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Divorce Saloon speaks with our contributing editor Terri Weiss. For more from Terri Weiss, please click here.
And now for the interview…
DIVORCE SALOON: Good morning Ms. Weiss. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today.
TERRI WEISS: Thank you for having me. Call me Terri, please.
DIVORCE SALOON: Ok, Terri. So, welcome. First, tell us, where is your office located?
TERRI WEISS: White Plains, New York
DIVORCE SALOON: White Plains, New York. Ok. And how long have you been practicing divorce and Matrimonial Law up there in White Plains?
TERRI WEISS: I started working on matrimonial cases in approximately 1988. In the last millennium. A decade before the Internet, and what, almost fifteen years before iPhones?
DIVORCE SALOON: Wow! That’s a long time! So let me ask you this: What has changed in the practice over the years? What makes you cringe? What makes you proud about being a divorce lawyer these days?
TERRI WEISS : The most visible and glaringly obvious change has been in technology. Guess you could tell that would be my answer from my previous answer. And I have no doubt 99% of the lawyers you ask would give you the identical answer.
DIVORCE SALOON: They probably would.
TERRI WEISS: Absolutely. Instant transmission of words, videos and photographs, particularly via smartphones, impacts all kinds of things.
DIVORCE SALOON: For example?
TERRI WEISS: For example, internal attorney work-product, confidentiality, privacy, disclosure of documents, attorney-client communications, contacts between parents and children, easy and immediate access to supporting and damaging evidence, and communications among attorneys and courts. ‘Course, that’s just for starters, but you get my drift. I mean who could forget those Tiger Woods sexts, right?
DIVORCE SALOON: That was definitely crazy. Tiger was just nuts, I think….
TERRI WEISS: Then you’ve got things like locator services on Facebook, which can be automatically activated when people don’t even realize it, so everyone knows where you live or where you are at a particular moment. Scary. Privacy is almost nonexistent.
DIVORCE SALOON: Tell me about it. It is particularly scary for married cheaters who find themselves in divorce court I would imagine.
TERRI WEISS: Imagine the reactions of the ‘other woman’ or ‘other man’ if the angry spouse showed up at their doorstep. By the way, the locators are also scary for people who want to hide from abusive spouses. (On a lighter note, tell me what divorce lawyer wants a client ringing their doorbell in the middle of the night?)
DIVORCE SALOON: But is this necessarily a bad thing, technology I mean? What could be bad about the digital revolution?
TERRI WEISS: Of course it’s not a bad thing! I’m a bit of a tech junkie (wish I were MUCH more expert, though), and I love the capabilities that are available to us. Who would want to return to the olden days of, say, the early-mid 1990’s?! Ugh! But people need to recognize and understand how powerful technology is, and they neeed to be savvy about how much more powerful it will become.
Going back to my peeve about locator services, I think they’re so invasive when people don’t even know they’re being tracked. When people know about it, that’s one thing. It’s helpful when parents want to know where their kids are (assuming the kids aren’t savvy enough to deactivate the locator!), or people want to prove where they’ve been or where they are. Or where they’re not! The Facebook locator kinda creeps me out, which is why I’m probably spending too much time on it, sorry. But most people don’t even realize there is a locator, or that it’s been activated, or know how to disable it.
Of course, there are dating websites, too, guaranteed to be fodder for any divorce case! Talk about an easy set-up for disaster! And Internet porn, bookmarks, history trails, IP footprints, cookies…. Oh, and I’m not even mentioning instant payments and transfers, securities transactions, account activity information – all that great financial material available with a tap or a click, that gets people paid, or gets people screwed. Um, by people, I’m including lawyers, by the way, just so ya know! So technology is my Number One Big Change.
DIVORCE SALOON: Sheesh. I didn’t even think of all that. All that financial material that gets people screwed. You have to wonder why do people even attempt to cheat anymore in this digital age of technology where the “digital lipstick” is so darned bright and indelible!
