A recent Wall Street Journal piece spotlighted the growing trend of family law attorneys who market themselves to just one-half of the market for divorce attorneys: Men. Doing so reinforces the perception that family courts are not a friendly habitat for those with Y chromosomes. That’s not good. Of course, the fact that such a perception is rampant is a problem in itself.
Although I am in the process of winding down my family law practice to make room for growth in municipal, appellate and estate law, our firm’s associate attorney is still heavily involved in domestic litigation. With 15 years as a law clerk and attorney, I can attest that the attitude of disenchantment with the courts is more common among men than women.
“The system is rigged against Dads.”
“Men do not get a fair shake in the courts.”
“Courts always side with the Wife.”
As someone who have seen both favorable and unfavorable outcomes for men, I cringe at these statements. Mostly because the alleged bias is not consistent with my own experience. But also because courts and lawyers have much work to do if the perception is still so common.
But court statistics are notoriously difficult to quantify. Who “won” a divorce depends on what was requested, what evidence was presented, what the other side’s desires were, and a hundred other factors. When I was speaking at a local school once, I took some Q and A from the 8th or 9th graders. One of the students asked me, “What’s your win rate?” Not having twenty minutes to detail the misconceptions inherent in the question, I shot back, “One hundred per cent. Every time I have a client who asked the court for a divorce, the client got one.”
There are two reasons the phrase “the system” even exists. The first is laziness. The second is ignorance. In my mind my car has an “exhaust system” perhaps because I am too lazy to study up on what a catalytic converter does exactly. Or, maybe I use the vague phrase “system” because I decide that the time spent learning about my car could be better served learning about the law. Or watching Burn Notice.
Whatever the individual choice, it’s natural to lump the unknowns into a pile. Forming categories helps the brain operate. By explaining my car’s problem as a malfunction in the exhaust “system”, my mechanic provides me with some specifics, but doesn’t waste his time–and mine–providing details that I can’t understand.
The same is true of the law. To someone familiar with the family court system, there are distinct and important moving parts: the family court judge, the bailiff, the court clerk, the court reporter, the Sheriff’s deputy, the mediator, the family counselor, the child counselor, the volunteer child advocate, the guardian ad litem, the child custody evaluator, and the other attorneys. They each have a different role, a different interest, and different protocols. To Tom the mechanic, however, it’s “the system.” It is a giant dysfunctional blob of people mindlessly pushing papers and making excuses as to why Tom can’t get what he wants. He might want to keep his pension, to keep his house, to see his kids more, or to live in peace. If any cog in this wheel does not work, he has neither the time nor experience to fix it–nor should he, as a mechanic. He sees only that the system is malfunctioning.
A Teachable Moment
The best response to someone frustrated at “the system” is an offer to educate. I tend to be less frustrated when I understand why something does not work. And even less frustrated if I can fix it. That being said, there are a few reasons why these perceptions persist.
Invariably, the “system is broken” crowd draw their opinions from anecdotal evidence: a brother, a cousin, a guy from work. To a sympathetic ear, these folks all had bad experiences and that means the system is broken. But business schools and online reputation defenders love to remind us that while a satisfied customer will tell one person about a business, a dissatisfied customer will tell six people. So the brother, cousin and guy from work are going to grouse about their outcomes more than the man who quietly reaches an amicable settlement with his spouse during a divorce. Misery loves company. But sad resignation to a failed marriage just sighs and moves on–it doesn’t rent a megaphone.
Part of all education is empowerment. The biggest mistake that most family law litigants make is assuming the “system” divorces them. But if parents and spouses believe the path is predetermined and beyond their control, it is no wonder legal struggles are analogized to a roller coaster. Stepping into the cart, being strapped down and having someone else flip the lever to send the rider through loops and valleys until vomiting ensues. . . no wonder it causes anxiety. But it causes passivity, too, and that leads to helplessness.
The truth is that parents and spouses divorce each other. The legal system is a boundary, not a path. With some exceptions, courts allow the parties a great deal of freedom to craft their own agreements. I have never seen a judge claim to have a better plan than the parties themselves. Spouses enduring family law cases do themselves no favors by making broad generalizations.