The Social Worker in Angeline Lindley Bain
Bringing collaboration and reasonableness to divorce law
Published in 2010 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 13, 2010
In 1997, family law attorney Angeline Lindley Bain sat in the Collin County Courthouse, awaiting the start of her client’s divorce trial. Prior to the proceedings, a young man of about 19 appeared before the court and pleaded guilty to charges of breaking and entering, and theft. As Bain listened, she realized she knew him. She hadn’t seen him since he was 12 and caught in the middle of an ugly divorce that had his mother trying to keep his father away from him. “It was horrible, just awful the way [his mother and father] fought about him,” says Bain. “They just said awful things about each other and it was just very, very bitter to the very end.
“It just affirmed my belief that when the parents fight and can’t get along, and don’t put the kids’ interests first, that’s what happens,” Bain says. “It really was a watershed moment. I knew intellectually that this was the case, and this was just proof.”
Three years later, Bain learned that there was a better way of handling divorce cases. She’s been practicing collaborative law ever since.
Bain grew up in a close family, made closer after her father died in Vietnam. But she would go on to spend her career working with fractured families.
As a newlywed straight out of college, Bain worked as a social worker while living in Ennis, Texas, first for a year at Community Services in Corsicana, then moving to the Texas State Department of Human Resources as a child abuse intake worker. It was there, as she helped remove children from their homes and worked to place foster children in new homes, that she witnessed the power lawyers had. “I dealt a lot with the district attorney and lawyers, and it always seemed to me that the child welfare worker would be doing all the work and the lawyers would be going back in the back rooms and chambers and making all the decisions,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to be one of the people making the decisions.’”
Years later, with two small children at home, Bain enrolled at SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas, an hour north of Ennis. “We were making big sacrifices to do that, so I took it very seriously. And I think that was an advantage actually,” Bain says, adding that many of the top grads of her class, including herself and the top graduate, were mothers.
After graduating in 1987, Bain moved with her family to Dallas. She clerked for Judge A. Joe Fish in the Northern District of Texas and accepted a position at civil litigation firm Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas. “Back then, if you did well and you had the opportunity to go to the great big civil corporate firms, everybody felt like that’s the avenue you had to take. If it was offered to you, you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it,” she says. “That was the route I was going but Judge Fish helped me see that, for me, that was probably not the best option, that I would be happier if I wasn’t working all the time.” So instead she joined Tom Goranson, a former partner at Akin Gump, where she’d clerked a previous summer, who had set out on his own as a solo divorce practitioner. There, she worked primarily on small-dollar divorce and custody cases, and helped Goranson with his higher-dollar cases.
From 1992 to 1995, Bain took a break from her practice to serve as an associate judge. The experience confirmed Bain’s feelings about divorce. “Certainly through the time that I was an associate judge in the family courts—and really all through my law practice—I’ve realized just how destructive divorce can be on the family,” Bain says. “If we foster and facilitate the anger and hurt and the animosity, the case will be over and we’ll be out of their lives, but [the parents and the kids] have to continue to try to have a relationship.”
In 1996, she returned to Goranson’s firm. Three years later, within a three-month span, three deaths occurred in three of her cases: the wife of one client committed suicide; another client’s husband overdosed on drugs; a month later, another client was murdered after she filed for divorce. “Her husband killed her in front of their three children. … He had come over on a Sunday to move some things out of their house, and he attacked her and killed her,” Bain says.
She was ready to make a change and went to a collaborative law seminar that same year. “[I] walked out of there just saying, ‘This is it. This is the future of family law, this is going to be wonderful for families and this is what I want to do,’” Bain says.
The concept is simple: the parties decide from the start that they won’t go to court and let a judge decide; they collaborate to work out the dispute. The clients and lawyers sign a contract—if any party backs out, both lawyers have to withdraw from the case and the litigation process begins. “Part of the beauty is that all four participants have motivation to figure it out and make it work and keep working together,” says Bain.
The process, Bain says, focuses not on positional bargaining, but on interest-based negotiation. “We try to assess the parties’ mutual goals and interests at the beginning and fashion an agreement based on trying to meet as many of their goals and interests as we can,” says Bain.
Often, the team creates solutions that wouldn’t necessarily be available in a courtroom. “In Texas, we have such low child support, so most people cannot … provide what their kids are used to having. In collaborative, we encourage people not to be limited by what the Texas Legislature would say, but really what is appropriate for their families. So we’re able to get agreements for much larger amounts of child support and [often] even for contractual alimony,” says Bain. “It’s just a better way of actually addressing people’s needs.”
These solutions aren’t always easy, but Goranson has seen Bain pull it off time and again. “When people get out of that area where common sense works, she’s got a gentle way of getting them back and then focusing on the real problem,” Goranson says.
Bain still litigates, but doesn’t believe it’s the best option. “[In] traditional litigation it’s always us versus them, and you’re always watching your back,” Bain says. “In collaborative, we’ve all committed to try to work together for the best interest of the family mutually. It’s much more rewarding.”
Bain teaches collaborative law across the country, and even inspired her daughter, Lindley, who joined GoransonBain in 2007, to take up the practice. (Bain’s son, James, 29, is working toward earning an MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.) Practicing family law with family is something that both Bains love. “It’s actually pretty great,” Lindley says of practicing law in close quarters with her mother. “It’s pretty rare to have the opportunity to have a mentor that’s right down the hall and also someone that you can call at night or early in the morning or on the weekends. She’s very supportive of my career. She doesn’t ever interfere with my cases or my work, but she’s always there for guidance or to offer her help whenever she can.”
That ability to help is a trait that runs through Bain’s entire practice—and why she finds law extremely rewarding. “In family law almost everybody involved is going through, potentially, the most stressful time of their life,” Bain says. “If I can help get them through with the least amount of damage, emotionally and financially, help them transition to life after divorce in a positive way and a healthy way, then I feel like I’ve done a huge service. That’s what’s most rewarding. Just the whole social worker in me coming out.”