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Think “early is better” when seeking counsel on family problems. Shattered domestic tranquility can hit like a speeding train. Ironically, those with wealth and power are often the most vulnerable. But no one should let an unfamiliar loss of control lead to bad decisions. When facing divorce, separation, or breakdowns in significant relationships, it is best to seek legal advice as quickly as possible. This may seem obvious. Or it may seem exactly wrong — where reconciliation is desired or relations seem salvageable. Not so. Even when there’s hope for a happy ending, early advice from skilled counsel can help. Issues and options can be properly explored, and the knowledge gained may, in turn, lead down the road to reconciliation. Seeking counsel early need not require a great expense of time or money. Clients may spend a few hours with a lawyer and not speak again for months, years, or forever. But that investment in just a handful of meetings may yield great returns. At a minimum, it will help establish what a “win” would entail — the risks, the benefits, and the costs. In a town teeming with lawyers, one fallacy that must be destroyed is the idea that those who possess legal knowledge in general can protect their own interests in these matters. Family law is not the place to do it yourself. A fair number of our clients are lawyers and judges, or their spouses. We’re often hired by other divorce attorneys smart enough to recognize what they can’t do well: represent themselves. They lack the emotional distance to assess their own situation. Though difficult to maintain in any case, objectivity is truly impossible when the very bonds of one’s family are being threatened. A LOT ABOUT A LOT Though a lawyer may be a highly skilled trial advocate, negotiator, and drafter of contracts, that doesn’t mean he or she possesses all the skills and knowledge of a family lawyer. Here’s a quick list of what’s needed. Family lawyers must understand the markets for real estate, securities, and capital. A sound appreciation of tax, accounting, bookkeeping, estate planning, and business valuation principles is essential. Family lawyers must be able to discuss the viability, risks, and benefits of a home or business sale, business reorganization, refinancing, debt payoff, stock redemption, real estate development, and patent protection. Many cases require understanding of federal and state employment and pension laws. Issues of workplace discrimination and job counseling may arise. Don’t forget insurance law. Family lawyers also need a broad expertise in health care matters, particularly issues of adult and child mental health. This goes well beyond mere familiarity with the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and current literature. Knowledge about medications, including their purposes, side effects, therapeutic dosages, and interactions, is crucial. Depending on the circumstances, referrals may need to be made to physical or mental health providers, social services, or other agencies. It is not unusual to apply diagnostic criteria for emotional disorders. Family lawyers may help to identify substance abuse, gambling addiction, or eating disorders. Not infrequently, cases involve domestic violence, child sexual abuse, or alcoholism. Again, referrals may need to be made to social service agencies — and to the police. Issues of education and school placement — public, private, and special — arise. Immigration laws and international treaties come into play. It also helps to understand the media and public affairs, the Internet, the Constitution, and on and on. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT When the family is in trouble, the earliest preventive measures are the most productive, efficient, and effective. Sometimes, as in the case of domestic violence or child sexual abuse, the situation demands emergency handling. Other times, counselors, accountants, investigators, or other specialists can be brought in more slowly. But always, early advice is important, for it may determine the outcome of the case. Fortunately, most initial meetings between client and lawyer take place well before the fires are raging. This allows counsel to proceed with the benefit of time and relative peace. The lawyer can build a comprehensive picture of each family member and his or her education, employment, holdings, income, and debt. If children are involved, their needs can be fully discussed. Counsel will seek details on each person’s contributions to the family and the role that each adult plays in relationship to the children. The lawyer will explore what is stressing the family. Immediate attention may be directed at marital infidelity, job loss, business failure, poor credit, reckless spending, a problem with the Internal Revenue Service, or a government investigation. Professional or, especially in the D.C. area, political setbacks can produce, or magnify, relationship issues. One spouse may be struggling with a parent’s care, illness, or death. Many do not appreciate the resulting emotional toll on everybody in the family. Universally, people claim that their children are their first priority. Yet all too often they can fail to see their child’s troubles or their own parenting missteps, or they hastily dismiss such problems as “being handled.” Overly rosy assessments are accepted at face value. The result: Opportunities to correct problems and help children are squandered. And down the road, there’s open warfare over the kids. Early engagement with a family lawyer can arm a client with a better understanding of the kinds of troubles that families (possibly including his or her own) face. The client has time to reassess, talk in depth with the other parent or children, and even seek appropriate counseling. Minimally, insights from early meetings with counsel can prove highly cathartic. The client gains some measure of control simply by facing problems. Better