TERRI WEISS: You guys are driven by cheating issues, ha! It’s the money trail that I find even more fascinating. And the invasion of privacy that I find so disturbing. But what’re gonna do? Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, Jeannie. : )
DIVORCE SALOON: So let’s dig beneath all this surface stuff. Are there any sort of less visible changes going on in the profession and in the field of divorce in your view?
TERRI WEISS: I think the most invisible change is that of attitude. I think it’s fair to say that what once were minority views have gained acceptance by the majority of the public, including the following: (i) marriages are NOT going to be for life; (ii) all lawyers – and especially the matrimonial bar — are uncaring, obnoxious, oppositional, money-hungry, and sleazy (hmm, did I miss a few adjectives here? Oh yeah, scumbags! : ) ); (iii) fathers can/should be involved in their children’s lives; and (iv) nothing should be private, i.e., go ahead and post your status. Every three hours. Because everyone wants to know!
DIVORCE SALOON: I almost think people can’t help it. It’s not their fault. Something about the easy accessibility of these modes of communication are designed to erode people’s judgment and build addiction, like drugs. It’s the whole point of the whole digital revolution to get people addicted to gadgets and stuff. It’s like some of these IT nerds sat down and said; ‘hey, how can we totally bleep everything and everybody up?’ Ya know? And they created the Internet and Facebook and Twitter and God only knows what is coming next.
TERRI WEISS: I know. And think how it feeds into people’s egos – or creates instant fame, like Jimmy Carter IV who found the 47% vid on You Tube. YouTube sensations that get their 15 minutes of it, maybe more. Remember Levi Johnston (Bristol Palin’s baby daddy) and his FB page? I think he’s got a big Twitter following now. : O And then there are the lonely cries into the depths of cyberspace, and no one listens until they show up dead. Very sad…
But getting back to attitude changes? Although I certainly saw this stuff Back In The Day, a lot of attitudes are totally mainstream now. I mean, who would ever have imagined reality TV?
Lawyers’ attitudes have also changed. Everyone hears that the legal profession has become a business, and that’s true. Another thing I’ve seen on an increasingly escalating scale is lawyer burn-out. That used to be a rarity, and now it’s much more common. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the pernicious effect of reality TV on real life. (Kidding, sorta!)
DIVORCE SALOON: I have to agree with you 100% there, Terri. Especially with the burn out part. So let’s talk cringing aspects of the business. What makes you cringe about the business these days?
TERRI WEISS: Okay, cringe-worthy stuff: I’ll start with lawyers. Ignorance, disrespect for opposing counsel, disrespect for judges, disrespect for clients, case-churning, sex with clients, dishonest or nonexistent billing, obnoxious egomaniacal behavior, intransigence, lying, failing to comply with the law, failing to comply with court orders, and failing to communicate (a la Cool Hand Luke).
DIVORCE SALOON: It just never ceases to amaze me some of the things attorneys do, Terri. I mean, for Chrissake, every divorce lawyer knows by now that sleeping with the client is a big fat no no that can land them in disbarment purgatory, don’t they?
TERRI WEISS: Apparently some of them are still not clear about this, Jeannie.
Now, cringe-worthy stuff for clients: Ignorance, disrespect for their own lawyer, disrespect for opposing counsel, disrespect for judges, disrespect for their spouses and kids, refusing to pay their bills after knowingly running them up, obnoxious egomaniacal behavior, intransigence, lying, failing to comply with the law, failing to comply with court orders, and failing to communicate (a la Cool Hand Luke). Yep, almost the same as for cringe-worthy lawyers.
DIVORCE SALOON: What about judges? Are they above reproach? What has your experience been with that demographic?
TERRI WEISS: Huh??? I can’t tell if you’re joking! The same stuff goes for judges, along with failing to hear or decide cases for months, non-consecutive trial dates, improper ex parte communications, and judicial overreaching. I’ve think I’ve covered the major cringes, except for, oh, bullying, berating, sleeping, taking bribes, misconduct — and ridiculous personal rules. There’s a judge around my parts who won’t allow the LIGHTS to be on in her courtroom. I’m not kidding! She expects lawyers to try their cases in the dark! I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a huge cringe.
