Reason No. 172 Not To Practice Family Law

For the uninitiate, the term “family law” is a vaguely Orwellian euphemism for “divorce,” — just as Oceania’s Ministry of “Peace” was all about making war, “family law” court is all about breaking up families, not putting them back together. Now, my practice doesn’t usually take me in to family law court and I only rarely encounter family law issues as I deal with employment disputes and stolen houses in my day-to-day work.

But I have a case on my desk now that involves the intersection of real estate, probate, and family law. Suffice to day that one of the claimants to the property in question died at an inconvenient time. So now I’m playing shuttle lawyer, going from court to court to figure out which one has made inconsistent orders and which one has the most competent jurisdiction. And I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that it’s not the family law court — not because the venue is unfavorable to my client, but because the venue is so unpleasant.

So I’m waiting for my client’s matter to get called in the family law court when it occurs to me that pretty much nothing about what I’m seeing and hearing could possibly leave a person with a positive impression of the judicial system. The courtroom is a windowless, unpainted, utterly utilitarian box stuffed with unfashionably serviceable furniture. The layout of the courtroom is awkward — the bailiff has to squeeze his way around the respondent, then around the clerk, to step in to the tiny well, and (as is usual for a court serving a large number of self-represented litigants) interrupt and silence people who do not understand courtroom decorum. The doors are heavy and loud and the lone heater fan was also loud, largely silencing many of the softer-spoken litigants.

The workload for the court staff and the judge looked crushing. People were coming in and out at all hours. Disconcertingly, the judge would get up and walk out of the courtroom without announcing that the case was dismissed, or even that she was going to chambers for some reason. This seemed to happen at least once per case. What was she doing, getting up and walking out in the middle of proceedings? Was she checking something in the file; if so, why wasn’t the file on her desk on the bench? Was she looking up something in the Family Code; if so, why wasn’t there a copy of the Family Code up there for her use? Maybe she had some other good reason to do what she did, but one thing was clear — there was enough on her mind that she didn’t think it was necessary to explain to anyone what she was doing.

Then, there were the dissolution hearings themselves. About half of them were default hearings; only the petitioner (the party who filed) was present. Ideally, those would go something like this:

Judge:  Petitioner, is your marriage completely and intolerably broken down?
Petitioner: Yes it is, Your Honor.
Judge: Will counseling or intervention help you reconcile or reconstruct your marriage?
Petitioner: No, Your Honor.

Ugh. Now, according to California law, that little script can’t be said until at least six months after the petitioner’s initial filing, but all the same, that admission of personal failure, of the loss of all the hopes and dreams and love, and the need to affirmatively state this, in public and in a room full of strangers and impersonal bureaucrats, must be demeaning indeed.

It hardly got better with contested hearings. There, the respondent shows up and is invited to participate by the Court, neither party knows when to quit when they’re ahead, and we wind up with things like this (I’m paraphrasing a bit as I recall the proceedings):

Judge:  Petitioner, is your marriage completely and intolerably broken down?
Petitioner: Yes it is, Your Honor.
Judge:  Respondent, do you agree with that?
Respondent:  I don’t understand, Judge.
Judge:  The correct form of address is ‘Your Honor.’
Respondent:  Oh. Sorry, Your Honor. Yes, I agree that our marriage is completely broken.
Judge: Petitioner, will counseling or intervention help you reconcile or reconstruct your marriage?
Petitioner: Well, Your Honor, he never really gave it a try.
JudgePetitioner. Will, or will not, counseling or intervention help you and the respondent reconcile or reconstruct your marriage? [Arches eyebrows.]
Respondent: No, it won’t, Your Honor.
Judge: Thank you, Mr. Respondent, but I need to hear from her.
Petitioner: No, Your Honor, nothing will make us reconcile.
Judge: Very well. The petition for dissolution of marriage is granted. Are there any personal possessions left to divide?
Petitioner: Yes, Your Honor, he still has some of my sheet music.
Judge: Is this sheet music particularly valuable?
Petitioner: It is to me, Your Honor, it was from my mother’s estate.
Respondent: Your Honor, she took everything but my clothing. She’s welcome to come back to the house and take whatever else she wants.
Judge: Do you dispute that the sheet music belongs to her?
Respondent: I don’t care. She can have it if she wants it.
Petitioner: Why wasn’t it there when I came by the house before?
Respondent: You didn’t ask for it so I didn’t know to get it for you.
Judge: All parties will please address the court and not each other. Respondent will find and deliver the sheet music. Anything else?
Petitioner: I would like to address the issue of alimony, Your Honor. If you look at the tax returns, you’ll see that he can make good money when he chooses to work. It’s very suspicious that he decided to retire a few weeks after I filed for divorce, and he claims to have no money and he’s going to get married again in just a few weeks. He can make money if he wants to.
Judge: Well, I can’t make him want to work, and I can’t order him to go to work. How old are you, sir?
Respondent: Seventy-eight.
Judge:  There you go.
: I’ve looked everywhere for that sheet music, Your Honor, and I can’t find it.
Judge: Once again, sir, I am ordering you to find and deliver the sheet music. Go home and look, hard.
Petitioner: I would like you to be aware of what’s in this sexually explicit e-mail he sent me. It was just awful, awful. I haven’t had a decent night of sleep since I received it.
Respondent: Your Honor, I would like to be heard about this allegedly explicit e-mail, she’s taking out of context, and–
Judge: You know what? I don’t care about the e-mail. I’m here to divide up your property and that’s it. Your sex lives are not my concern.  [Departs the courtroom.]
Petitioner: [Sotto voce, to Respondent] This isn’t over, you bastard.

…And it goes on and on and on like this, seemingly without end. Utterly miserable. Was the Petitioner telling the truth, exaggerating, or lying? Was the Respondent telling the truth, exaggerating, or lying? I couldn’t bring myself to care all that much, although I felt a little more sorry for the Respondent than the Petitioner in this exchange.

It’s no wonder that so many people have such profoundly negative emotions about the legal system — traffic tickets and divorces are the way most people encounter the courts. If you had to sit through about a dozen of these before going through one yourself, you’d think of the courthouse as an awful place where only awful things happen, too.

People really make a living guiding their clients through this. That’s not a question, I know that they do. It’s more of an expression of astonishment than anything else; the amount of emotional toxins in that courtroom ought to merit a warning sign from OSHA. It’s no wonder to me anymore that all the attorneys I know who burnt out did so practicing family law.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Never have I seen such contempt as on the face of a woman looking at her former husband (or boyfriend or some such) in Bronx Family Court.

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