Besides the tools and skills a family lawyer needs, an understanding of the emotional trauma a client suffers because of the divorce is a must.
By Dan Couvrette, CEO, Divorce Marketing Group, Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine.
Guest: Judge Michele Lowrance, Circuit Court, Cook County, Illinois. Judge Lowrance spent 20 years as a domestic relations lawyer prior to becoming a Domestic Relations Judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1995. She authored the book The Good Karma Divorce and has been a guest on Good Morning America, The CBS Morning Show, CNN, ABC and other shows. She also appeared, produced and hosted radio shows and is a regular guest lecturer.
SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE:
- Judge Michele Lowrance shares skills that are not taught in law schools
- Find out the 3 levels of pain divorcing people experience and what divorce attorneys can do to help
- Why developing “Emotional Intelligence” is vital to lawyers
- How her ‘Reality Map’ helps lawyers keep their fees and clients’ emotions and expectations in line
- How the legal system needs to be updated
- How her book, The Good Karma Divorce, helps people heal from divorce
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HERE IS THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST:
Today I’m speaking with Judge Michele Lowrance to find out how she thinks family lawyers can best represent their clients and at the same time, live a better life as a family lawyer. Judge Lowrance was a domestic relations lawyer for twenty years prior to becoming a domestic relations judge in the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois in 1995.
In 2010, she authored a book about minimizing the pain and resentment of divorce entitled The Good Karma Divorce, and has been a guest on Good Morning America, CBS Morning Show, CNN, ABC and a number of other shows. She has also appeared, produced and hosted radio shows and is a frequent guest lecturer, and is currently writing for the Huffington Post. You can visit www.thegoodkarmadivorce.com, where you can find out more about her and her book.
So I’d like to welcome you Michelle – thank you for joining me on this podcast.
Thank you very much, Dan. I love that you’re doing a whole emphasis strictly on what it means to be a divorce lawyer and the tools and skills. That’s excellent. I know for years Divorce Magazine has been the Bible for people going through a divorce as well as lawyers. But I love that you’re targeting this.
Thanks very much. We know that being a divorce lawyer is not an easy job so let’s start off with what it is in particular that you think makes it difficult for a divorce lawyer to do their job.
There are many things, but let’s remember what they’re taking on, what it means to be a warrior for the heartbroken and carry people’s agonies in their hands. There are several levels of pain for divorcing people that the attorneys must deal with; the first level of pain is the heartbreak, the fear of finances, the fear of the future, loss of identity.
The second level of pain that divorcing lawyers have to take on and that is what it feels like for their client to be called a bad parent; what it feels like to be the one to deliver the news that the other person doesn’t want you to get any of the money; what it feels like to stand in court next to someone who hasn’t seen their spouse in a long time; or what it feels like to give a deposition and be shamed for the $5 you stuffed in the drawer and you didn’t reveal. The lawyer is right next door to the bleeding out of all of those emotions.
The third thing is that clients believe that they’re supposed to be feeling better about all of these emotions. When they’re not, they think that the lawyer hasn’t done their job. Even when their case is over, when they’re still not feeling good because they haven’t healed the way they need to, they blame the lawyer. If the lawyer would have done something better, I’d feel better. If the lawyer would have gotten me a better settlement I would feel better. So you see what I mean, it’s such an enormous undertaking.
It’s virtually impossible for the lawyer to make sure that the person feels good for sure. It’s not their job to make them feel good.
Well the thing is, we’re never taught those skills. When you’re a warrior for the heartbroken, you usually end up giving ministry to your clients in ways you never expected and least of all, you’ve never been taught. So when they unload their whole heartbreak onto you, some attorneys have good innate skills, but when you talk about the seminars that they give to divorce lawyers, you’re not going to find these kinds of skills on there. And these are the skills that are really needed because communication and rapport with your client is life altering.
So when you were writing the book The Good Karma Divorce were you thinking of the divorce lawyer, or were you thinking of the actual person going through the divorce, or both?
Very much both… it’s funny – it’s changed a lot over the last couple of years but when the book first came out I didn’t know how the divorce attorneys were going to respond to it. Too many of them believed that the only kind of divorce we’re talking about is divorce by Smith & Wesson. So I wasn’t really sure how this was going to play out. But over the last two years it turned out this is what I wanted to happen, that this would help the clients heal themselves more so that they don’t have these unreasonable expectations of their lawyer and that they will know that a lot of their pain and feeling betrayal is not all about the process but this whole other piece of healing that they have to do for themselves. They expect the process and the lawyers and the judges to create the miracles and that cannot happen. Courts were not meant to deal with these things. They were not meant to house these kinds of emotions. People justifiably expect that their lawyers are going to rescue them. When they want the lawyers to rescue them, they run on smaller topics and then they get the bill, they’re not very happy with their lawyers – “why am I being billed for this?,” “you said we can’t even get that in court,” which I’ll tell you about tools soon and what to do about that.