DIVORCE SALOON: So would you say you are proud of your work as a divorce attorney?
TERRI WEISS: Funny you should ask, after I just trashed, like, everyone! However… Proud of my work? Yes! Here are some examples: When something I said or did helps the parties to reconcile, first and foremost. Next, when I prevail in improving the kids’ lives, i.e., in custody cases. Finally, when I help clients move on with their lives efficiently, and without a lot of acrimony.
DIVORCE SALOON: That is huge, being able to help clients move on. It is an acquired skill, to do it so there is not a lot of acrimony. It is not easy to do all the time. Some clients just want their pound of flesh. So tell us: you are a member of the AAML. What exactly does the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers do?
TERRI WEISS: The AAML is a national organization of about 1600 attorneys who concentrate in matrimonial matters. Fellows of the AAML are expert family law practitioners who are recognized as such by bench and bar alike. In order to become a Fellow, you have to meet rigorous admissions criteria, pass written and oral entrance exams, and be approved by existing Fellows. Its stated purpose is “To provide leadership that promotes the highest degree of professionalism and excellence in the practice of family law.” Here’s the website: http://www.aaml.org
To that end, the Academy holds regular national meetings and frequent state chapter meetings, where substantive programs on sophisticated issues in family law are held. The quality of these programs is truly amazing. The Academy has an outstanding Journal, with a top-notch Board of Editors, and each issue tends to revolve around a theme (e.g., electronic evidence). The Journal articles are written by leading experts and scholars in their field. The Journal is a respected source that is often cited by the judiciary. The Academy also requires each Fellow to be current in family law via required continuing legal education courses that far exceed regular State Bar membership requirements. The Academy also has a Foundation that provides grants to organizations for the benefit of children and families impacted by divorce, separation, and other stressors on the family unit. On the Academy website, you’ll also find excellent publications and articles, some of which can be downloaded.
I became an Academy Fellow in 1994. I was absolutely elated when I learned my application had been approved. I was on the Journal Board of Editors for a few years, too, and truly loved it. To this day, I am proud to be a Fellow of this elite organization of some of the finest matrimonial lawyers I’ve had the privilege of knowing.
DIVORCE SALOON: That is frickin impressive! I want to be an AAML fellow when I grow up, Terri. Well, so what else? So, we also know you are a Huffpost blogger. Talk to us about that.What attracted you to the Huffpost platform? What do you think about Huffpost generally as far as their contribution to the divorce micro economy?
TERRI WEISS: HuffPo is gargantuan. It reaches tens of millions of people. Totally sexy concept, writing something that can be read by millions, doncha think? So I sent them a copy of my cv and a lay-oriented article I’d written, and they said ‘Okay!’ I have written a few posts for them and I’m hoping to write more as time permits.
DIVORCE SALOON: Wow, you have to send a CV to write for Huffpost?!
TERRI WEISS: Um, yea. Well, I did, anyway, but I’m a nerd. In case that isn’t totally obvious by now.
DIVORCE SALOON. Wow. So what do you think about Huffpo Divorce?
TERRI WEISS: What do I think about it? Well, there ARE quite a few angry, ‘all-divorce-lawyers-are-scumbags’ people there, who latch onto a few words in an article or a comment, and then the comments run amok. And there are some who scour the blog, searching for hope or justification for whatever is gong on with their own lives and cases. I’m pretty thick-skinned, but I dislike some of the nastiness between commenters themselves. However, I read and respond politely (I hope!) to all comments on my articles that are directed toward me. I’ve gotten rather nice feedback, so I don’t want to sound negative at all. It’s more of a caveat emptor, really, for anyone considering either blogging or commenting there.
I wasn’t thrilled that when it first started out, HuffPo Divorce tended to swipe other articles and blog posts from other sources – including Divorce Saloon! – without attribution, but I think that’s improved now. I think HuffPo provides a useful outlet for bloggers who want to share their experience, and it’s a great source of information. It does focus on celebrity stuff way too much, but that’s what drives in the readership.
