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The Landscape of Family Law

The bumps along the legal road can be mountains or molehills. Just ask the attorneys who work in family law.

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FAMILY LAW. Strikes a familiar, almost comforting chord, doesn’t it? Family: clan, brood, brethren, kindred spirits. And law: canon, code, covenant, order.

But what a deafening dissonance between those lofty terms and the minefield that is family law in the legal realm, peppered as it is with explosive human emotions: rage, heartache, recrimination, longstanding bitterness, even violence. Here, the law strikes at the very heart of who we are and what really matters to us. What do we truly value? How do we want our children to be raised?

Consider the matters at stake: the disintegration of a marriage, child-custody battles, contentious property disputes, verbal brawls over spousal support and child support, even charges of child abuse, spousal abuse and infidelity. It is often a most contentious terrain. There are restraining orders, subpoenas, disclosures of the most intimate corners of a couple’s life chronicled in the public record, long-fought battles over assets and property acquired over the course of a marriage spanning years, sometimes decades.

Family Law in San DiegoAttorneys who work in this area say they have to constantly steel their sensibilities; otherwise they can find themselves swept up in their clients’ emotional maelstrom.

“You have to distance yourself emotionally while you try to calm your client,” says attorney Gordon Cruse, a family law specialist who has practiced in California since 1983. “Some people come in and they are just so raging at first, they won’t listen to reason,” he says. “I’ve seen cases where one or both parties will use every discovery code, issue subpoenas, create contention. So there’s all this money that’s being spent on attorneys’ fees while their kid’s college fund is being siphoned away. I’ll ask them, ‘Do you really want to put me in a new sports car instead of sending your kid to Harvard?’ I try to guide them along a rational approach without being so negative.”

Those sentiments are echoed by other attorneys.

“I often have to discourage my clients from letting emotions rule,” says San Diego attorney Meredith Brown, who specializes in family law. “The first step is to get them away from knee-jerk reactions and personal attacks. Talk them down from the ledge, so to speak. A knock-down, drag-out fight is a waste of time for everyone involved,” she says. “If someone comes to me and says, ‘I want a shark. I want blood,’ then I send them on to another attorney, because I know they’re not going to be happy with me.”

“In criminal law, you’re dealing with some of the
worst people on their best behavior. In family
law, you’re dealing with some of the best people
on their worst behavior.” —anonymous attorney

THE EXPANSIVE UMBRELLA that is family law covers a range of complex cases, including adoptions, annulments, surrogacy, domestic violence, elder abuse and, in California, domestic partnerships. (Established in 1999, domestic partnerships are available to same-sex couples and some heterosexual couples in which one or both parties are at least 62 years old.) But it is divorce and its many related matters of contention—child custody, child support, spousal support, division of property and so on—that, for better or worse, dominates the legal landscape of family law. As a result, family law attorneys are expected to be Renaissance professionals, well-versed in psychology, parenting skills, tax law, finance, real estate, changes in IRS regulations and the ever-shifting impact of court rulings affecting California’s Family Code, which governs this area of law.

Bruce Beals, a family law specialist and practicing attorney since 1976, offers some unexpected advice to those considering divorce: “Stay married,” he says emphatically. “Go to a marriage counselor; seek mediation; take a deep breath.

“It’s extremely rare that anything good comes out of a divorce, except in those cases where there is infidelity or abuse,” he says. “It’s a rough ordeal. I’ve never heard anyone say, after going through a divorce, ‘That was fun. I’d like to do it again.’ ”

Cruse agrees, and adds, “At the end of the day, most people who are involved in a divorce are disappointed. Most people don’t get everything they’re asking for, and that can be tough to swallow, especially when their lives and their livelihoods are at stake.”

By their very nature, divorce cases can be lengthy legal affairs, coursing on for years and years. And even when the cases are over with, their impact lives on.

Family Law in San Diego“In a typical civil case, you’re dealing with one event that happened one day: a car crash, say, or a molestation that took place on a specific date or over a specific period of time,” Cruse says. “But in divorce cases, you’re unraveling a transaction that occurred 20, maybe 30 years ago. These cases can be extremely complex and, depending on the couple’s motivation and behavior, extremely time-consuming.”

Like many jurisdictions across the country, San Diego’s family courts are underfunded, understaffed—and chronically crowded. “It’s really shocking, the limited resources that are devoted to this area of the law,” Brown says. “We’re dealing with people’s lives, their kids’ lives.”