Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More than divorce, you say?

I am never exactly sure how to tell people what my thesis topic is. It is very simple really, if you understand family law. I am focusing on the role of the lawyer for the child in custody cases. Well, not exactly because New Zealand does not use the word custody anymore, but that is a post for another day. The point is that I am curious how New Zealand lawyers for children do their job in cases where there are presumptively two competent parents who have asked the court for some help in determining how best to reach a parenting plan. 

I get one of two reactions. In New Zealand, the look of shock is quickly replaced by a question – “do you know how poorly New Zealand children are treated?” This reaction is a result of vast attention being paid to child welfare cases in New Zealand, and rightfully so, but it has little to do with my thesis (though a lot to do with this blog and our work in general), and I explain that. Then I get the other reaction, and the one I tend to get from most Americans - a story about the person’s own divorce or a friend’s or even a famous person. In the minds of non-practitioners, family law means divorce.

While this blog is aimed to more than lawyers, for a moment, I am going to talk about what it means to be a family law attorney. To the general public, this means you are a divorce lawyer. And divorce lawyers are all terrible people out to destroy families just to earn a dollar or two, right? And what does this mean for other professionals in the field? You choose to associate with divorce lawyers, so you must be just as evil.

The vast majority of family law practitioners that I know are amazingly wonderful people who put up with this stereotype despite its deleterious effects on their health because they believe the work they do is actually able to help people repair their lives. 

And by the way, family law is about more than divorce. 

Family law is just that – families. Although the United States has not adopted the use of unified courts in the vast majority of jurisdictions, it has begun, and where they exist, these courts work incredibly well. Families include child welfare, paternity, adoption, and yes, divorce, not to mention sometimes probate and other issues. It is about doing more than just trying to "get back" at an ex-spouse. 

Why does it matter what people think family law is? Because part of the problem is that the profession is still stuck in the mindset that divorce is what we do. But as I have said here and here, families are bigger than that traditional notion, and a huge first step to breaking free of the old paradigm is to recognize and promote that families come in all shapes, sizes, colors, patterns, whatever. The issues that occur in families are no longer based upon legal definitions of when people fall into and out of love. The issues that surround families are complex and changing.

We must begin to truly see the profession as something bigger than a moment in time – the moment that one family unit breaks up in the act of divorce or dissolution. Instead, our work permeates lives in a myriad of ways, and our focus must be on all of it, not the occasional case that breaks the divorce mold. As we begin to see our work differently, we can educate people one person at a time that our work is about families of all kinds who need a bit of help navigating the complex structures the law and emotions have created.

Do you find yourself caught up as a divorce practitioner? How do you explain what you do to people who are not in the profession?

As always, comments and discussion are welcome and encouraged.

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Rebecca, Great post. I am reminded of the Post Card we saw at Madame Loveau's House of Voodoo in New Orleans at the AFCC Conference a couple years ago that said "If the marriage wasn't magic, the divorce can be." With the image of a voodoo doll. That does seem to fit the stereotype of the divorce lawyer, we are not there for damage control, but as a "damage specialist".

    Frankly, even though your account of "actual" family lawyers is very accurate, the stereotypes are reinforced every day by the "adversarial" system in which we operate.

    I may want to refer to myself as a "Family Functionality Coordinator" but my role in the court is as an "advocate" for my client's personal rights, not those of his or her family. It is set up as a conflict between mother's/wife's personal interetests and rights and the rights and interests of fathers and husbands. And, as we all know, in that battle nobody wins.

    It is still my belief that the resolution/judicial system should be structured in a way to mirror the behavior we hope the parties to emulate. I am so very curious about the Australian "Less Adversarial Trial" process and trying to emulate that in the states.

    In the meantime more and more practitioners and judges in the family courts recognize how broken our system is; and, until a competiting model can see the light of day, at least only our families are at risk, right? (He says facetiously!)

  2. Thanks, Larry. I wholeheartedly agree. You are spot on here, and this is exactly the problem. We want to do it differently, but we are stuck in a system that requires we act in a particular way. I want to learn more about the Australian system as well. It will definitely make it onto the pages of this blog once I know more. Thanks for your comments. They always make me think.