and abuse used to be a topic that was swept under the rug. During the past 20 years, there has been a slow, but steady increase in public awareness and concern about the problem. The issue has been around for a long time, but it hasn't been dealt with seriously until relatively recently.

The victims of violence and abuse in the home are still predominantly women, but there is a significant number of male victims as well. Most of the remedial efforts, such as shelters, to help the victims have been oriented to women. In addition to there being more female victims, women often are more willing than men to come forward to seek help. It is still very hard for women to seek help in a domestic violence situation, but it is usually much harder for men to admit that they are victims and need help (or rescue) for domestic violence.

The dynamics of the abuse suffered by men and women is similar. One or more of the following behaviors (among others) will usually be occurring:

  • The victim is often physically assaulted by the abuser. There are often frequent threats about what the abuser will do to the victim if the victim doesn't do as the abuser wishes. Bullying and intimidation are common tools used by the abuser as well.
  • The abuser often controls the finances, leaving the victim with no significant cash and no knowledge of the finances.
  • The abuser frequently steals, hides or damages the property owned by, or wanted by, the victim, or threatens to do so. It becomes a way to control the other party and to show the power of the abuser.
  • There is often a threat by the abuser to call the police on the victim, and that threat is sometimes carried out. Even worse, the victim is sometimes arrested and charged with domestic violence, which puts the victim in a deeper hole. Police look for visible blood, cuts and bruises and will usually arrest someone if they find such evidence.
  • Many times, the abuser is able to convince the victim that she or he has not choice but to submit to the control of the abuser.
So, what can you do if you or a loved one is caught in such a situation? Here are some suggestions.

1. Think and plan before acting, unless there is an immediate threat to your safety. (In case of an immediate threat, get away fast any way you can.) Since an abuser usually does have a lot of control over a victim's life, he or she must think first, and then act. The victim should develop a plan to escape and to start over in life. Normally, such planning takes some time and help, so ...

2. Find an ally. Get a friend or family member and confide in him or her. Even though your abusive spouse will probably tell you the opposite, there are many people who care about you. And many of them may have been suspicious of your situation. There will likely be a number of people who will help, if you reach out.

3. Get professional help. Your ally can help you arrange to meet with an attorney and maybe a counselor. The counselor will help you take back control over your life. The attorney can advise you on the best course of action in the court system.

4. Get away from the abuser. Work out a plan and then move out. Move quickly, once you start.

5. Don't get "buyer's remorse" over your decision to leave. It can be tough to move and doubts are inevitable, but keep in mind the big picture. Your health and safety, and maybe the kids' health and safety, are the most important and immediate concerns. Remember, your spouse won't change. Abusers are often incredibly skilled as manipulators, and they know what buttons to push. Don't feel sorry for the abuser. If you start to second-guess your decisions, talk to your ally and your professional helpers. Don't break down and go back. Your life may depend on it.

Men and women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse should not
be embarrassed to seek help from friends and professionals. Victims need to act prudently, but they cannot afford to stay long in an abusive relationship. Please contact a professional to learn more about your options.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Divorce Fair -- Good or Bad Idea?

A recent post in the Ontario Family Law Blog discussed how there had recently been a "Divorce Fair" in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It was like a lot of trade shows with a variety of exhibitors and presentations, but they all related to divorce.

It sounded like an interesting idea that potentially could help people considering or facing divorce or possibly recovering from a divorce. I wonder how such a Fair would be received around here. If we had a Divorce Fair in Tarrant County, we could include such things as:

  • Information on alternatives, such as Collaborative Law and mediation.
  • Information about how traditional litigation works.
  • Sources of information so people can search for information they are interested in.
  • Tips for how to find and choose an attorney.
  • How to benefit from using a financial professional in a divorce.
  • How to benefit from working with a counselor.
  • Approaches for preparing parenting plans.
  • What Tarrant County courts expect from parties to a divorce.
  • What programs Tarrant County provides to assist divorcing parties.
I suspect that many people would be reluctant to attend a Divorce Fair. It's just not as enjoyable as a bridal fair or even a boat show. Some people wouldn't want others to know that they were thinking about a divorce, so they wouldn't want to appear in public at a Divorce Fair.

But, I'm curious:

  • What do you think about the idea of having such a fair?
  • Do you think very many people would attend?
  • Would you be interested in attending?
Anonymous answers are fine, but I would like to know how this would be received. Please share your opinions.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why We Don't Do Much Pro Bono Work

We have been getting a lot of phone calls lately from people who found us on the web. Many of them have read our blogs. Unfortunately, we can't help everyone, but we do our best to refer out to good attorneys those cases that we can't help for various reasons. Sometimes the case may be outside Tarrant County or the subject matter may be something that we don't handle. Like most attorneys, we have developed a specific niche that we try to focus our work in, but we know many attorneys in this area and have created a long list of specialities and attorneys who handle them. We are pleased to give referrals that should benefit the clients and save them time.

One type of call that we have gotten a lot of lately is people asking if we do "Pro Bono" work. That's a Latin phrase (naturally -- we're lawyers) that is a shortened version that translates into "for the good of the public". The concept is that attorneys should try to provide free or low cost legal services to the truly needy.

Our position on Pro Bono is that we believe in it and we do handle such cases at no charge, but we don't take on cases as Pro Bono cases if the clients call us directly. We work with a number of organizations that contact us occasionally with a prospective client who has a legal need but lacks funds. Depending on our workload and whether we are handling other Pro Bono cases at the time, we decide whether to take on another no-attorney-fee case.

We cannot afford to work very many cases for free, so we carefully evaluate cases that are referred to us. We do not accept cases for Pro Bono if the prospective client contacts us directly and we cannot even take on every case referred to us by the organizations we work with. We do our best to help those in need, but we have expenses and need to pay bills just like everyone else. For those we can't assist, we hope the information from our web site and blogs will be helpful.

To summarize our Pro Bono policy: we believe in it, and we take referrals from a number of organizations, but we don't take on cases for no fees if the prospective client contacts us directly.

If you need an attorney, but cannot afford to pay for one, you can check with organizations where you live, you can contact different attorneys or check with your local bar association to try to find attorneys who will work Pro Bono. Most attorneys will take on some Pro Bono cases, but they have to limit that type of work since they still have to make a living. Sometimes court personnel can give you a lead on where to find help. As a last resort, there are more and more resources on line that you can turn to. Whatever you do, don't decide to do nothing. Keep talking with people and you will likely find something or someone to help you.

Revised on Feb. 28, 2010.