One family lawyer’s refusal to give up on his passion for the environment.
I’m pleased today to be speaking with Grier Raggio who’s a Texas family lawyer. He has been practicing family law since 1968. He’s a Harvard college graduate, written numerous articles on family law, and also written two books; the most recent book is titled How to Divorce in New York. Grier is well versed in Texas family law matters including divorce, child custody, and in dealing with large asset cases. He has been selected to the list of Texas super lawyers on many occasions and he’s been selected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial lawyers. Grier has handled several international family law cases and international child custody cases. I invited Grier to speak with me today about his family law career, but he is also a politician. He ran as a Democratic candidate in the 2010 election for the United States House of Representatives seat in Texas’ 32nd congressional district and he’s also very active in the environmental movement and has a website/blog called weconsumetoomuch.com; his firm website is raggiolaw.com.
Let’s start with you telling us how you got started as a family lawyer and where that career has taken you.
In the 1960s I decided that environmental issues were going to be the most important thing for me for the remainder of my life. I started doing environmental law when I started a firm in New York in ’71. So I was doing environmental law and also making a living by doing plaintiffs’ personal injury stuff, which was very lucrative. But in 1980 with the rejection of Jimmy Carter and the solar panels on the White House I decided to quit bumping my head against that environmental wall for a while; I also didn’t feel like what I was doing as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer was really very useful. New York had changed its law at that time and it adopted an equitable distribution system. I have two friends, Henry Foster and Doris Reed, who are nationally known legal scholars and they influenced me to start reading up on law and giving lectures on New York law. That’s how I built a practice doing family law.
And were these lectures about family law or were they about any other specific area of law?
They were lectures about family law, mainly about the new law in New York, the Equitable Distribution Law.
Why was that of interest to you to talk about equitable distribution?
Like I said I’d been doing the plaintiff’s personal injury stuff and was making a lot of money, but I was working in what I felt was essentially a very negative system and didn’t feel that I was making any real contribution that was emotionally satisfying to me. I felt that in family law I could both make a living and do something that was useful.
I made a conscious decision to become an expert in family law and got a break because they changed the (Equitable Distribution) law. Because of this it was new to everybody, and by studying hard and lecturing people about it, I was able to build credibility among lawyers and laypeople.
So you had this feeling at your core that you have to be doing something that makes a difference.
One thing you learn at Harvard is that one must be useful. I think a lot of us have that kind of motto. You have to be doing something that you feel is useful emotionally as well as be able to make a living off of it.
You’re not just putting in time.
No. Don’t want to just put in time.
Alright, so tell us how your career moved on from there.
Well, I was practicing family law in New York and got elected to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers about as soon as I was eligible. One of the first things I did in the Academy was get the Academy to start a divorce mediation group. I assembled a faculty and we did trainings for grizzled old divorce lawyers around the country. We would have these weekend seminars, they would come in on a Friday and stay till Sunday, and I had a faculty of about seven people who had real experience doing mediation. It’s funny, you know, I would have them all at a dinner on Friday night when they first got there and I’d ask each of them how they happened to be there in this divorce mediation seminar. And as I said these were all experienced top of the line family law attorneys—
Mainly litigators I’m assuming.
Litigators, all litigators.
And invariably in the middle someone would stand up and say, “You know, I feel I’m in a group of recovering litigators.” In other words, these people were tired of the litigation process, tired of the excess blood on the floor, and they were looking for another way to do that.
We did those trainings for about three years. I think there were about 1,500 American Academy Matrimonial members at the time and we trained a heavy percentage of them. We’d have about 50 a weekend and we’d do these all over the country. That was one of the things I got into. I also started writing books about helping people avoid unnecessary pain in the divorce process. I wrote two books; the most recent was How to Divorce in New York and the other one was Divorce in New York. I was essentially giving people the psychological and emotional tools they needed to avoid unnecessary pain.
It sounds like your motivation was similar to mine, though I’m a publisher instead of a family lawyer. When I started Divorce Magazine I had been going through my own divorce and felt that I needed information and resources to educate me so that I could be better able to go through the process. It sounds like you felt the same way but were looking at it from a lawyer’s point of view.
