Beware of media stereotypes that create false expectations about the divorce process and divorce lawyers.

The divorce process — and the attorneys involved in that process — is a frequent target for media attention. Whether through parody (think War of the Roses from way back, or the current HBO show Divorce), or through the gritty lens of “reality” (Kramer vs Kramer for instance), what the media frequently portrays only minimally represents the truth of what a divorcing couple actually goes through in the real thing.

For example, divorce lawyers do not suffer severe health crises (like a series of strokes) and still attempt to represent a client in a settlement negotiation for the comic value. Though it is amusing to see that play out on our living room televisions screens, any attorney who engaged in such representation when mentally and physically compromised would face severe backlash from their state bar – including suspension of the license to practice law or outright disbarment.

Similarly, most family law attorneys (note I say most) do not practice family law because they are sociopaths and only care about getting as much money out of their clients as they can. This, however, is a frequent stereotype in television and film – the unscrupulous shark who takes perverse joy in seeing the lives of their clients completely fall apart, and care about nothing other than getting their fees paid. Those lawyers do exist out there – otherwise the stereotype itself would not exist – but most of the colleagues with whom we work in the real world are kind people who really do want to help resolve the very difficult issues that each divorce case brings.

But that reality has little to give to the entertainment world, so most attorney portrayals in the media default to the unlikeable, unethical, manipulative lawyer for a quick and easy villain. Dean Winters’ take on his attorney character of Tony Silvercreek in HBO’s Divorce is a prime example. As a fan of that show, I laugh unabashedly at the things he says and the lines he crosses (I think because the show’s take on the divorce process gets more right than wrong), but can honestly say that I know of no attorney I’ve ever worked with that would behave that way.

And I’m glad. Difficult attorneys can make an already difficult process virtually impossible to navigate with integrity and self-respect intact. And the additional costs associated with that kind of representation can explode exponentially, too.

Reputable lawyers do not practice that way. Truly skilled divorce attorneys focus on the pragmatic first – what does our client want and how do we make that happen as expeditiously as possible in light of the legal issues we face? When we filter the end goal through that lens, we can engineer an individualized case strategy focused on goals to achieve rather than on individual legal problems to tackle one at a time. This is what those fictional attorneys do not ever do – they are usually seen only to blow up every possible issue in a case until the entire situation seems ridiculous and unmanageable.

And this may go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) – the legal proceedings portrayed in the media are usually so detached from the way divorce cases are actually handled that I sit in stunned silence as they unfold. Again, they are created for entertainment value – that I understand. But I do believe that these portrayals can bleed over into a real divorcing person’s consciousness and create false expectations. Though divorces are not fun by any stretch, they can also be handled humanely and sensitively. We have no juries for family law cases in California, nor are the judges cold and uncaring gavel-bangers that don’t care about families or children. Our judges are very concerned with how their rulings affect the litigants, and though they are bound to carry out “the law” in every case, they can and do let compassion guide them in their decision making.

The upshot of all of this is simply that the media are not attempting to shine a light on the real world of divorce litigation. They are trying to entertain us. So if you or a friend or family member are facing a divorce or other family law crisis, the wisdom I have for you is to find a good attorney with a solid reputation to meet with and discuss the issues at hand. Not every case will need actual representation (and every good family law attorney will tell you if that is the situation in your case), but every potential litigant can benefit by getting some good perspective and solid advice on how to handle what is to come. Just don’t expect all of those attorneys to have plush offices in high rise buildings, to drive the latest and most expensive sports cars, or to engage in highly unethical (though viscerally satisfying) behavior. Stick to the movies for that – seek out a grounded, thoughtful, and experienced family law attorney for the real thing.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Neil M. E. Forester (@nmeforester) is a shareholder of FORESTER PURCELL STOWELL PC, a Northern California law firm focused exclusively on specialized counsel for complex divorce and family law issues. He is recognized by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization as a Certified Family Law Specialist. Neil regularly represents business owners, professionals, and other high net worth individuals (or their spouses) in divorce, premarital agreements, and related actions. He can be reached at info@foresterpurcell.com or 916 293 4000. This information is general in nature and should not be construed as legal advice.

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