06/11/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

The Divorce Credential

"Have you ever been divorced?" The other day, I was speaking at a seminar geared toward women contemplating divorce. Right at the beginning of the presentation, one of the women attending raised her hand and asked me this question. No, I told her. She smiled and shook her head.

Interestingly, in all the time I've been practicing, I can't recall being asked this. It might come out later, in conversations with a client I know well, that I've been married to the same person for a long time, but I don't think I've ever been questioned about my own divorce status as something relevant to my ability to represent the client as, essentially, a professional qualification. However, many clients who consult me about custody issues do ask right up front if I have children, and are visibly pleased when I tell them I do. I think they are concerned that if I don't have any kids I won't be able to really understand what they are experiencing, that I just won't get the enormity of parental love, the depth of the fear of losing time with their children. Or perhaps that I won't understand the specific details of the child-rearing life -- the frantic rush to make it on time to the day care, the swell of joy when your child sings a solo at the spring concert, the bittersweet bonding during the college visiting trip.

As to this issue, I have a control group of one. I did practice family law, admittedly very briefly, before I became a parent. And I do think having children has made me more attuned to my clients' experiences. For sure, the fabric of parental life is something I know intimately. But it has also made me vulnerable. It has caused me to look at my child sleeping in bed and confuse her with the child my client only gets to see every other weekend. It truly has made me feel my client's pain as my own. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. Empathy is necessary in this field of practice, but so is objectivity.

So what about divorce? Does it add to a divorce lawyer's knowledge and skills to have personally gone through that storm herself? I'm not sure about this, either. The question seems absurd when applied to other areas of law. No one seeks out a criminal defense lawyer who's served time, or a foreclosure defense attorney who's lost his own house at sheriff's sale. But divorce is different, because the emotional component is so front and center, and a divorce client, understandably, wants to make sure her lawyer is sensitive to that. For myself, I suspect being divorced would not make me a better practitioner. I already know lots about marriage, having been in one for my entire adult life. And I'd be concerned that I might confuse my own divorce with my client's, even for an instant, and perhaps lose a level of professionalism so essential to giving good counsel.

But I can understand why a particular client might prefer a lawyer who has personally navigated the territory she's headed into, just like she might prefer having a female attorney; she might take comfort in the familiarity of identity. Hopefully that lawyer won't be me, though -- that's one professional qualification I'm going to make every effort to avoid.

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