We’re in a helping profession, you know, and the question is how we do that.
I don’t belittle litigators; there are some situations where bitter litigation can’t be avoided and it is necessary, but the bottom line in the usual situation is two people that are in pain. Right is not solely on one side, but when you sign up as an advocate in the litigation situation you have to act as if your client is the angel and the other side is the devil.
Tell me a little bit about your practice in Texas. I know that your parents were both attorneys. How much of an influence did they have on your view of the world and your practice of family law?
Well, I went into family law in New York in 1980 independently of my family. My parents started a law firm in Dallas in 1956 and my brothers Tom and Ken, who are both members of the American Academy, joined the firm shortly after they each graduated from law school. The firm has other attorneys and continues to practice family law with significant property cases here in Dallas. But I went into this on my own.
In 1994 I just had a yearning to go home, and get back to my roots, so I dragged my wife Lorraine, a Brooklyn native, unwillingly to Texas. Eventually she adjusted and was actually elected as a civil district judge in Dallas County in 2004, the first Democrat to be elected in 22 years; she’s had a distinguished career as a judge.
She hasn’t totally forgiven me, but she has adjusted. At any rate I came down here and started practicing with the family firm.
Let’s talk a little bit about your political life. It sounds like you and your wife are aligned at least on your political views; you’re both Democrats and you ran in 2010. Tell me a little bit about the motivation for doing that and if there’s any connection to practicing family law and being a politician. Were there any similarities between the two, and did practicing family law prepare you in setting your sights on being a politician?
Well, you know, there’s a public service component in both of them. You want to do something that makes a difference, you want to make an impact and you want to make an impression, to make things better for people.
As I’ve mentioned, environmental stuff has been my passion since the 60s, but that kind of went into hibernation after 1980. It was always there, though, and I continued to be involved in it. I decided in 2009 that it was time for me to take a shot at trying to do something on the political field. My campaign was based on this concept that we, the federal government, are spending a buck fifty for every buck we take in. That’s unsustainable, you know, we’re eating the seed corn, we’re consuming too much. That in some ways was a surrogate for what my real passion was and is: that we’re consuming too much, period.
Deteriorating environmental systems. They don’t work. It was okay when you talked to them, the voters in Texas, and said: “Look, it doesn’t make any sense for the federal government to spend a buck fifty for every buck.” But then when you got to talk about specifics, that we need to adjust social security, we need to talk about Medicare, that these things just don’t work and they’re not sustainable, the reaction is that no that would hear me.
Are you sure you weren’t running as a Republican candidate, because you sure sound like one.
Well, you know, I think we do spend too much, and that we do consume too much, period. The idea that deficits don’t matter, that was Ronald Reagan’s mantra.
According to Dick Cheney Reagan supposedly proved that deficits don’t matter. And of course he did a huge amount of additions to the government, as did George W. Bush. So I don’t know that that’s Democrat or Republican. I don’t think the Republicans have done a very good job in keeping spending and income in line. I don’t think anybody’s done a very good job on it really since, I mean, Dwight Eisenhower, who is kind of my hero.
That’s going back a few years.
Going back a few years to my early youth. Dwight Eisenhower did a good job but we’ve had a lot of misfeasance since then at the highest level of Congress and in the presidency.
So we’ve been excessively spending since about that time.
You want to rein that in.
Yes, I mean, Clinton actually ran federal surpluses, and maybe that was just good fortune the last couple of years of his tenure. But that’s been it since the ‘50s.
I know from having spoken with you in the past that you’ve actually had a little bit of a shift, or maybe it’s a seismic shift, from your point of view in terms of your view on the environmental situation. So rather than completely altering our habits you’ve kind of shifted to what I would describe as a more pragmatic view. Can you just talk about the kind of transition? Maybe the transition goes from the ‘60s up until 2013 in terms of your views on our environmental situation.
My view frankly, Dan, is that we’ve been consuming too much for a long time, particularly through burning hydrocarbons, and that has done bad things to natural systems and to the planet and we’re seeing the effects of that. You know, I tell people that Mother Nature will solve the problem and Mother Nature spanks civilizations and we’re in the spanking phase, but she also kills them. I think that we’re in real danger of jeopardizing everyone’s future if we continue the consumption patterns. They just don’t work.
