I am a daughter of divorce and a divorce attorney. Most collaborative professionals have reasons why they have chosen to put down their armor and swords and the bludgeoning tactics of court battles and do divorce differently. My reasons resonate in my practice, but I have only recently started to share, and this is the first time in writing, that I am a collaborative divorce attorney because my family legacy was decimated while I was almost 10 years into my practice as a family law litigator. I have been practicing 17 years. By sharing this legacy, I hope that you, especially if you are a parent contemplating divorce, or are in the midst of divorce, will consider your family’s legacy as you go through the process.
For 10 years, my job was to litigate family conflict in a courtroom. I trained to “win” and gave all my heart, grit and the preparedness of a gladiator to fight cases I was hired to fight. With each trial, I sharpened my tools and took each supposed “win” or loss as an opportunity to one up my opponents in the courtroom. I put on my empathy repellant cloak, told my clients to listen to me if they wanted to win, and that we would prevail by out lawyering the other side.
While I am humbled by the work I did as a trial attorney, my heart was frozen during the 10 years I “did my job” in the courtroom. What I didn’t prepare for, and I was ready-set-fire for anything involving a court battle, was that the very advice I had given my clients time and time again – to listen to my advice to win their case – was the very advice that broke my frozen heart into a million pieces.
People hire attorneys to tell them what to do. Attorneys tell people what to do. People listen to attorneys because we are attorneys. It’s that simple. It’s also not that simple because attorneys do not experience the reality of people’s lives. We do not have to live every day with the real facts of life, with the people in the roles we have created for the case, and we certainly do not ever have to consider the legacy long after the case is over.
Between 2013 and 2014, however, I lived the consequences of one attorney’s advice that changed my family’s legacy. The advice to win the case was given to my father, my foundation, and the most trusted person who had been there for me every day of my 35 years of life – until one day – with one piece of advice – he wasn’t.
After 45 years of marriage, my parents went through a divorce. The divorce story, and all the deceitful and salacious details, could have been the central topic here. They are irrelevant.
The notable aspect of the divorce was one piece of advice my dad’s attorney gave him: Do not speak to your divorce attorney daughter during your divorce.
My sad hired an attorney to tell him what to do. He did what “good” clients do: He listened.
The person who gave me life and supported me through every stage of life, was suddenly gone. For a year, it felt like my dad was dead – only he wasn’t. On the “advice of counsel,” he went silent.
We could perhaps debate why my father, an educated professional, thought that talking to me or not talking to me had any bearing on his case, or was a strategy with any validity, but he took this advice as the gospel. He did what most clients in litigation do when they are told how to win the case in court: He followed his attorney’s advice.
For at least a year, every attempt I made to contact my dad failed. Every call, text, email, plea, was ignored.
One night during the year, one of my dear friend’s 80-year-old dad who was in impeccable health died in a tragic accident. I called my dad and left messages pleading with him to call me back, Daddy. In between messages, I talked to my friend as she was desperately coordinating travel to reach her dad before he passed away. They had a very brief phone call right after the accident and then he died. My very much alive dad did not answer my call on the advice of his attorney.
I called many times afterwards. No response. I emailed him a link to our hometown newspaper’s story of a young man he knew who attended my high school who had lost all of his family members in two horrific plane crashes, sharing with my dad, a former pilot himself, that I was heartbroken that he had vanished and that I grieved for this young man who had actually lost his father and could never speak to him again. “You teach and lead your children by example and that is your legacy,” I said. I asked him to find a different way to handle the divorce and to stop the continual hurt. No response.
I addressed him as an attorney. I addressed him as a daughter. I sent messages begging him to see things from my perspective as his little girl and how his attorney’s advice had taken away our relationship. That I wasn’t involved in his divorce and that both he and my mom had attorneys. That resulted in his attorney threatening me in a letter sent to my mom’s attorney, belittling my pained messages to my dad, calling me a jilted Board Certified Specialist in Family Law, and telling me to come sit across from him and try the case myself.
Even so, a few days after the divorce decree was entered by the court, my dad finally called. “Quiet time,” as he called it, was over. The damage, however, endured.
As a daughter, I have forgiven, processed and mourned the loss of my foundation, my relationship with my father, my family as I knew it, my childhood home, my support system, and everything else that was destroyed during the divorce. I have forgiven my father, but as a daughter, the void in my heart remains.
As an attorney, I have recalibrated my entire perspective, overhauled my law practice to be a 100% out-of-court, collaborative, and mediation practice, and walk with people through the divorce process as a guide and counselor-at-law.
My Ode to the Collaborative Divorce Process and to my dad on this Father’s Day 2021, almost seven years after the divorce is long over, is captured in these thoughts to my dad in writing after I opened the doors to King Collaborative Family Law in 2015:
I am and always have been and will be your daughter with your blood running through my veins. I understand and have compassion for your perspective that you believed you were just taking the advice of your lawyer.
In fact, I left my law firm and restructured my career because of that advice and, because of the fact that you somehow chose to protect yourself by taking such advice over protecting your daughter’s emotional health. In late 2014, I decided I could no longer advise people to take actions that could any way cause any harm to any family members in a situation fraught with conflict. I made an oath, of sorts, to do no harm. That’s why I left my partnership with my firm and started my own firm.
It was a move out of utter despair at the effect a lawyer’s advice and a father choosing to take it could have on a family. I had advised people for so many years just how destructive litigation could be if people chose that path, but I had never experienced it. I have experienced it in the way I advised people that it would cause lasting pain and destroy relationships that could not be repaired.
I hope I have upheld my oath to do no harm. In my collaborative divorce work, I strive to empower clients to create their new futures while compassionately preserving their family legacies. To me, being a collaborative divorce attorney is how I honor my own family legacy. What legacy will you leave long after the divorce process is over?
Irene King is a North Carolina Board Certified Specialist in Family Law, Collaborative Lawyer and North Carolina Dispute Resolution Commission Certified Family Financial Mediator. She is the founder of King Collaborative Family Law in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she compassionately guides her clients to peacefully transition through the divorce process. More information about Irene and her practice can be found at: www.kingcollaborativelaw.com, or contact Irene directly at her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 704-343-1995.