In a nutshell, can you give us an overview of what The Good Karma Divorce book is about?
Well, it’s about three areas that people believe to their detriment while going through the divorce process. One of them – and we just kind of touched on it – is that courts were never built to handle these kind of emotions. The courts are really not a good place for the heartbroken and that there are way better things that you can do, and I spell out what they are to protect yourself.
The second thing is that people believe that they can behave in any way they want during the course of their case; engage in any damaging emotions – anger, resentment, revenge – and in the end, when the case is over, those feelings will be over. That’s also a myth. If you’re not careful, your process of divorce can change you and impact who you become going forward.
The third myth is the belief that children are resilient. They are not nearly as resilient as we had hoped. Fifty percent of divorcing children never want to get married and two-thirds of them never want to have children. I submit that we are not doing the full job that we need to be doing. So the book is full of skills for handling fear, anger, betrayal, resentment, civility, all of that, and equally a third on children.
What in particular troubles you about the divorce process, and was that part of what inspired you to write the book?
Yes. We look around the world and everywhere – and I know you know this – we see people suffering. That’s just during their divorce. But years later it seems that they’re still fused to their pain. What healing from a divorce really takes is usually eliminated from our process. For me as a judge or for lawyers, what it takes to heal goes far beyond stamping a decree or drawing up documents.
If you think that’s the whole deal, you’re usually sewing up the wounds but leaving the infection still inside. Here’s one of the problems with the process, and there are a few – although in so many ways doing the best it can but the paradigm needs to shift. Let’s take death. We all know that in the stages of death, acceptance is really important. You have disbelief, anger, negotiation, and at some point in the grieving process of losing a loved one, acceptance.
In the case of a divorce, at the stage where acceptance is supposed to occur, it usually ignites into an adversarial process so that the people can never get to the stage of acceptance, which means their grieving is completely compromised. Instead, because of the blame-based nature of our system, many people get stuck in the anger cycle. The divorcing system promotes the blame-based nature even though it’s no fault, it’s still a blame-based system and people think if you can put the blame on someone else, that’s empowering. That’s what people do when they feel disempowered.
Those are a couple of problems that inspired me to write the book. People were coming out of the courtroom Dan, not just the courtroom, I mean that metaphorically, going through their divorce with a fundamental loss of optimism about life and they had been changed in really interminable ways. This is what bothered me.
When we started Divorce Magazine 16 years ago, we would get phone calls, and now emails, from people, saying how happy they were that we had come up with a magazine that was going to help them through their divorce. When we spoke to these people, nine times out of ten when we asked them, “how long ago did you get divorced?” they would say, oh five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, and they were still carrying around that anger, that upset, that never-got-completed past. So I know exactly what you mean. That’s how the people were left. Are they aware of these problems? Do you think the people who are going through divorce can actually analyze it in any way to understand that they’re at the effect of the system and that they’re not being allowed to complete, grieve and move on?
No. When you’re so immersed in something, it’s really hard to see the macro picture when you’re so… you take the life of a divorce lawyer and sometimes you feel your blood is boiling and other times you’re spilling it for the litigants, sometimes you feel the pleasure of victory and rescue. But often you’re spending hours on dull tedious work, very rarely does your adrenaline really feel heroic. Sometimes you’re inspired…a lot of times divorce lawyers don’t know the value of what they’ve done until they look back with the multi-tasking, the 40 messages waiting at the end of the day, work, families… it is very hard to step back and look at a system.
Is it really a place where we can foster wisdom? It’s really difficult and you think of all the battles and dissonance that the divorce lawyer has each and every day doing something they may not believe in, representing a client who’s doing damage to their children. It’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. It’s a lot of survival. It’s a lot of waiting for the martini at five. It’s really hard to say, you know what I’ve got some time, I think I’m going to look at the big picture.
You’ve touched on the question why do divorce lawyers burn out? I guess that it’s inevitable unless you’re actually doing something to make sure that you don’t. It’s very likely that at some point you’re going to burn out or be totally frustrated or resigned about the whole practice. I know that you shared some ideas about the emotional intelligence that they need to develop. Just talk a little bit more about the skills that you think are so vital to lawyers. What are those skills that they need to develop with their clients?
If I could talk a little bit about why emotional intelligence is so vital, some ways even beyond what most people would imagine because a lot of people think it’s… well, they did some studies at Harvard and Yale and they studied Fortune 500 companies. What they found in these studies was that it was not the people who were the best in their field, the one that they called at MIT personal mastery… it wasn’t the IQ, it wasn’t technical skills. The people that surpassed everybody else were the ones who had high emotional intelligence.