still, relationships can be healed, and lives can be improved. On the other hand, once temperatures rise and couples separate, the family lawyer loses the opportunity to observe and access important information. There are few practice areas where one can often influence the facts of the case. No one can remove blood from a murderer’s glove. But with early work, a more effective parent or more financially secure family can emerge. Family law facts never stop evolving. Events right up to game time can be relevant. A QUESTION OF BORDERS As early as possible, clients should learn how family cases are handled by the law and the courts of the relevant local jurisdiction — or, indeed, jurisdictions. Dramatic options are possible if counsel is consulted early enough in the right case. In other words, clients may wish to establish residence or otherwise ensure that their case is handled in a particular jurisdiction because Maryland, Virginia, and the District present important distinctions in law and approach. • For example, Maryland’s “exclusive use and possession” statute sets a sometimes draconian trap for an unwary spouse who moves out of the marital home. • Among the three local judicial systems, only D.C. courts lack the express authority to consider marital contributions to premarital assets. Conversely, only in the District can an asset owned by one spouse be awarded to the other. • The presumption under Virginia law is that post-separation acquisitions and income are separate property. Not so in Maryland and the District, where the dividing line between presumed marital and presumed separate is the divorce. Obviously, this can make a big difference. • Idiosyncratic differences exist among the counties and cities of each state, as well as among judges on the same court. These can translate into widely varying time delays for hearings, and widely varying child custody and support awards. Clients do not necessarily have the power to choose among these differences. But the mere fact of understanding the range of possible outcomes ahead of time can lead to better decision making. Early guidance from counsel on how, when, what, and with whom to communicate is also essential. Cell phones and computers are minefields, leaving a bountiful trail of evidence, some of it harmful or even incriminating. It is amazing how often a circumspect, otherwise savvy person will say anything and everything in an e-mail message or a Web chat room. Likewise, people in a family often share a home computer, sometimes accessed with a shared password. Depending on one’s perspective, this presents a dilemma or an opportunity. Either way, it is crucial that clients consider the evolving case law on privacy and the relevant legal, ethical, and evidentiary boundaries. MYTHS AND LEGENDS Finally, an early consultation gives the family lawyer the chance to test the client’s beliefs, stories, theories, and desires. While helping to shape goals and formulate strategies, counsel can provide an illuminating “reality check.” Virtually everyone seems burdened with at least one or two inaccurate notions about the divorce process. As early as possible, the lawyer must debunk these myths. Where do they come from? On families and divorce, everyone thinks he or she is an expert, with a ready opinion. After all, we all know someone who’s been through it. But (forgive me for the cliché) a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. First, each person and every family is unique. Thousands of discrete facts and circumstances combine to form an unrepeatable pattern, almost akin to the individuality of DNA. Logically it follows that the best achievable outcome is also unique to a particular family and case. It is senseless to point to the anecdotal tale of a sister, best friend, or cab driver whose cousin knew someone in Los Angeles whose brother didn’t have to pay alimony. There’s no cookie-cutter law for families. Second, “universal truths” about divorce law and precedent are anything but. For example, many are shocked to learn how often men prevail in child custody disputes. Times change. Likewise, many assume that marital property is always equally divided. But half and half is neither preordained nor presumed. Indeed, it may not even be close to the likely result in a given case. People also carry many false assumptions about what kind of child visitation schedule is appropriate or likely to be approved, when a separation legally occurs, who pays for fees and costs in a divorce, and whether and how marital fault affects a given case. My favorite current fiction involves mediation. I wish I had five bucks for each time I’ve heard someone struggle with this momentous decision: Should I go to mediation or hire a lawyer? This is a false choice. Fighting with lawyers or settling with a mediator are not two distinct choices. First, lawyers settle more than 90 percent of their cases — about as many as they settled 25 years ago, prior to the emergence of mediation as a viable option. Second, good mediators insist that both parties have independent counsel. Minimally, lawyers help choose a mediator, advise along the way, and draft the documents if settlement happens. In more complex cases, multiple lawyers and other professionals may fully participate in the mediation process. The sooner a family lawyer can meet the client, learn his or her goals, understand his or her thinking, debunk myths, and offer guidance on areas of concern, the better. It is all a kind of early education. A client empowered by good information and a better sense of the big picture is both greatly relieved and more confident about the future. Experience suggests that fear of the unknown is always worse than the truth. Glenn C. Lewis is principal of The Lewis Law Firm, P.C., a family and matrimonial firm with offices in Fairfax, Va.; Rockville, Md.; and Washington, D.C. Lewis is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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