And so we begin

If you are a woman, you enter my office in your best silk or linen clothes, makeup perfectly done. You know that you shouldn’t have put the mascara on, but you had to look your best. If you are a man, you are in your work clothes.

We shake hands and sit down, two strangers. I try to look approachable, you try to look strong. You look around my office for some evidence that you are in the right spot, my children’s pictures, my diplomas, and my wall hangings. And, after you breathe, you vomit out your story, from the beginning, digressing into every betrayal, every slight leading up to this moment. This ending. This beginning.

You think that you want to get it all over as quickly as possible, with what is “fair,” meaning, as much of the material goods as possible, and as much custody as you can wrangle. Mostly you just want it to stop, all of it. If you earned the money, you will be bitter if she gets much of it. If he earned it, well, then you were a partnership, and you deserve half or more. And some of the future money, payment for promises broken, and a future fractured.

After you tell me your story, you need to have me agree, as your best friend does, that it wasn’t fair, that you were mistreated. You also, although you don’t know it, want me to magically erase everything–be the Deus ex machina, the parent you never hand, your fixer. Which I am not.

You think you don’t want “aggressive” unless that jerk continues to be a jerk. S/he will continue to be a jerk.

I, on the other hand, want to do it right, avoid a malpractice suit, get every number correct, even if that means going slowly when every urge in your body is to hurry. And you will call me, angry that I am going slowly, veiled hysterical threats in your voice.

Today, however, after you have ripped out your soul and given it to me, you think that we are friends. And I could be your friend, in another time and place. Here I am, at best, your frenemy. I look at you with a most critical eye, sizing up your weaknesses, your failings, your wrongdoings with my harshest judgment. I need to know how hard I will have to work in order to goad you into changing, how much I will have to push for you to organize your finances and mind. I also need to know if I even want your money–how unstable are you? It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how much. How crazy will you get? When will your insane behavior be directed at me, as opposed to them? Can I foresee a bar complaint? I’m also thinking retainer, billable hours, opposing counsel, strategy, tactics, first steps. I’m worried about what this case will do to my relationship with my asshole boss and what unforeseen twist he will blame me for.

I entered this branch of law because I like people, because I sincerely want to help them. And so I want to empower you, to save you from yourself, to get you to be the kind of person who would have avoided this mistake in the first place. That is my weakness, the one that you can’t see, as you look around at my tasteful photographs and at my practiced, compassionate look. My compassionate face. Funny, that kind face. Because now, even though you don’t know it, you want me to be an animal, a vicious tiger, fighting with every nasty tool available. A sin verguenza, a machine without a soul.

Which I am not.

9 responses to “And so we begin”

  1. Ginny says:

    Full disclosure here. I just quit this job. Hence the jaundiced view.

  2. Huh, I didn’t realize lawyers had to worry about malpractice suits. It makes sense now that I think about it. What is the nature of legal malpractice? — Not arguing your clients case in the best possible way? This seems like it would be an awfully fuzzy standard. Ignoring points of data that would have improved your client’s case?

  3. Dave says:

    This is such an evocative description of the job, Ginny. I want stories now.

  4. lane says:

    i’m glad to hear your no longer at this job, that “asshole boss” remark worried me.

  5. Ginny says:

    The “asshole” boss is the reason I left. The term doesn’t even come close to the actual boss. I don’t know if there is a word for him. I might have to invent one.

    I actually loved what I did, and I really want to get into a kind of divorce that is more mediation-based [there is a branch of divorce law with its own rules that goes in that direction. Traditional divorce lawyers believe that these nontraditional divorce lawyers are committing malpractice, and that they violate the lawyer’s code of ethics.] I am happily married myself, and detest nasty divorces, and believe that they are toxic for children.

    ALL lawyers worry about [and are vulnerable to] malpractice suits, but family lawyers [i.e. divorce/custody lawyers] and personal injury lawyers are the most vulnerable. When I said that the clients are crazy, I mean that literally. You deal with people who are decent, rational human beings, but who are going through the worst experience/betrayal of their lives–they honestly are temporarily insane. They do not make rational decisions.

    Plus, if you are a litigation lawyer, all of your clients are at least comfortable with lawsuits, so you get a litigious cross section of the population.

    What is malpractice? A subject for another post, at least. But the following link would give you a beginning idea:
    Essentially, it is following below the standard of care that a reasonable lawyer in that practice and geographical area would follow. It’s a form of negligence, and because we are all human, everyone is vulnerable to it. Some more than others, obviously.

  6. amare stoudemire says:

    i was going through some of my dad’s old papers when i found letters he had written to my mom’s divorce attorney. they perfectly captured his voice but it was sad to think of all that energy and wit wasted on such a task. he was despairing and angry and rightly so.

  7. Kate the Great says:

    I think that this is a perfect example of perspective. I’ve never heard it from the lawyer’s side. I’ve heard it from the child’s side, from each side of the non-couple, and from the parents of the father. In a separate case, I’ve also heard it from the parents of the mother. But never from the lawyer’s perspective.

    Wow. It’s shorter than I thought it would be, yet very powerful. Packed with intense emotions, just as a divorce is.

    And all this evokes a question: how does one go about finding a lawyer? I don’t need one, but I also don’t know. The phone book? A friend or relative?

  8. Ginny says:

    the best way to find a lawyer is to ask another [good] lawyer for a recommendation. Or there are specialized certifications in some areas that are quite difficult to get, and therefore are only given to the good lawyers.

  9. Ginny, your piece here is the perfect example of what makes the Whatsit so great. As Kate says about perspective, it is always remarkable to read something that makes you feel like you better understand what the world might be like for someone else. This piece is really effective.