Watch Me Take The Bar
Watch Me Take The Bar
This blog, originally started as a chronicle of my taking the bar, is now a look into the mind of an attorney in solo practice in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

BMCC '06: The Lawyers

Blogger's Note: This is the second of what will be several entries on the 2006 Battered Mothers' Custody Conference, which I attended over the weekend. It was an experience in which I learned and absorbed a great deal about things as wide and varied as the system, those who manipulate it, are manipulated by it, and are victimized by it, and about myself. To try to do this all in one entry would not do it justice.

No one is exactly wild about divorce lawyers.

When I first told my mother I thought I wanted to represent battered women in custody cases, my mother (who despises the idea of any child being abused with the very fiber of her being), replied, "Oh, don't do that. All my friends who are married to lawyers make sure to say when they explain what their husband does, 'But he doesn't do divorces."

But, to get a divorce, you need a lawyer. And, at the Battered Mothers' Custody Conference, it was clear that lawyers were pivotal people.

By way of perspective, one should understand that these people were in high conflict divorces, and it was not uncommon to meet people who were in their third, fourth, fifth, seventh or twelfth year of litigation.

It also appeared very clear that most people were on their second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth lawyer. (The average is four.) This is because many lawyers don't understand domestic violence or the dynamics of it. Several people referred to their first lawyers as bozos or slightly less polite words.

However, there were a number of presenters in Albany last weekend who not only understood the dynamics of domestic violence but spend a great amount of their time representing the victims of it.

Preeminent among them was a fellow by the name of Richard Ducote. I first came across him when I read a terrific article he authored called "Guardians ad Litem in Private Custody Litigation: The Case for Abolition." (It is peppered with such section headings as "Rules? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Rules!" and "Fees: There Goes The College Tuition.") Since then, I have learned he is the preeminent attorney for battered women in custody cases. Among others, he represented the aforementioned Sarah when she sued her multimillionaire father to help with her college tuition (they lost.) He also represented Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, the mother who fled to New Zealand with her daughter rather than force visitation between her daughter and the father who the daughter said had molested her.

Ducote (along with Lundy Bancroft, who presented on Friday night) was one of the rock stars of the conference. His whole demeanor indicated someone who was a presence in the courtroom, and I think it would be a heck of a lot of fun to watch him cross-examining a guardian who hasn't been doing their job.

I don't get out much, OK?

Also at the conference were Charles, Kristin and Diane Hofheimer. Charles and Kristin are a father-daughter team of lawyers who only represent women, and Diane is a paralegal. They spoke on a panel of about eight or nine lawyers that appeared Saturday morning. (Yeah, imagine -- giving eight lawyers microphones and 75 people to talk to. Short and sweet was not the order of the day.)

A few of the notes I took from the panel:

  • The idea that the system has an attitude of bureaucratic indifference towards domestic violence

  • The fact batterers can use privilege to define reality

  • The idea that a mother's maternal instincts work against her in court

  • Part of the problem with proving abuse is that skepticism works in the abuser's favor, because to buy the story of abuse, the judge must mentally "go there" and admit there are people who beat, molest or abuse.

  • A strong belief that we need to remember that family court is a real court. Too many practitioners and judges go in there forgetting that rules, laws, constitutions apply, and just want to play "Let's make a deal." A defense lawyer who did not follow up on inaccuracies or inadequacies of a police officer's investigation would be guilty of malpractice. So, why should attorneys let guardians ad litem get off the hook?

    (Often, because they have another case with the guardian ad litem the next day where the GAL is in their favor.)

    One of the stories we heard was of a woman who was held at Rikers' Island for 27 months after speaking out about custody of her daughter being given to the father who molested her. When an attorney came into the Clerk's office to file a motion to get the mother out, the clerks hounded him. Was he filing under Rule 7? Or perhaps Subpart 12k8b7-6? It was clear they didn't like that he was exposing what was going on. Finally, in frustration, he told them he was filing under the US Constitution.

    In other words, lawyers need to be lawyers. Even in family court.

Another attorney we heard from who impressed me greatly was a fellow by the name of Tim Tippins. More about him later, but he's gone so far as to subpoena the printouts of psychiatrists who make custody recommendations, only to find out that the computer programs that do some of the evaluation were intrinsically biased against mothers. (This starts to sound like weird, Black Helicopter stuff, but I promise you, we have gone so far off the map it is going to be very difficult to find our way back.)

And here's the other problem with the lawyers: They charge, a lot. And because the most precious thing in the world to a woman is her child, she will pay as much as she has. And when they have exhausted their resources, many women end up representing themselves.

As a result, they learn a great deal. The woman who spent 27 months in Rikers said she studied the law five days a week because what else was she going to do?

It was certainly more productive than thinking about how screwed up the system is.

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