A NEW YORK CITY DIVORCE ATTORNEY DEFENDS HER COLLEAGUES
I read with interest this article the other day on the Huffington Post and it was written by divorce lawyer Ms. Etezad Rachman. And this is an excerpt from her article:
There is only one sure bet about divorce, and that is this: hiring a divorce lawyer will only make things more expensive and nasty. I have seen some rackets in my day, but none surpass the self-serving nut house that is our adversarial divorce system. It isn’t bad enough that you are losing a spouse, someone you loved once and probably depended on either financially or emotionally, but if you go the lawyer route, you are going to be fighting a war on two fronts. You don’t recognize it at first, but after spending somewhere $10,000 or $1,000,000 on attorney fees, the smart person starts to see that the only people benefiting from your divorce are the lawyers. Anyone who assumes their divorce attorney is their friend and is looking out for their best interest is a fool who will soon be parted with all their money.
That was a heavy statement, I thought. So I ran it by our committee and we decided to ask a New York City divorce attorney to tell us what she thought about what Ms. Etezad Rachman had to say. This is the Interview:
Divorce Saloon: You are a divorce attorney in New York City, correct?
New York Divorce Attorney: Yes I am.
Divorce Saloon: Do tell, do you agree with Belinda Etezad Rachman when she says ” There is only one sure bet about divorce, and that is this: hiring a divorce lawyer will only make things more expensive and nasty.”
New York Divorce Attorney: No, not at all. I strongly disagree with this statement. First of all, it is a gross generalization. Divorce attorneys come in all shapes and price ranges and personality types, just like the rest of the population. And frankly, sometimes, the least expensive thing a party to a divorce action could do over the long run, in my opinion, is hire a competent lawyer from the start who can work collaboratively with the individual to see to it that their legal rights are protected and realized.
Like any other legal proceeding, a divorce is a serious legal matter with serious legal consequences. There is nothing blasé about it and it is almost irresponsible, in my opinion to so cavalierly suggest that a litigant should not hire a divorce lawyer for fear it will be “nasty” or “expensive.” This is a naïve position to take because not getting representation when you need it can be even more costly.
With respect to the issue of nastiness, I know many lawyers who are anything but nasty. The thing I’ve found with nastiness in the profession is, if someone was going to be nasty anyway, it doesn’t matter what their title whether lawyer, doctor, receptionist, journalist or police officer, or whatever. A nasty person is just a nasty person in any profession. This quality is not endemic to divorce attorneys. It is incredibly marginalizing to say that. In my own personal experience, I have consistently been a lawyer who encourages clients to work cooperatively with each other to resolve the case and to stop the bickering with their spouses. You’ll never find me bickering with opposing counsel unless counsel starts with personal attacks or is an arrogant, insolent prick – which has happened. In which case it can get ugly pretty quick.
And this is not always an easy job, believe me. Because there usually isn’t any angrier person than a person going through divorce – men and women alike they tend to be very angry with each other, and thus, can quite frankly be very “nasty” with each other. Sure, there are many litigants who have and want an “amicable divorce” but for a large pool of litigants, this just isn’t reality. Some judges, too, can be less than civil. There are so many players in this high stress environment who may not be their most charming during working hours. And it is understandable. As the attorney, part of your job becomes referee. And another part is warrior. And you have to adopt a very strong stance dealing with clients and dealing with opposing counsel and with your client and with the court (to a lesser extent in the case of the latter if you know what I mean). But strong is not nasty, necessarily. And in this business, nice is not strong. So what is a lawyer to do?
Divorce Saloon: But surely there are nasty divorce lawyers? You are not suggesting that there are no nasty divorce lawyers?
New York Divorce Attorney: God, no. I am not suggesting that at all. Are there “nasty” lawyers in the divorce bar? Yes! Of course there are! There are nasty people everywhere. And many of those people are divorce lawyers. Absolutely. All I’m trying to say is that I cannot accept as ispe dixit that divorce lawyers as a group are “nasty” just because another divorce lawyer said it. I think she ought to speak for herself on this one. I am a divorce lawyer. I am not nasty by nature. I have met many divorce lawyers who are not nasty by nature. I have also met many pe0ple – clients, judges, security guards, teachers, doctors, receptionists, all sorts of people – who are not lawyers and who can be nasty under certain circumstances. It really is not a quality unique to divorce lawyers.
I think the stance one is often forced to take as a divorce lawyer is one of toughness and one of strength because of the litigants and because of the way the system is set up and designed, and to a certain extent, because of what clients expect of you too. Nice guys finish last not just in life, but also in divorce court. So yes, divorce lawyers can seem tough and sure, many are nasty sobs too. But I cannot allow an ipse dixit such as what the author of the Huffington Post article said, without a rebuttal. I am sorry.
Divorce Saloon Belinda Etezad Rachman has said, “I have seen some rackets in my day, but none surpass the self-serving nut house that is our adversarial divorce system.” What do you say to that?