All of that, of course, is relevant to everyone’s family. My views on family law are still pretty much the same. I mean, I guess I see myself as an amateur psychologist as much as a litigator. When people come in I try to figure out ways that they can get through a very difficult, painful situation with a minimum of amount of pain and damage to themselves and their children. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, I had a case that went to Texas Supreme Court that involved a professional athlete. It was just absolute conflict and no resolution and people just . . . we just fought and fought. And that was just the way; that was just the reality there.
Going back to the environment, because I know that it’s your passion, are there any signs of progress? I know that in your blog you wrote about Obama’s inaugural speech, do you see any signs of progress from there or from actions that are being taken, not just in the United States but around the world? Is there any evidence that we can make a shift or from your point of view is it just that we’re all going to hell it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take to get there?
Well, I think that people are aware that there’s a massive scientific consensus that human activity is changing the climate in ways that are dangerous to all of us. But doing the hard things, to try to slow and reverse it right now are politically unfeasible. I mean, as I’ve proposed many times what we need is a large carbon tax. Use the market to get people to burn less hydrocarbons by making gasoline, coal, and natural gas much more expensive to reflect their actual cost (that’s what economists call the externalities of an activity). In other words the price of the gasoline doesn’t reflect the damage that you’re doing to everyone’s air and to the climate. The price of gasoline should reflect the damage that’s being done. Frankly I would double the price of gasoline over a period of a few years to encourage people to be much more frugal in their carbon budgets.
But the reality, the political reality, is that that’s very, very difficult. I mean, I talk to a lot of people, I spent like four or five hours a day for a year on my blog. I wrote and read neuroscience and psychology and environmental stuff and it’s a very tough sell. Humans are not wired to look long-term at subtle threats. It’s kind of like the frog in the pot of water that’s being slowly heated, you know, the frog doesn’t notice it until it’s too late. However it comes out I take comfort in my grandchildren knowing that Grandpa went to bat for them. So that’s some satisfaction.
I spent a good part of last week in New Jersey, and for our listeners who’ve travelled around New Jersey they’ll know that there are numerous tolls to pay there. So given the obviously that gas is, in a large part, consumed by cars. If there’s a toll charge, but the toll charge is not just to build the roads but the toll charge is to deal with the damage caused by the use of cars, do you think something like that that it would be a little bit more like the boiling the frog, working slowly rather than hitting you with a $600 additional tax bill on your income tax every year?
Oh, no, I don’t propose income tax I propose a carbon tax. A tax on all forms of carbon, natural gas, coal, gasoline, oil, whatever. People should pay more for creating greenhouse gases, period.
Let the market take care of itself, let people do their own allocations towards smaller cars, towards using less of the stuff. In Europe, if you’ve been there, gasoline recently costs twice as much as it does in the United States. That’s because they impose taxes to reflect the full cost or fuller cost of burning hydrocarbons.
That’s an obvious, obvious partial solution, a solution that has almost no political support. I mean, the scientists, the economists say, yeah, this makes a lot of sense but in terms of getting the public to go there it’s really a tough sell. I know this from having a 16 months congressional campaign and a year of really pretty intense effort on my blog.
If it’s possible maybe it would have to be a bi-partisan law that would be brought in, that everybody would have to support just for the sake of humanity. I don’t know if that’s even possible, maybe that’s a Utopian type of thinking.
I don’t think it’s Utopian. I mean, Mother Nature’s giving us increasingly clear signals. Chris Christie is the Republican Governor of New Jersey and after Sandy hit he said, look, this global warming stuff, rising seas, it’s a reality, we need to do something. So I think Mother Nature is a very good teacher. As I say we’re still in the spanking phase but we are being spanked and people do react to pain. The people in New Jersey and New York, I mean, my old home, certainly did when they saw what higher water and storms can do to systems that their lives depend on.
Grier Raggio is a Texas family lawyer who has been practising within that field since 1968. He’s also a partner at the firm of Raggio & Raggio Family Law, and you can visit their website at www.raggiolaw.com. His power personal blog devoted to the environmental movement can be found at www.weconsumetoomuch.com.