I recently represented a man who had two beautiful kids… and five fertilized eggs. The issue? His wife wanted the ova destroyed; the couple was getting divorced, after all. He wanted them as “safeties,” in case one of his current kids needed “spare parts.” (He actually said that.)
I had a really tough time with his point of view. I mean, I totally understood protecting your children anyway you could, but I simply could not wrap my brain around the concept of arranging for one child to be born for the sole purpose of growing extra organs for another.
After 38 years of practicing law, initially as a prosecutor and then not as a criminal defense lawyer because I couldn’t fathom representing lawbreakers, here I was, representing someone I personally considered worse. Someone whose perspective was completely alien to mine.
Now, I’m mentoring a collaborative divorce team. The professionals are frustrated with Earl, who is a blatant misogynist. He grew up and still lives in a rural community in which the man makes the money (here, as a handyman) and the woman stays home, making babies. Indeed, Dolly did stay home, and homeschooled his two kids from a prior marriage and their six children together.
It’s thirty years later, and she is done. She’s never worked and has no money. She appealed for help from the Tampa Bay Collaborative Pro Bono Project, which I run.
It was difficult for me to enroll Earl in our program. He failed to respond until I finally reached him on his landline and persuaded him to come in.
He was adamant that he did not want a divorce. I explained that Dolly would likely get one, whether he wanted it or not. That I could provide each of them with their own collaborative counsel. That we would also provide two neutral facilitators. That I, as well as the other four professionals, would all work for free.
But it was one of his grown kids who persuaded him to agree to the process.
Abusing the Volunteers
Initially, we were irritated by his inability to use email, text, or any other virtual communication device. He has no computer, and no cell phone. So we resorted to asking his next-door neighbor, and daughter, to carry messages for us.
Means of communication soon became the least of our concerns.
It was more about how and what he communicated. Two of our teammates were insulted by his deeply ingrained misogynistic attitude, so much so that they often spent valuable time during debriefs and professionals’ calls carping on how repulsed they were by his “rude remarks.” (Having heard his comments during our full team meetings, I was fairly well convinced that he thought he was being cute and flirty. However, these two professionals took his comments personally.)
On top of that, we had assumed this matter would be fairly straightforward; their children were grown and married with kids of their own. But when it came time to divvy up the couple’s assets, Earl was outraged when we suggested he share them equally with Dolly. He not only intended to stay in the marital home, but also planned to retain the rest of the “family homestead,” six additional mobile home sites, four of which were occupied by their kids and two of which were rented.
Then it turned out he had no intention of paying Dolly support, either.
Dolly knew him far better than we; she quickly relinquished her alimony claim.
Still, we were left negotiating the “assets” of what was essentially a poverty-stricken couple. Our every suggestion was met with hostility.
The team did not understand his “unreasonableness.“ In fact, on June 12, our facilitator opined:
He’s playing games, not honoring his prior commitments. He’s already texted me twice today, demanding this and that. He’s abused our time and resources. How can we put a stop to it and get him to sign the paperwork?
And will it then be something else? I really want to limit any additional time we spend on this. We need to tell him that, if he exceeds that, he will be held responsible for all of our professional fees!
This, despite that we’d only had three full team meetings and that the clients had spent significant time exploring financial and real estate options like how to qualify for mortgages and where to find buyers. Then later, she complained:
Is there any consequences that we can impose on Earl for continually abusing this process, along with his misuse of all of our time????
But it got worse. Earl was finally due in my office (remember, I was the neutral mentor), to sign the agreement. That morning, he left several voice messages for his lawyer. She requested the facilitator’s help managing their conversation. Was Earl going to try to renegotiate the deal he had made verbally, again?!
But the facilitator responded:
We would not be wise to give Earl another platform to further abuse this process and our time. This is nothing more than delay tactics and games. We have it in writing that he will sign. Joryn scheduled the signing at his convenience. Further, I told him that we, as a team, did not understand his new claim that the agreement is “punitive” when everything he has requested has been incorporated into it by the attorneys.
Frankly, I think we should tell him, in writing, that he’s received beyond what is intended by the Project and that his actions are abusive of the program’s resources. If he wishes to speak with any professional, he will now be charged that person’s hourly rate. If he fails to show up for the signing in Joryn’s office, he should be charged Joryn’s fee for a no-show.
He has repeatedly demonstrated that he is not to be trusted; I recommend there be no verbal communication with him moving forward.
Now, realize that all of the professionals had signed retainer agreements to work pro bono here; there was no cap on their time. But this is how frustrated even the mental health professional was by his attitude.
Even at the last minute, when he showed up in my office to execute the documents, he told my assistant “This version is not up-to-date. It says ‘… the proceeds of the scrap sales shall be equally shared,’ but I’m supposed to get it all.”
Of course, none of us remembered it that way. Well, of course not. He and Dolly had agreed on that just that morning. Dolly confirmed it. “Anything to get it done!” she exclaimed.
Dolly thanked the team for giving her back her life:
If I hadn’t had The Tampa Bay Pro Bono Collaborative Project, I would have just disappeared, leaving all my kids, who mean the world to me, behind. I would have had no choice. I had no career and no income. I had no money for a lawyer and couldn’t even afford the filing fee for a divorce. Thank you all more than I can say.
But it struck me that Earl did not think he was being unreasonable. His perspective differed dramatically from those of our team members. He had earned the money that paid for those assets, and he saw no reason to share what he had worked so hard for with Dolly.
She was leaving him, despite her marriage vows, despite his wishes. And his perspective was no less valid than anyone else’s, despite that it was so alien to the rest of us.
Being a professional means that you encounter people from all walks of life: from a father growing extra “parts” for his children to a father who has phone number or email. We can’t understand everyone! But we still need to make the effort to understand why they think the way they do. This helps us to achieve the best solutions.
Running a pro bono project is one way to introduce the collaborative dispute resolution process to your community, to “get the word out.” For more on how to market your professional practice, reach out to me at Joryn@JorynJenkins.com or find me at Your Collaborative Marketing Coach, because your marketing is my marketing!
Learn more about collaborative divorce. Follow Open Palm Law.
Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, two of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed in the United States Supreme Court upon those who have provided exceptional leadership in the American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.