A Hard Lesson for a Young Attorney

I don’t know why, but this morning I am remembering a case that made me really doubt my desire to be a Family Law attorney. This was many years ago, very early in my career as an attorney, but the story is worth telling.

I had a client who walked into my office, panic-stricken, because her husband wanted to reduce his spousal support payments to her. He had already been paying support for about as long as the parties had been married – almost 15 years, as I recall. He had remarried, and he’d learned somewhere about the “rule” that spousal support should only last for “half the duration of the marriage.”

Well, that “rule” only applies to marriages of short duration, and not to marriages of well over ten years. It’s more of a guideline, really, to quote one of my favorite Disney characters. And “duration of the marriage” is merely one of a long list of factors the court must consider when modifying or terminating post-judgment support. It would still be an uphill battle, I told the client at the outset. Several factors appeared to support Husband’s request to terminate his obligation, including my client’s failure, over the years, to make any efforts to become self-supporting.

After looking at many factors, I noted that Husband’s standard of living had markedly increased over the past decade and a half. I noted that the support awarded in the Judgment was far less than the parties’ marital standard of living would have indicated. When I ran the numbers from that perspective, it appeared to me that Husband had gotten away with a spousal support order that was a couple hundred dollars a month lower than it could have been. I couldn’t go back in time to relitigate that, but I decided I wanted to ask for an increase in spousal support, as a tactic. The facts certainly gave me a good-faith basis to make the argument. My client insisted she just wanted to keep her support where it had been for years, and wasn’t interested in getting any additional monthly money. But she agreed to the tactic – which would serve the purpose of trying to push Husband into settlement or, if that didn’t work, give the court a reason at law not to terminate.

It was a long shot. She didn’t care, but just wanted support to stay where it was. She said that repeatedly. “I don’t want to be greedy.”

I lost sleep over this case, because if her support was even reduced by 20% she’d be destitute. I worked it hard, worked the math, worked the factors, worked the evidence, worked the angles. The day of our court appearance came and, sure enough, Husband just wanted to settle: leave the old order in place. I triumphantly went to my client to tell her we had a deal… and she wouldn’t take it! Somewhere, in the weekend before our court appearance, she’d become convinced she deserved more money, and she wanted the court to give it to her. I reminded her of what we discussed, and how it was incredibly unlikely that she’d get that increase, and if she left it up to the court, there was a real danger she’d have her support reduced or terminated. She didn’t care: she wanted the extra $200 per month.

So we had our hearing. The facts at hearing came out just as they had in the paperwork. Some of the spousal support factors militated towards keeping support where it was; one (standard of living) supported raising the alimony obligation; but most factors truly supported reduction or termination. It was going to come down to how the court weighted the various factors. Counsel argued: and at the end of argument, the judge announced he was leaving support where it was – no increase and no reduction.

I was relieved, turned to my client with a smile – and she was furious. Utterly enraged. This was a win in my eyes, and a loss for opposing counsel, but somehow my client decided I had done the worst job possible. I’d told her from the beginning she wouldn’t get the extra money, that it was a TACTIC, and now that had morphed in her head into the only reason she’d hired me. She levied every untrue and unreasonable accusation at me that she could invent. She reported me to the State Bar, and took me to arbitration over the debt she owed me for my work.

Fortunately, I’d already, in those early years, developed a deep appreciation for the Rules of Professional Conduct. I had taken good notes and sent good memos to the client. I’d worked, not only hard, but meticulously. The State Bar dismissed the complaint against me very quickly, and I won at arbitration. But she never paid me the balance of her bill…

That client really crushed me emotionally, for a little while, even though I KNEW that I’d pulled off a minor miracle that day. Opposing counsel twitted me for years about that, a loss he shouldn’t have taken, until he retired this past year.

Over the intervening years, I’ve become a much harder person, a much tougher businesswoman, a far savvier attorney. That client was the beginning of that process. I don’t exactly have it in my heart to be grateful to her, but I can recognize the role she played, now, with a shrug and – well, a feeling of satisfaction that I’ve grown so far beyond those early days of my career.

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  • Family Law attorney
  • spousal support