When the Dishes Start Flying
Family law attorneys tell us how they deal with good people at their worst
Published in 2007 New England Super Lawyers magazine
By Kirsten Marcum on October 23, 2007
Divorce lawyers have a saying: “Criminal attorneys see bad people at their best. Divorce attorneys see good people at their worst.” We spoke to some of the top family law attorneys in New England to learn how they handle the heightened emotional stakes that come with their standard––and not so standard––cases.
Michael Asen isn’t afraid to disagree with his clients, particularly when they’re getting in their own way. “I do it all the time,” he says. “The lawyers who do best in this field are the ones who can step back and see that their clients are not right 100 percent of the time.”
After more then 25 years in family law, the Portland attorney has learned that spouses rarely come to the divorce process at the same pace. “When you have one party that’s ready and one party that isn’t, there’s a huge possibility for a blow-up,” Asen says.
Asen has seen people take chainsaws to houses, wipe out bank accounts or kidnap their own children. But most of his time is spent with tamer details, such as valuing and dividing up closely held corporations, like dental practices or car dealerships. He sits on the board of the Kids First Center, which offers parenting classes for divorcing spouses and support groups for kids. And he’s careful to moderate his own response to cases.
“Lawyers tend to bring a lot of their own issues to the table,” Asen says. “Men bring issues with women. Women bring issues with men. All domestic lawyers have issues with—if not marriage, then certainly with relationships, because all people do. You’re not immune to bringing that into the process.”
Lee and Levine
David Lee had every intention of becoming a tax attorney. In law school, he never even took a single family law course. But when he started his first job in the summer of 1973, one of the partners needed help with a big divorce case. One year into the case, he knew he’d end up in family law.
That first case concerned child custody––with a twist. “The wife had been previously divorced in another country,” Lee says, “but it was not a valid divorce, so she was not legally married to the father of the children. There were questions about the rights of the father to have access to the children when he was not the husband of the mother of the children.”
It was an unusual case, and in the 34 years since, the Boston-based Lee has seen many more: “I never say I’ve seen everything. It never ceases to amaze me––every time I see someone new, they have a new set of facts, or a new twist on them.”
Lee has seen people use the power of the court to try to get back at their soon-to-be-former spouses. For instance, someone might use the discovery process to investigate a spouse—taking depositions of the person’s boss or secretary, a neighbor, a school principal. “Some people can’t get out of their own way because of the emotion they feel. They’re driven by a need to punish or strike back when they’ve been hurt. That’s understandable, but acting on that can be destructive rather than productive,” Lee says.
Lee tries to act as a calming influence. “What makes a good lawyer in this field is being a true counselor,” he says. “[You have to] identify to people when certain actions are not going to be useful. If you recognize that, and if you are sensitive to people, you can really make a difference in people’s lives.”
Schoonmaker, George & Colin
He wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, but the seven years that Thomas Colin spent tending bar turned out to be great preparation for his career. “Bartending is like being a lawyer without a law degree,” says the Greenwich-based Colin. “You spend your time listening to other people’s stories.”
Colin attributes his success to an ability to read people accurately. “You need to be a good listener,” he says. “And you need to be able to figure out who’s telling the truth. In a lot of cases, people are so emotional. It’s not that people are lying, but often two people have very different perceptions of how a marriage is going.”
In addition to representing adults, Colin represents children in custody battles. “In my part of Connecticut, there’s usually enough money to make everyone happy,” Colin says. “People go to court over the children.”
Although Colin initially set out to be a civil litigator, he’s found that family law gives him ample time in the courtroom and leaves him feeling like he’s doing some good. “A lot of lawyers can’t stomach these kinds of cases––they don’t want to get involved in the emotional aspect of it,” he says. “But I love it. Instead of civil litigation, which involves companies fighting about money, you’re dealing with people, which is certainly more interesting.”
Deborah Miller Tate
McIntyre, Tate & Lynch
In cases where emotions are high, Deborah Miller Tate of Providence’s McIntyre, Tate & Lynch believes that lawyers can be a stabilizing presence. “If you have two lawyers who work well together and are both trying to do what’s best for the family unit, it doesn’t have to be a huge argument,” she says.
As Tate sees it, family law is about helping people get through a difficult time. “People are losing their spouse, losing their family, losing their money,” she says. “We have an opportunity to ease that, to make it as stress-free as possible. Putting the law aside, I think most of what we do is try to get people through this experience so they can be whole human beings again.”
Inevitably, Tate says, one party to the divorce has not yet accepted it. “You have to work on getting the parties to the point where they’re emotionally ready to move forward,” she says. “You need to work on getting people through the anger and conflict.”
She has found that unrealistic expectations can delay a successful solution. Says Tate: “Some clients think we can find a perfect resolution and that their lives won’t change. But life can’t be the same––there has to be an adjustment somewhere.”
Langrock, Sperry & Wool
Like many who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, Chris Davis went to law school in order to do good in the world. And like many family law attorneys, he found himself in the practice area by accident––but quickly grasped the distinctive approach these cases require.
Davis sees family law as unique in its immediacy: “In other forms of litigation, the event has already occurred––the car accident has happened, the contract has been broken,” he says. “In family law, the event is still ongoing. The crisis still exists.”
Davis reminds himself that each client sees his or her case as the most important thing in their life at that moment. And he recognizes that the courts can’t solve everything: “Many people believe the court is a moral arbiter––that it will judge who the good party was and who the bad party was. People look to the court to be vindicated––they want someone to say their spouse was wrong and they were right. But that’s not the role of the court, and it’s not the role of a family law attorney.”
Instead, Davis aims to get things resolved so his clients can move on with their lives. “What people really want, even when they say they want to go to trial, is for the case to be resolved,” he says. “People need to understand that going to court is analogous to having an operation. It’s stressful both emotionally and financially, and it should be the last form of treatment.”
Tober Law Offices
Stephen Tober knows that to be successful in family law, you must be selective in the cases you take. “Family law can be an overwhelming process if you do too much of it, or if you don’t enjoy it,” he says. “We try to pick cases where we can really make a difference, and really help people move on with their lives.”
Much of Tober’s divorce work involves issues surrounding inherited wealth where there is a significant opportunity to fight over division of assets. “The cases we take are really a combination of a complex commercial dispute and a very personal release of emotion and loss––you’re working with someone who’s going through a personal injury of sorts,” he says. “A good lawyer in this area is much more of a counselor than an attorney. At the end of the day, you have to be the objective eyes and ears of an individual who might be getting lost in the fog of a difficult time.”
Throughout his more than 30-year career, Tober has found it useful to remind himself that “in many cases, someone’s first contact with the legal system is in divorce. That’s why we take only the cases we really wish to handle. You need to feel committed and believe in the cases you’re in.”
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