DIVORCE SALOON: It was a little bit weird in the beginning when Huffpost first came on the scene, that’s true. You know I let loose on here a few times with that situation. But I think it is much better now. You also have a divorce blog of your own, don’t you? Talk to us about it. Do you recommend divorce attorneys should write blogs? Why or why not?
TERRI WEISS: I do have a blog, called From Bedroom To Courtroom. Here’s the link: http://bedroom-to-courtroom.blogspot.com It’s nothing as comprehensive as yours, of course. Mine is much more personal. I post about things that I find interesting — or appalling! Like the Petraeus affair, which I find to be far more tragic than titillating.
DIVORCE SALOON: Omg that was almost hysterical with the four-star general, wasn’t it? It just totally was too much. It made me giggle, actually –
TERRI WEISS: Mmmm, I was upset more than anything. I mean, he commanded tens of thousands of troops, maybe more? And they looked to him for leadership, guidance and inspiration. I was also embarrassed for our country, honestly. See, I get angry when people think with the wrong organ, and they don’t think about the consequences, or the impact of their foolhardy actions on other people. Like their own spouses. Or in the case of our general, our congressmen, our presidents, our CEO’s, even wacked-out lawyers – the ripples are far wider.
I talk about that in one of my blog posts. I’m interested in how people get into relationships and how relationships fall apart. I’m also a writer, so I post some of my work for reader reaction. Most recently, I posted a short story I just wrote called Sex Shop Valentine. Um, what did YOU do on Valentine’s Day, Jeannie? ; )
DIVORCE SALOON: I made love, giggle, giggle. But not to Patraeus. J
TERRI WEISS: : ) When it comes to legal issues, I tend toward pragmatic posts, like how to handle That Day In Court. I’ve done more than my share of dryyyyy legal articles, so I’m having a good time with the blog. I wish I had more time for it, same as HuffPo, but I hope my monthly (more or less) posts are informative and enjoyable.
DIVORCE SALOON: So what are your thoughts on this idea of divorce attorneys writing blogs?
TERRI WEISS: Most divorce blogs I’ve seen from divorce lawyers are extremely substantive in nature. Since I’m not using my blog to attract legal business at this point in my career, I don’t see the need to do that. But that’s just me, and my circumstances are a little different. For lawyers who want to attract and retain business, I think blogging is a necessity, not an option. I also think it showcases a lawyer’s style, philosophy and knowledge. Alternatively, a website that has full copies (not just links) of articles written by that lawyer can be extremely effective, albeit a bit drier, in demonstrating expertise and engaging the readership.
DIVORCE SALOON: But realistically do you think lawyers have time? I mean lawyers who are actually practicing law and making a living doing this stuff, do they have time to sit around blogging and maintaining a website?
TERRI WEISS: Blogging and website maintenance is a huge time commitment – you know better than me! Look at Divorce Saloon, good grief! It’s HUGE! I honestly don’t know how you do it! And some of your lawyer-posters have intimidatingly large blogs, too. For a lawyer who has no blog at all, it can feel overwhelming, especially looking at a comprehensive, professionally-done blog like Divorce Saloon.
DIVORCE SALOON: You are flattering us, Terri. Stoppppp!!! Well, actually no. Don’t stop. Keep it coming…. Let’s shift gears a bit. How would you respond to someone who said that all divorce lawyers are scumbags?
TERRI WEISS: I’d ask who s/he voted for in the last election. NO, just kidding. I sort of covered this my response to your HuffPo question. Those comments aren’t worth a response, since the person is obviously angry. I understand the rage, which often gets taken out on the matrimonial bar because people undergoing a divorce are literally at the lowest point in their personal lives.
It costs money to undo something they created (the marriage), and unlike the expensive wedding, an expensive divorce is hostile and unhappy. Who likes spending money to be unhappy? Nobody. Who likes spending money without knowing when the spigot will shut off? Nobody. Who likes spending money to get stressed out? Nobody. Who likes spending more to lose everything they have? Nobody.
But…Who made them get divorced? Nobody. Except maybe the person they chose to marry.