New York Divorce Attorney: What do I say to that? Well, the system is bit nutty, true. I sort of have to agree with her there. Especially the family court side, not so much the Supreme Court side which hears divorce matters. That tends to be a slightly more sophisticated experience. But I don’t think the fault is the lawyers either way. In a real way, lawyers can be just as victimized by this system as the clients. For example, many lawyers I know have been screwed by clients who refuse to pay after the lawyer has done the work; and then the court refuses to release the lawyers from the case and so the lawyer is reduced to involuntary servitude! Because you know the client will sue for malpractice to get out of paying. That’s pretty nutty, isn’t it? It is also nutty how many of the players act in court. It can be a real circus. And I say that with all due respect. Some counties are worse than others, of course. But it is truly a remarkable experience. The court house corridor is a place that very bizarre things do happen and very bizarre things get said and done. That is why there is such heavy security, I think. Because it is anticipated that very nutty things can and often do go down. Nowadays, all parties have to go through metal detectors before they are allowed in the court room. Lawyers don’t go through the metal detectors. But all litigants do so that should be telling to a great extent.
Oh yes, it is quite nutty, I have to admit. Belinda is right with that. Totally unpredictable. Divorce practice is no place for the faint of heart, I tell you. It is a nutty environment but as lawyer, I can’t take the responsibility for that. If a client comes to me for representation, I show up and do the best I can. I certainly did not create the insanity of that person’s life, or the insanity that permeates the lives of many of the litigants, or the insanity that is going on in the corridors, or in the courtroom itself. I don’t write the laws themselves either that sometimes may have nutty results depending on which side you are on. A legislature does that. They write the laws. People should remember that. The lawyer does not write or interpret the laws. So don’t blame the lawyer when things don’t work.
All the lawyer gets to do, as the lawyer, is use what the legislature wrote to try to advocate on behalf of my client in front of the judge. Lawyers try to find a method in the madness to benefit their clients. Most lawyers I know work very hard for their clients. They are up nights working on cases. They are sacrificing their families to get those legal briefs and motions and trials written and prepared. This is grueling. It is no joke. That’s what I think most lawyers try to do. It is very hard work. Very stressful. Rife with peril.
I think it is outrageous quite frankly that Belinda chooses to characterize what most of us in the trenches are trying to do as “self-serving.” And it’s as if she gives lawyers sole credit for this “nut-house.” But that is not fair. After all, lawyers are just visiting the place on that particular day on someone’s behalf. This nut-house is not ours! It belongs to the judges and the litigants. The lawyers have the least claim to the place. We go home to our own nut-houses at the end of the day.
Divorce Saloon: LOL. Belinda had this to say: “You don’t recognize it at first, but after spending somewhere $10,000 or $1,000,000 on attorney fees, the smart person starts to see that the only people benefiting from your divorce are the lawyers.” What is your response?
New York Divorce Attorney: When a client comes to my office, usually, in 999.999% of the time, this is the first time I am meeting this individual. I had nothing to do with their lives, or their marriages. They come to me with a legal problem. The problem is that they want to get out of a contractual agreement with their spouse. Often times, they have some specific directives. They may want to keep custody of a child that belongs equally to their spouse. They may want to keep the marital residence and have their spouse move out immediately. Their spouse may have a pension account that will be quite valuable at retirement and they want to ascertain that they get a fair share of the proceeds. Their spouse may be wrongly accusing them of adultery. There are myriad issues in the average divorce case that are exacerbated by the breakdown of trust in a once loving union. Most often than not, the parties are angry and the last thing they want to hear from their lawyer is “oh, don’t worry about it. Just settle everything. Give him half and call it a day.” Trust me if the client felt that way from the start, there would be absolutely no reason to get a divorce lawyer. People get lawyers because from the get go, they don’t feel that magnanimous towards their spouse, or they don’t feel their spouse will be magnanimous towards them and they want to protect their interest.
There’s no problem with that. The problem I have is that in order to properly represent a client, there is a ton of legal work, court appearances, writing, counseling, negotiating, strategizing, thinking, stressing, out-maneuvering, anticipating, that has to be done on that client’s behalf. Belinda knows that because she’s been a lawyer. This is a service to a client that has a value. This is that attorney’s work and for the product of that work, the client has agreed before hand to pay. I think that is fair. This is a capitalistic society we live in after all. And on top of that, all who work should be paid for their labor. How would you feel if you went to work and on pay day your boss tells you that either (a) they can’t pay you or (b) they won’t pay you? How would you feel about that? Would you just say, “fine. It’s ok?” I don’t think anyone would like that. It would make the five o’clock news, probably. People would be outraged. Why should it be different for an attorney?
The workman/woman is entitled to his or her wages. Anyone who works is entitled to get paid especially if there was a prior agreement for payment, a la the retainer agreement. This idea that a lawyer is the only one who makes money on a divorce is ridiculous. Hopefully at the end of the proceeding the litigants will be walking away with a fair share of their marital assets and this will define the rest of their lives. But they have to pay for the service. It is not a free service. A lawyer is entitled to be paid for his or her work without being insulted and without being called names like “nasty” and “self-serving.”
Now, to the extent that folks can settle these issues through mediation or in a less adversarial way, my hat is off to them. I recommend it. I really do. But even so, they still have to pay for the service. Mediators are not volunteers either, you know. And not all divorce lawyers are nazi devils.
Divorce Saloon: Thank you for your time in answering these questions.
New York City Divorce Attorney: Thank you for having me.
Originally published October 29, 2009