Things I Have Learned About Representing a Client in a Family Law Case
Ted Weckel, J.
Recently, I decided to attend conferences sponsored by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), and the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC). I would like to share with my family law colleagues some of the things I learned by attending these conferences. These comments are made from the notes I took while attending the conferences and are accurate to the extent of my note-taking ability and recollection.
Some of the subject areas presented at the conference that I will not address below involved: (1) How to Try a Family Law Case Without Destroying the Family; (2) Shared Legal Custody: Should There Be a Presumption?; (3) How the U.S. Supreme Court's Recent Decision on Gay Marriage, i.e., Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), Impacts Child Custody Cases; (4) How to Derail the Imbalance of Power and Control in Domestic Violence Divorce and Custody Cases; and, (5) Practical Tools for Promoting a More Civil Approach to Law.
Borderline Personality and Narcissistic Clients
One of the most intriguing presentations was made by a licensed clinical social worker and attorney by the name of Bill Eddy. The topic of his presentation was personality disordered parents and alienated children. Perhaps like you, I have wondered over the years why so many of my clients have been so bitterly upset with each other. Indeed, the term "custody battle" seems aptly named. Mr. Eddy provided an answer. He suggested that many if not most divorcing parents reach an amicable settlement without going to court because that is the most reasonable alternative and they are capable of seeing that. He then spoke about divorcing parents who suffer from borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder and who have skewed thinking, which creates the drama that many of us experience. He suggested that cases that don't settle frequently involve such clients. He suggested that the communication problems between such divorcing parents are systemic (making mediation challenging, if not impossible) and that without gaining insight into their issues, continued fighting will most likely be the ongoing result during the entire course of the litigation. He suggested that such clients generally do not gain insight from our constructive feedback. I also discovered that there are several programs for such highly conflicted parties, which help them learn to problem-solve rather than to spar endlessly. Mr. Eddy also suggested that court orders should be well-defined in black and white terms for such parties because the acrimonious tone of the litigation was likely to continue and if future behavior is not clearly spelled out, further conflict will ensue.
The second thing that dawned on me was that the family law bar's primary focus on zealous advocacy misses the boat when it comes to effectively trying to resolve domestic cases. That is, clients with personality disorders need our help as advisors even more than they need our help as zealous advocates. I now understand the value of being a problem-solving...