I absolutely don’t have an agenda, and I see no reason to be defensive with someone who has an agenda, justified or not. To generalize about an entire profession and rudely proclaim your disdain to a member of that profession, well, that’s just rude. Seriously.
On the other hand….I’ve come across a lot of scumbags in my time. Including lawyers. And clients. And judges. And doctors. And teachers. And stockbrokers. And bankers.
And shopkeepers. And…
Okay, I have blue eyes and (now cosmetically-enhanced) dark hair, and I’m in New York. Fuggedabout my profession. Everybody who has brown eyes and blonde hair, who lives in, say, North Dakota (why not? Those guys have the Bakken formation!), is – yeah! A scumbag! How ya like me now?
DIVORCE SALOON: So obviously you don’t think divorce lawyers get a fair shake? But do you think that somehow lawyers deserve the reputation they seem to have among the general population? What do you think has caused this generally low opinion people have of divorce lawyers and how can divorce lawyers help to change this perception?
TERRI WEISS: Since I’ve been a divorce lawyer for so long, I can see how perceptions are built. Some divorce lawyers deserve the horrible rep they’ve gotten, but of course, I hate being smeared with their slime. High-profile disasters get a lot of press, while well-handled divorces disappear quickly and quietly with no brouhaha whatsoever. People who have terrible experiences tend to be very vocal. Does that mean there are a greater number of horrible divorce lawyers than good ones? Well, I do think there is a much larger percentage of lawyers who dabble in divorce law and don’t know what on earth they’re doing. So when these ‘amateurs’ screw up their cases or engage in grossly unethical conduct, it reflects poorly on everybody, especially those of us who focus on family law.
In addition to this, crazy lawyers are far better entertainment than rational ones. What’s the last recently-released movie you saw with realistically rational lawyering, no high-jinx antics? Over-the-top rules. ‘Course, look at me — My novel, Client Relations, portrays some vile bottom-feeders, which includes a judge, too, I’m afraid. I hope it’s thoroughly engaging or it won’t sell a single copy! At the same time, I hope the book demonstrates that even lawyers who make terrible decisions in their cases can deeply care about their clients. Sometimes too deeply but hey, that’s the title of the story! : )
I think the best way to alter the poor rep of the divorce bar would be to require any lawyer handling a divorce case to meet a higher standard of knowledge and professionalism. Raise the standards so dabblers would be prevented from handling these cases. It’s unrealistic, probably, but wow, just imagine if divorce lawyers were required to be the BEST qualified members of the bar. I now there are plenty out there who park their convictions and their shingles on mediation (minimum of three lawyers required for a watertight deal), arbitration (at least the same minimum), collaborative law (minimum of two lawyers for the collaborative negotiations, and two more if there’s litigation; that’s at least four lawyers!) – to which I say phooey. Those nouveau ‘solutions’ get even more bodies in the fray.
No. Give me a smart, experienced, reasonable, and honorable divorce lawyer to represent each spouse, and no matter how complicated the case, it will be resolved for less money, with less acrimony, in less time, and with far greater protections to both sides, than involving the largely inexpert hordes that crowd the alternative divorce resolution hallways, and the dabblers that trash our rep because they’re desperate to make a buck and too lazy to learn. Just sayin’.
DIVORCE SALOON: Terri….
TERRI WEISS: What??? I’m on a roll now!! Okay, okay, here’s my advice with regard to the blogging question you asked earlier: Ya gotta start somewhere. Come up with a catchy name if you want, decide on the platform (they’re free!), and write something. After you do one, the next one’s easier. Promise. Who will read it? Steer potential and existing clients to it, post comments on other blogs, and people WILL come. If you don’t build it, they won’t come. So be proactive, and be positive!
DIVORCE SALOON: Sounds like good advice. What would you say is the toughest issue facing divorcing couples today and how would you advice a client in this regard?
