The Wall: Lessons From a Family Lawyer
Darlene was a pretty, blond 19-year-old with a 10-month-old baby girl whom she wheeled into my office in a ragged umbrella stroller. Darlene, the baby, and the baby’s father, Keith, had been living with Keith’s parents in a row house in northeast Philly. Keith and Darlene apparently argued a lot, and one day, during a fight about Darlene’s wanting Keith to watch the baby so she could go out with her girlfriends, Keith put his hands around Darlene’s neck and tried to choke her. Darlene had filed in court for and received a protection order to keep Keith away from her and the baby. Keith, in response, had turned around and filed for custody of the baby, alleging that Darlene was a drug addict.
At this time I was about five years out of law school and working for a nonprofit legal center. Darlene’s was one of my first custody cases. Like Darlene, I had a 10-month-old daughter. I worked three days a week and stayed home with my baby and four-year-old the rest of the time. I was still immersed in that mothering cocoon that descended upon me after the birth of each of my daughters, venturing out to do battle in a world of conflict and aggression that was my legal life and retreating back into the sweet, cozy routine of trips to story hour at the library and long afternoons of play groups and coffee with my friends and their babies.
Darlene’s case really got to me. Her baby became my baby in my mind as I transitioned between my two worlds. I felt pure outrage that this abusive young thug was trying to take a precious little baby away from her mother—my client!—and incredible fear that it could happen on my watch. I felt sick as a mother and terrified as a professional, and I wasn’t sure which was which.
Darlene and I met at the courthouse the day of the custody hearing. She was wearing extremely tight blue jeans, which annoyed me because I wanted her to look like Madonna (not the singer, the other one) but then decided that it was my fault for neglecting to prep her on what to wear to court and, anyway, there was no point in bringing it up because it was too late to do anything about it. I focused on finding the courtroom without looking like an idiot. I had not handled many custody cases in Philadelphia, and I desperately did not want Darlene to know I had no idea where I was going. Somehow, I managed to find the right door without asking anyone and totally blowing my cover.
We walked into an ancient, crumbling courtroom with dusty portraits of dead judges on the walls, high ceilings, and stains on the polished marble floors—faded elegance from another era, turned shabby and depressing. The judge was old and white haired and imposing, peering down at us from the bench. I had never appeared before him and had no idea what to expect, an unnerving situation in any case. Keith was there, looking like a choir boy with tattoos. His parents were also present, looking kindly, sensible, and grandparental, although probably considerably younger than I am as I write this.
The proceeding itself is a blur. I remember only a conference in chambers—close, dark, intimate, but extremely formal—where I struggled to get the judge to understand the retaliatory nature of Keith’s request for custody and his history of physically abusing Darlene, which included a number of assaults prior to the recent choking incident. There must have been witnesses called and testimony taken, but all that has been eclipsed by the stunning clarity with which I recall the outcome of the case and its aftermath: His Honor decided to take the baby away from both of them and award custody to Keith’s parents. The legal basis on which he did so eluded me then and eludes me still, as the grandparents never even asked for custody, but nonetheless that’s what happened.
When the ruling was announced, Darlene was, literally, hysterical. I dragged her out of the courtroom into a long and dingy hallway, where she dropped violently to the floor, curled up in the fetal position, and began to rock back and forth, wailing “She’s my baby, I had her, I have the stretch marks on my body to prove it, she’s my baby, how can he take her away from me?” The uniformed court officers in the hallway looked on helplessly and I felt as though I was going to throw up.
That was a Friday afternoon. I went home and looked at my baby and started to cry. I felt physical pain everywhere in my body. I completely understood why Darlene was rolling on the floor of the courthouse, showing her stretch marks to the court officers. The thought of the state removing my little Robin and giving her to someone else to raise was intolerable. Over and over again, I told my husband about what happened, looking for reassurance that it wasn’t my fault, something he couldn’t tell me with any credibility whatsoever since he a) wasn’t there, and b) wasn’t a lawyer and had absolutely no idea what I should or shouldn’t have done, and c) generally tells me he’s sure I did a great job anyway. I dreaded the next week when I was going to have to be the lawyer, when I was going to have to talk to Darlene and figure out a strategy for reclaiming the baby. I was the grownup, the professional, and I had screwed up royally.
Monday, back in the office, Darlene called. I launched into the speech I had prepared, explaining my recommendation that we immediately file a petition for reconsideration of the judge’s order. She interrupted me with a perky, “Oh, that’s OK—I’m engaged!” and proceeded to tell me that she and Keith had patched it all up and everything was great and he had given her a ring and she was back living with him and his parents and their daughter, all together, one big happy family. What a difference 48 hours had made. She thanked me for my help and hung up.
I was stunned. Then I got angry. First I was angry at Darlene for being so immature and deciding to marry this abusive guy who tried to choke her to death and to take her baby away by lying about her being a drug addict, just because he said he was sorry and bought her a ring. A ring! Then my anger turned to fury as I started feeling sorry for myself. Didn’t she know what she put me through? Didn’t she know how much I cared? Didn’t she know how I had cried when I looked at my baby and thought of hers? Most importantly, of course, didn’t she know she had totally ruined my weekend?
Lawyers either love or hate family law. Very few are neutral about it. When I tell a fellow member of the bar what area of law I practice, I frequently get a groan in response. Usually that lawyer says he handled one divorce case and “never again.” Although I fall squarely into the former camp as a self-identified family law junkie, I will be the first to admit that the intersection—collision, often—of family life and the law is daunting to navigate. And the identification-with-the-client thing is rough, especially in custody cases, especially when you have children yourself. You have to find the right balance between caring about the outcome of the case and putting some kind of wall between yourself and your client so you can continue to live your life without internalizing the client’s problems.
After Darlene’s case, something shifted inside me and that wall started to go up. I realized that Darlene had managed her life for 19 years without any input from me. She came to me in a time of crisis to help her with a specific problem, and I did my best. But her baby girl wasn’t Robin and her stretch marks weren’t mine.
Photo via katherinekenney/flickr.
Margaret Klaw is a founding partner of Berner Klaw & Watson, an all-women law firm located in Center City, Philadelphia, dedicated exclusively to the practice of family law. She speaks frequently on family law topics and writes for The Huffington Post, DailyWorth.com, and her own blog, FamilyLawUnraveled.com. Her book, Keeping It Civil: The Case of the Pre-Nup and The Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer, is out now.