Assisting Families in Transition

Sometimes, They are Part of the Problem

I recently heard a story about a NY attorney’s experience that led him to move from practicing traditional adversarial family law to collaborative law. His tale resonated with my experience working primarily with families involved in some sort of family law process. It confirmed that, while attorneys are essential to navigate the mine field of a family law suit, sometimes they create more problems than they resolve.

Imagine this scenario: a couple decide to divorce and agree to the major issues facing them–division of property, conservatorship of the children, and parenting plan. They then go to attorneys to draw up the paperwork, only to have one (or both) attorney reject the deal the parents have worked out.

This can happen for any number of reasons, and I think it often stems from the fact that attorneys are educated to “advocate zealously” for their clients’ interests. And some attorneys just really like the litigation aspect of their profession…they are competitive and they like to win, no matter the cost. The problem, of course, is that this can transform two reasonable litigants into angry enemies, creating unnecessary barriers to resolving the issues before the court, tricking parents into making very poor decisions, and leaving their children torn between the parents. What, then, have you gained if you win the battle but harm your children emotionally by the parental conflict?

It is your attorney’s job to represent your interests, not your children’s interests. Consequently, your attorney may give you advice that is great for your case, but is terrible for your children. Take, for example, clients who frequently tell me they’ve been advised to call the police whenever a co-parent is late to a scheduled exchange. From a legal perspective, this makes (dubious) sense. It’s designed to document the failure of the other parent to live up to his/her obligations, later to be used as a club against him/her at a hearing or trial. But let’s examine that advise from the child’s perspective for a moment.

  • Using the police to resolve insignificant parenting problems teaches your children not to solve problems, but to escalate them, to bring in powerful others to get your way. Is that really the lesson you want to teach your children? Your children are looking to you to teach them how to handle disagreements, and this makes one a very poor role model, indeed.
  • It can trigger your children’s natural fear of abandonment if they believe the police might take mommy/daddy away. Children will already be fearful about that because it has already happened to them when daddy/mommy moved away from each other and the child (typically) loses daily contact with both parents. Children don’t need more emotional stress in their lives, they need less stress. Don’t take actions that will trigger these very scary feelings.
  • It risks teaching your children to resent law enforcement, to think of them as something bad. I’m sure you can imagine what consequences that could have on your children as they grow into their teen years and begin to push boundaries.

Attorneys can be a powerful force for good in family law cases, and I have met some attorneys who do, in fact, keep the impact on the children in mind when advising their clients. But it’s the “winner take all,” “we’ll get everything you’re entitled to” approach of some attorneys that harms far too many children.

My advise to you is to listen to your attorney’s counsel, but introduce some sense into the process. Object/protest when you are advised to do something that clearly will be bad for your children, even if it that action would improve your position. It’s your responsibility always to keep your children’s best interest in mind, not your attorney’s. Never lose sight of that fact.

Originally posted July 22, 2011