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A new lawyer in our firm asked me, “Since you practice a lot of family law, what in addition to integrity would you say is necessary for a family law practitioner?” I answered, “Patience, empathy without sympathy, and a healthy sense of humor.” No fiction writer could fabricate the ridiculous occurrences in some divorce cases. A family lawyer must have a sense of humor to deal with captains of industry acting like spoiled adolescents or otherwise sensible women acting like babies with colic. A complex divorce property settlement may be scuttled because of a fight over a dog, vase or birdcage. In one case, a chainsaw almost sank a wonderful financial settlement for the wife, my client. She absolutely refused to give her husband the chainsaw. The husband refused to go forward until he received the saw. I went to a hardware store and bought a duplicate for $169, gave it to the husband and proved up the divorce. Then the woman gave me the chainsaw, which is still in my office. She said she hated it, but did not want the man to have it. Representatives from two of the most prestigious firms in Dallas and I spent an entire day dividing kitchen utensils costing about $2,000. The spouses wanted to dispute which items were gifts or alleged separate property. The spouses had money. I would guess that all of the disputed items were given to Goodwill Industries or the Salvation Army after the divorce. Early in my practice, a highly educated, intelligent couple squabbled over a bulldog. We compromised in the divorce decree and gave the wife possession of the dog when the husband traveled, and the former husband paid the ex-wife dog support until the creature died. So the family law practitioner needs a sense of humor. With a sense of humor, the lawyer may think about strangling the client, but will instead laugh about the ridiculous situations endemic to divorce. I often urge a prospective client to get counseling, either alone or with the spouse, before a divorce action is filed. This is critical if children are involved. I believe the lawyer has a duty to try to protect children from being battering rams between warring parents. I also believe that if the marriage can be mended and saved, the parties, the children and the community all win. In so many ways, divorce may seem worse than death for people going through it. Death is a natural part of life, and the survivor has the support, attention and sympathy of friends, family and the community. In marriage, the egos and lives of the spouses naturally become intertwined, so divorce can be like a death of part of the person — but without the same kind of sympathy, support and care from the friends, family and community. Especially if the couple has children, ties with the former spouse never can be severed completely because the exes must attend weddings, funerals, graduations and significant holidays of their children and grandchildren. A bitter, litigated divorce can be like a festering boil, burdening friends and children when the former spouses fail to work through grief, anger, need for retaliation and the sense of loss that divorce generates. A woman who invested her life in the promotion of her husband feels especially vulnerable in being left alone to fend for herself without the skills and experience to compete in the job market. A man can feel his manhood is shattered, especially if his wife chose to be with another man. Both can be devastated if the former spouse now wants a same-sex union. The family lawyer should walk with the client through the dark valley and give the client hope that the best part of his or her life is still to come. The lawyer should be realistic, hard-nosed and patient without becoming a part of the client’s trauma. The lawyer should not take home the burdens of the client and allow them to affect the lawyer’s home life. SOME GREAT REWARD It is a slippery slope. Why do lawyers choose to practice family law? The rewards are not just monetary; the many clients who thank me and say their lives are better are a great reward. Often, years later, a client tells me, “I didn’t believe you then, but I am now happier than I have ever been. I didn’t think I could survive without my spouse, but you got in my face and made me think realistically about my future. I often was mad and thought you were hard-hearted, but you made me see things as they are, rather than what I thought I wanted.” Obviously, the family lawyer also must keep up with the changing law, follow the rules, complete necessary discovery, have well-drafted contracts and meet the other requirements of practicing law today. But I think the family lawyer also must have extra patience and empathy to assist clients in what often is the worst experience of their lives. Louise B. Raggio has been in private practice as a partner in Raggio and Raggio in Dallas since 1956. In 1979, she was the first woman elected as a director of the State Bar of Texas in its 100-year history. She has served on numerous boards and won numerous awards for community service and leadership. “Voice of Experience” runs monthly in Texas Lawyer.

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