As I write this post, it’s not been an easy week. It was one of those weeks when it feels like everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. A lawyer friend once joked with me that being a lawyer is like riding a bike, except that the bike is on fire. My eyebrows were certainly singed this week.
I had been acting for a nice retiree, Janine, for a few months, and after some negotiations back and forward with the lawyers of her husband, Paul, a financial outcome was struck. I was due to meet Paul when he attended my office to hand over a settlement cheque. Little did I know that I would be walking straight into an emotional maelstrom.
Though I had anticipated that my exchange with Paul would be straightforward and courteous, given that the case had been resolved quickly, courteously, and without any angst at all, Paul let me have it. With both barrels.
He explained to me that he had been an architect, building things, and being productive, for a career spanning 40 years. Lawyers (including me) were nothing like that in his view – we ‘built’ nothing worthwhile, and achieved nothing of use to society, and instead devoted ourselves to tearing down relationships, relishing in the destruction we leave in our wake.
I don’t think I will ever forget Paul’s words. He uttered them with such venom. He believed what he said.
Clearly, Paul was hurt and distressed by the end of his relationship with Janine, things I had not been able to pick up on while I had been acting for Janine, because I had never met Paul before, and because his lawyer had never revealed those emotions to me. From my side, the case had appeared mutual, co-operative, and, dare I say it, ‘easy’ to resolve.
Janine had been the one to end the relationship, after many years of marriage to Paul. I had, as I often do when people have obviously spent decades together, enquired of Janine whether there was scope to reconcile, and improve, her relationship with Paul, and whether I could refer Janine to a relationship therapist to help with that, before moving down any permanent legal pathways. I was reassured by Janine that she had ‘been there, done that’, and that my very certain instructions were to proceed.
Taken aback by his criticism, I could only reassure Paul that I had followed my instructions; that I, together with Paul’s lawyer, had tried to make the process as pain-free and respectful as possible for Janine and him; and that I understood that the situation was a challenging one for him.
But Paul’s comments left me thinking. I would not be ‘human’ if they didn’t. If I’m honest, they rocked me, given that they came at the end of what had been a terrible week. After all, those of us who are lawyers chose that profession to help people, and to assist in the solving of problems.
Paul was on my mind on the long-drive home that night. Why had his words cut so close to the bone? After all, he was not even my client. I lay awake well into the night, thinking about our exchange. How hurt Paul was. How unresolved the relationship breakdown was for him. How he was in pain. And how those realities caused him to believe that the lawyers were the cause of his pain. That, as family lawyers, we are not ‘building’ anything, or helping people. Even as I drove to work the next day, the weather was overcast and drizzly – a reflection of my mood.
However, the universe is a remarkable thing. It takes from us with one hand, while giving back to us with another. And it always rights itself in the end.
After a night of reflecting on Paul’s view of the failings of the profession I had chosen, waiting for me in my inbox when I arrived at work the following day was an email from another former client, Melina. It was just what I needed at that point.
I had acted for Melina several years prior, when Melina left her husband, and went into hiding to protect her 2 girls from possible danger at the hands of her estranged husband, Gary.
I still remember the first time I met Melina. She explained that Gary had, 3 days prior, held on to her 2 girls, then 5 and 3, at the end of a parenting visit. She had attended Gary’s home with her dad, and collected the children. As she drove away, Gary pursued her in his own car, attempting to ram her, and cause her to crash on the highway. Even as she was making a statement to Police, Gary was so brazen that he damaged her car while it was parked outside the Police Station.
The following evening, Gary burned the family home to ground. He did so by dragging Melina’s wedding dress out of storage, dousing it in fuel and setting it alight, starting separate fires on each of the children’s beds.
Gary was arrested later that evening and taken into custody, but released as a result of a Police oversight. Without being charged, and without being finger-printed, Gary had left the State within hours, and was now ‘on the run’.
As Melina stood in my office, in the one set of clothes she now owned, and not even aware if Gary had followed her there, I knew I had to help her. She had no money to pay me, and the sum total of her belongings could now be contained in the boot of her car.
Over the 4 months which followed, Melina and I worked together to put in place the legal mechanisms she needed to re-build her life. Protection orders, registered across a number of States, for the safety of Melina and the girls. Parenting orders for the girls. Orders for the suppression of Melina’s new residential and work addresses. Orders preventing Gary from attending the girls’ school. Orders permitting Melina to access insurance proceeds to buy clothing and furniture items for a new residence.
The case tested Melina, and me. It had many complexities. An ongoing Police investigation. An investigation by the insurer of the family home. The development of safety plans for Melina’s workplace and the children’s school in case Gary came for them. And of course, all the while, Gary was at large, and we did not know when or where he would show up. Gary even made a sudden appearance, encamped at a coffee shop Melina was known to frequent, but again eluded Police.
But one by one, the problems were checked off the to-do list. And it was not long before I had done all I could do, and I was closing my file, watching Melina move on with a ‘new’ life.
Melina will always stick in my mind as one of the bravest people I have met. She was terrified of the lengths to which her husband would go in order to hurt her (including her fear that he would harm her children in order to ‘get at’ her). But that fear made her stronger – she refused to waver in her quest to ‘rebuild’ life from the ground up, for the benefit of her girls, and her.
The email waiting for me that maudlin morning, Paul’s scathing words of the day prior still fresh in my mind, was that Melina had good news. She was letting me know that she had met a wonderful man, who loved her and her girls dearly, and that they had recently been married. She thanked me again, as she had done many times before, for the help I had been able to give when she needed it the most.
And there I had it. My answer. The resolution to the doubt which had windmilled in my mind for the prior 24 hours. Family lawyers do build something. They help people when they need help. When they need someone on their side. And when they can’t do it alone. Though this is difficult to measure, as it is not as obvious as a bridge or a skyscraper, it is nevertheless important – more important than we will ever know, because it is someone’s life.
Whether you’re are an architect or a lawyer, there will be instances where not everyone appreciates what you’ve ‘built’. While it is our responsibility as family lawyers to cause spouses and their families as little trauma as possible, sometimes the dynamic of family situations is such that the person who is not our client (here, ‘Paul’ and ‘Gary’) will never be able to see that anything has been built, but where our client (here ‘Janine’ and ‘Melina’) will always see our creation as being magnificent.
I’ll bet that every family lawyer has a story like this. It’s hard to concede that we are affected by the cases in which we are involved. But it is important, as to remind ourselves of the good that we can, and do, achieve, every day, is necessary to keep us going at the end of every week in which it feels like the bike we ride as lawyers is well and truly on fire.
To all the family lawyers out there, keep on building.
* Names and some case facts altered to protect privacy, and otherwise recounted with authority