That’s one thing they found. The second thing they found was that without emotional intelligence, people with high IQ and good skills could become dumb. So here’s the thing with emotional intelligence and these skills and we don’t get them, I didn’t get them in law school – I’ve been doing seminars across the country, not just for divorce lawyers but all kinds of lawyers on this, because I saw that there was a gap in that and nobody was really talking about that.
So I’d love to see a lot more work done on that. To prove the point, The Institute of Heartmath which is a big research foundation, identified three major neuronal networks, you know, the energy. They studied the brain – we all know about the energy of the brain and how it synthesizes and picks up vibrations and mirror neurons that would reflect them, old news.
What they found out was that the intestinal sack had 40 times more neuronal energy than the brain. “Gut knowing” is a real thing. The cardiac sack, because there’s so little skin over that, has 5,000 times more neuronal energy than the brain. So it appears that there is such a thing as “knowing something in your heart”, it’s not just psychological, these aren’t just metaphors, this is hard real science. So I worked very hard on skills for divorcing lawyers in ways that I just don’t think have been done enough.
When you say emotional intelligence are you talking about things like empathy, understanding, emotionally feeling connected?
No. I’m talking about more hard skills. I’m talking about skills for handling anger, skills for listening – hard skills. Empathy is great but it’s important to understand how to do it. You may not have it. Divorcing clients challenge you. So at the time that the divorcing clients need it the most, it’s the hardest to give.
Do you have to understand how to deal with a client who is constantly being the victim and redirecting the conversation and helping them see something different? Is it that sort of emotional skills?
You absolutely have to know what to do about somebody who’s posturing themselves as a victim. This is defensive. This is another category, which is defensive techniques for divorcing lawyers. The victim is going to expect you to rescue them. All right, here’s a skill, a tool. Let’s use your example of the victim. I think that I’ve created this idea called a reality map. The client comes in, let’s say it’s a woman, and she comes in and she likes the lawyer, she retains the lawyer. The lawyer says to her, I want you to write down for me the story of your divorce, what happened and what you think you would like to see happen, write it all down.
Okay, the client does it. They don’t usually mind doing that either and it’s cathartic. Then the lawyer sits down with the client and takes three colored magic markers: red, yellow and green and highlights what’s written with one of these markers.
- The red one is: oh no, you want revenge, you want him to stop seeing his girlfriend, we can’t really do that. So red is something I know you want but the courts don’t really care… you’re not going to feel satisfied with that, you’re not going to get that.
- Yellow: if you want to spend the money to fight trying to get some of his non-marital assets you can, you might have a shot at it, but it’s an iffy thing.
- Green is yeah, we can do this. We can get you support. We can get you maintenance help. The green is what I want you to focus on.
Now all of a sudden you’ve got not only a picture of the case that every time the woman comes back and says “I want revenge”, “I don’t want him to…” – remember I told you that’s red, we can’t do that.
What this does is it organizes a chaotic thought process. The best part about it is that the lawyers don’t have to listen to the same story all the time when their client perseverates about it, because they say, are you kidding me I’ve got that whole story right in my pocket. You go to court, you say it’s on top of the file, I’ve read it, I’m completely up to date with every nuance because that’s where all the legal fees build-up that people don’t want to pay. It’s because they can’t believe their lawyer really gets what they’re saying.
This manages fees. For example, if somebody wants you to fight for the iffy, say to them that you may spend a lot of money on the yellow. If you want that you just need to give me the go-ahead, and we will do that. But you’ve got to know that that’s the iffy. All of a sudden you’re problem-solving, you’re picking and choosing, you have more control over what’s going on. The whole business of going through a divorce is completely chaotic. People don’t have a clue what’s happening.
I would think that in most lawyers’ offices this conversation to some degree occurs but probably what’s missing is the actual writing it down and then marking it up by, I love the idea of the red, yellow and green because then you can pull that document out at any time or refer to it at any time, that that ground has already been covered and it’s already been clarified that you can’t get that, you might get that, and you will get that.
Right, because it’s impossible for a lawyer to repeat themselves every time. It makes them agitated with their client. Human beings are human beings. When you’re dealing with someone who’s terrified and angry, they’re never going to stop. This is a defensive weapon. It’s good for clients but for the purposes of this conversation, it’s a great weapon for the lawyer. This is a piece of the total reality map.
The next piece of the reality map is a risk assessment and you’re going to want to put that down in writing for the client as well. High probability that you’re going to get the house, low probability you’re going to get the house, high probability that you’re going to have an unfavorable because if you don’t get it it’s going to sell cheap, low probability – if you say to your client you have a high probability of a low result and you put it down…I can’t show you the chart now but you can make your own any way you want to do it and then you factor in legal fees, pre-trial recommendations, how much it’s going to cost, really to get the yellow. So it all starts to make sense and then you’ve got a client who is on board with you and not sabotaging themselves.