TERRI WEISS: That’s pretty impossible for me to answer. There is no single toughest issue. Are we talking about Newtown, CT parents whose marriage couldn’t withstand the agony of that tragedy? Or about some Paula Broadwell-type stupendously selfish infidelity (since we were talking ‘bout General Petraeus before)? How about the spouse of a stockbroker who’s serving time for insider trading? Maybe a Las Vegas couple who lost their underwater house and made things worse by donating their pensions to a phony televangelist? A PTSD-scarred vet whose spouse has lost patience, or maybe never had any patience in the first place? And what about a grandma who’s got nothing else to say to grandpa after forty years of unpeaceful co-existence?
What’s a tough issue for Phillip and Vanessa may not exist for Duncan and Sean. What may be appropriate advice for a mom who wants to relocate to Chicago for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may or may not be very different for a dad who moved fifty miles away to a remote artists’ community, accessible only via an ATV. Or flip genders in my examples, see what I mean?
Soooo….This is a question I gotta punt.
DIVORCE SALOON: Okay… So, you are a seasoned divorce attorney. What words of wisdom can you give to more junior divorce lawyers just starting out?
TERRI WEISS: This is in stream-of-consciousness disorder: 1. Do not develop an agenda. Do not develop an agenda. Did I say, do not develop an agenda? 2. If you stink at math, get over it, because you need to know it. 3. Admit what you don’t know, and learn it. Do not shave corners when it comes to learning and knowing your stuff. Work with the top divorce lawyers in your area, if you can. Hire experts. An ignorant divorce lawyer is tantamount to a well-deserved malpractice action. 4. If your potential client will not be a good fit for you personally, professionally, and financially, DO NOT take the case. 5. Don’t waste time and energy on angry letter-writing or screaming telephone battles. 5. If your adversary is awful, too bad. You’re still stuck, because you didn’t pick him/her. You have to stay calm, as impossible as it is (and it is). 6. Ditto for judges. 7. If you can’t pay attention to the case NOW, don’t take it. Otherwise you have a guaranteed po’ed client. 8. Network so you know who to refer cases to, who the good experts are (accountants and therapists, for example), and so people know YOU. 9. You are known by the company you keep. That means, watch who you’re working for (law firm and client), whose space you’re sharing, and who you hang out with at bar association meetings. 10. Bill monthly and be
honest about it. 11. Divorce is the worst time in a person’s life, other than death. Expect clients to be at their absolute worst, and don’t react when they go nuts on you. But don’t be their therapist, either. 12. Divorce cases are rarely ‘won’ by anyone. Kids aren’t commodities, and lopsided deals are made to be broken. So don’t make unrealistic promises or be a braggart. 13. You’ll take this stuff home with you, I promise. The angst and agita and second-guessing will follow you Into the shower, into bed, into your favorite restaurant. Use whatever stress-buster works for you so you stay as healthy and sane as you can! 14. Don’t let anyone psych you out, even when you’re not on home turf. 15. Do not expect thanks for your work. Which is actually okay. If you never hear from your clients again, after their cases are over, chances are you’ve helped them move on with their lives so they’re not looking back at all. Even at wonderful you!
DIVORCE SALOON: That sounds like great advice to me, Terri. Tell me this: Would you practice divorce law if you could start your career over? Why or why not?
TERRI WEISS: Are you nuts? I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star. Woulda coulda shoulda, right?!
DIVORCE SALOON: What do you see yourself doing career wise in 5 or 10 years?
TERRI WEISS: Hopefully working with Lionsgate, Sony Pictures or some other studio on casting the film adaptation of Client Relations. : )
DIVORCE SALOON: Wow. We wish you the best with that, Terri. I am sure that is exactly what you will be doing. Thanks for talking to us today. It was a pleasure.
TERRI WEISS: Aww it was absolutely MY pleasure! You guys are the best! : )
Terri L. Weiss, a graduate of Georgetown University and Georgetown University Law Center, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Her expertise has earned her national recognition in Best Lawyers in America and elsewhere.
The author of numerous professional articles, one of her short stories appears in the Monadnock Writers Group journal, Shadow and Light – A Literary Anthology on Memory (November 2011). Another of her short storiesmwas a prize-winner in the 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest. She maintains a blog at http://www.bedroom-to-courtroom.blogspot.com and blogs occasionally for Huffington Post Divorce. She is working on her first novel, Client Relations.