From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 1/08/2013.
Seeing the effect of divorce makes lawyers work harder at their marriages than most, says Marilyn Stowe, and it’s no coincidence that a good solicitor usually makes a terrible client
The first time I was asked about my tips for making a relationship work, by a journalist compiling a Valentine’s Day feature, I was pleasantly surprised. As family lawyers, we spend our days working with couples in conflict, providing practical advice for those in the midst of relationships that are breaking or broken. Want a good steer on your case at the very first meeting? Seeking an occupation order? Need help filling out your Form E? We have knowledge, support and advice in spades. Dating and romance tips, on the other hand, aren’t our natural terrain.
Or are they? I have been married for more than 30 years and when I think of the hundreds of family lawyers with whom I have worked over that same period, I can count the number of divorces on one hand. Perhaps the nature of our work, dedicated as it is to picking up the pieces after relationships go wrong, helps us to notice and act upon any warning signs in our own relationships at a relatively early stage. More likely, I think, is that solicitors who work in family law are painfully aware of the perils of family breakdown: the time, the stress, the expense and the emotional havoc divorce can wreak. It doesn’t mean that our marriages won’t break down – but my goodness, we’ll do what we can to stop that happening.
Solicitor or client
In my last column, I described how divorce can bring people’s very worst qualities to the fore. Family solicitors aren’t immune to such bitter behaviour, even when they have witnessed it and its effects on others. However I would argue that as family law professionals, we are particularly self-aware. How can we not be, accustomed as we are to dealing with the best and the worst of human nature? The simple truth is that the very same qualities which make a good solicitor – ambition, sizeable reserves of energy, determination and a naturally competitive nature – don’t always make good clients.
It is no coincidence that in more than one divorce case in the headlines over the past year, in which vast sums have been squandered on litigation, the parties have included solicitors. Most recently a successful lawyer called Aloke Ray and his estranged wife were warned against “financial suicide” by Mr Justice Ray in the High Court, after spending more than £850,000 on their divorce proceedings.
Divorce lawyers have a reputation for being hard-bitten and cynical: we win nicknames such as “Jaws” and “Steel Magnolia”. So the number of happily married family lawyers out there would, I think, surprise many outsiders. Then again, everybody likes a happy ending. At the time of writing the sections of my latest book, a no-nonsense guide to divorce, those which are drawing the most attention from the media are those dedicated to rescuing a relationship headed for the buffers.
A hope and a prayer
So what advice, as “hard-bitten” family lawyers, do we have to offer those in search of successful marriages? I would suggest the following. I think the best relationships, the ones that last for life, are created when both partners want and do more for one another than they want and do for themselves. A shared sense of humour is also important. Even when I am in the crossest of moods, my husband can always make me laugh. If you have that spark, you have a good chance of making it.
However a relationship will only stay the course when both parties believe that it is worth holding onto. As solicitors we see at first-hand the pain and hurt that can result when a genuine desire to work to save a marriage is not the shared aim of both parties, but a hope and a prayer existing in one mind only.
Last but not least, one reason why family lawyers are kept in business is that every few years, the same patterns tend to repeat themselves. It is true what they say: the grass is not always greener on the other side.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal, and is reproduced by kind permission