The Protector of Families

Montgomery County family law magistrate Bibi Berry says attorneys guided by the core value of steadfast integrity can do no wrong

Published in 2018 Maryland Super Lawyers Magazine

As a recent appointee as a family law magistrate in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, I thought it fitting to consider why I made the decision to apply, and what type of magistrate I hope to be.

This decision stemmed from loss. In the last year, I experienced the loss of two people very close to me. 

My aunt died while my mother and I were en route to visit her in the hospital, both of us oblivious to how sick she really was; and my father fell into a coma, from which he never emerged, while I was driving home from visiting my mother and grandmother. They died on the same day of the month, the 9th, exactly six months apart. I lost not only the two of them, but any chance of saying goodbye.  

As a woman on the cusp of middle age, I have also lost flexibility, elasticity and strength. Not weight, though. That, I’ve gained, along with gray hairs.  

I have lost time, too, like all people. But for me, time has become more precious, and the loss of it that much more unsettling. It was in that discomfort that I gained a clearer perspective of the function of law in our society, and what role I want in serving that function.      

I firmly believe that the foundation of a civilized society consists of the family, our communities and the rule of law. It is connection and obligation to one’s family that first teaches us to subsist in a society with others. We learn how to be in the space of others and allow them into ours. We learn how to accept help and how to give and share. It is in the family that we become good (or bad) citizens. It is in the family that we learn how to be part of a larger community, and it is in that larger community where we find a greater purpose.

Family law needs attorneys who are smart, certainly, but perhaps more critically, it needs attorneys who genuinely care about families. I have been a “divorce attorney.” When people hear that, they hear “destroyer of families.” We are the opposite. Family attorneys are often the protector of families—not necessarily the family that may be dismantling, but the one that can emerge. They are the ones who know best what destroys familial bonds, what hurts children and what ensures that wounds never really close—and consequently, how to counsel litigants to help avoid all that.

I offer the following advice to family law attorneys who appear before me and other magistrates/judges. Family law needs good, compassionate, open-minded attorneys. You are, of course, limited in many ways: by the law, your professional responsibility, your client’s wishes and those of the other side, the court and your own moral compass. But you can always choose to care about the impact your actions have on your client, on your client’s family, on a child, on the court, and, ultimately, on the legal system. If you are guided by the core value of steadfast integrity, you can do no wrong.  

Family law looks to its judges and magistrates for these same qualities. 

As I embark on this new path, I must remember how vital the rule of law is, and how crucial it is to apply it with kindness, fairness, intellectual curiosity, an open mind and with an unwavering respect for the position and the duties bestowed.

I will miss so many things about practicing law at Paley Rothman. But when I think of what pains me most about leaving, what comes to mind are the immortal words of young Dorothy to Scarecrow. To my Paley Rothman family I say: “I think I’m going to miss you most of all.”  

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