That all sound very good. Is that outlined in your book in some way?
No, it’s probably another book, but you know how that goes.
You can do that in your spare time Michele.
I actually did it for ICLE. So I imagine that the Illinois Continuing Legal Education… they do have it on tape.
Do you think that the system is keeping up with the times, is it progressive enough, or is it still lagging sadly behind?
It’s a good question and I can’t believe that the adversarial system could ever be the right thing as the system of choice. First of all I’m glad people are moving to mediation. I’m glad they’re moving to collaborative law. Forty years of learning that 50% of the children of divorce don’t want to get married and fathers getting four nights a week (month?) overnights, who science has told us (Edward Kruk from Canada has all of the studies on attachment theory) Dads attach equally and how would it happen that they only get four nights a month?
Science tells us (Dr. William Fabricius out of Arizona State U), that the children of divorce – because of constant anxiety about seeing the other parent – have slow adrenaline drips, that bad chemical from anxiety, Glucocorticoid, and their rate of heart disease… cancer, diabetes, you name the illness… is greater than those with intact families. And what are they worried about? They are worried about when they’re going to see the other parent. The shared parenting, even the presumption of a third dad, is the holy war. I don’t think it’s keeping up. I don’t think it’s matching the science. I don’t even think we’re looking at the science enough.
So for instance, for child custody, do you think that maybe the starting point should be 50/50?
Well it depends, it depends a lot on the case; but I can tell you that the presumption should not be four nights a month for the non-custodial. I do lean towards at least a third. In some cases it should be 50/50, it depends. But for the paradigm, for the boilerplate to be alternating weekends and Wednesday for dinner, why doesn’t dad or mom, whatever the case may be, get to help with the homework and soccer? This doesn’t make sense.
Within a system like this do you think that lawyers can make the divorce experience ultimately better and more positive for their clients?
I do. I think the reality map, the risk assessment keeps them very much in the loop of what’s going on. I think the way lawyers listen makes a difference – listening has been considered the most powerful communication skill that there is. I speak a lot and there’s not going to be time today on the different kinds of listening, but I can tell you some definite things about listening that people need to know. That is, the greater the emotional extreme the less people hear. It does not matter what the emotion is. You can’t make them make sense when they’re angry. I see lawyers all the time trying to get through to a client who’s losing their mind, who’s just so upset, it’s just not the time, you can never do it in the crescendo. Through emotional intelligence you’ve got to know that. If you know that, and you’re not fighting with them when they hit the crescendo, they’re going to have a better experience because you’ve got to keep that trust level.
One of the other things I talk about is how to handle trust once it’s broken. This is one way to make sure it doesn’t: You don’t say anything to the client until they have said their fill. Then you ask, is there anything else you want to add. As lawyers we are all so used to jumping in, “I know what you’re going to say but that’s not what’s going to happen” and “don’t make me listen because…” That breaks the trust and makes the process really bad for the people.
Eye contact is important, 51% of everything the brain takes in, is through the other person’s eyes, so really listen and look at them. You don’t use the question “why?” It makes people feel very defensive. You ask the client, what brought you to that decision, why are you doing this, why aren’t you going to agree to this. If they think you have an agenda to settle the case and they think it’s your own agenda because you’ve had enough, they’re never going to trust what you have to say. You’ve got to keep people feeling safe. If you can get them feeling safe through trust skills, anger skills, communication skills they’re going to have a way better experience.
I know I’m talking a lot but there’s just so much. What I would say to divorce lawyers is that it’s a little bit of a paradigm shift. There is such a thing, it’s called post-traumatic growth. That is the foundation of positive psychology. If you tell your client about studies exist that show the worse the trauma, the better you can upgrade your brain skills and your survival skills, if you believe that it can help you. But if you believe that you’re going to be destroyed and that everything that happens bad is destructive, you’re going to come out far differently. If lawyers tell their clients there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth…as a matter of fact the prisoners of war, the worst their story the more growth they had once they were told it was possible.
Michele, I feel like we’ve just gotten started on this subject about helping lawyers and understanding the system better and understanding how lawyers can help their clients more, but we’re going to have to wrap it up. I do want to let our listeners know that was Judge Michele Lowrance. She is the author of The Good Karma Divorce and you can visit her website at www.thegoodkarmadivorce.com to get more information about it.
You’re also welcome to visit www.FamilyLawyerMagazine.com, lots of resources, lots of information to help family lawyers both understand all of the legal issues, financial and emotional issues around the area of divorce but also there’s been a number of articles about trying to help you develop a better life work balance which I think we can all strive for. So I want to thank Michele again for speaking with us today, all the best. Thanks for tuning in.
Thank you so much for having me. Talk to you soon, Dan.