After 17 years in family law, attorney Gretchen Walther says she sometimes wishes lawyers took the medical doctor’s “do no harm” oath.
The more she practices collaborative law, the more she is aware that the law and family relationships have very little to do with each other.
Walther joins the Sage magazine Ask the Experts panel at abqjournalsage.com with her blog, which debuts today.
In the United States, much of the law is based on individual rights – one person’s rights above the other, Walther says. “Families are not in an individual situation when they are breaking up.”
Collaborative law is an alternative approach to that, and she has been a practitioner of it at Walther Family Law for many years.
Yet, she realizes that many people cannot afford collaborative law, which involves a financial expert, a child counselor and a divorce coach for each spouse. The parties have individual counsel, but they agree not to go to court to resolve the issues.
So she’s been holding Divorce Options workshops once a month through the New Mexico Bar Association, and she’s writing the new blog.
The real fix
When a family breaks up, “the things they are going through go to the core of who they are and what they need,” she says. “They are on that bottom row of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Women are worried about becoming bag ladies. Dads are worried about having access to their kids.”
The law usually can’t fix the real problem people are trying to fix, she says.
Lawyers seek to fix what’s wrong when a family breaks up by filing motions. “What’s happening as a result is they are inadvertently harming families. They’re trying to apply a system based on individual rights to relationship problems.”
Very early in her career, a mentor told her “It’s crazy! Lawyers are the first person they come to with these broken relationships?”
Yet, Walther observes, that’s the default: Americans have a family problem, they take it to a lawyer. “Yet the professionals in the legal field are the least prepared to do it.”
Much of the collaborative law movement focuses on ways to provide counseling and financial services to low-income families. “That’s a huge problem in New Mexico,” Walther says.
But that’s a hard place to get to – providing additional services along with legal expertise – when many New Mexicans can’t afford a lawyer in the first place. In 60 percent of divorce cases, there is no lawyer, and in 80 percent of cases, only one side has a lawyer.
So, only 20 percent of cases have two lawyers. “It’s a money issue. It’s a poverty issue. It’s an access to justice issue,” Walther says.
Once, Walther conducted an analysis of 2nd District Court in Albuquerque, where family court judges see 1,700 cases a year.
Taking into account the holidays, she calculated total amount of available court time in a year and divided it by families. “That’s 52 minutes per family,” she says. “Can you imagine ending your family and only having 52 minutes?”
While Walther has no children of her own, it’s the children of divorcing families who are her rally cry. Part of the reason she takes what she does so seriously, she says, is her belief that connection and attachment are vital to whether we thrive as humans.
She points to the three kinds of attachments that babies and children form: healthy, anxious and avoidant. “Kids who grow up with anxious or avoidant attachments are less likely to have healthy relationships.”
This past year, she had all of these beliefs reinforced, as she and her husband divorced. “What it did for me was, I thought I was compassionate before. I didn’t know (anything).”
The legal system in place did not help them get through it, Walther says. The most effective person they worked with was the divorce coach in place through the collaborative law approach.
A divorce is 90 percent relationship, and only 10 percent legal and financial, she says. “The experience my clients are having is a purely emotional and relationship-based experience.”
Carolyn Flynn is the editor of Sage magazine, published quarterly in print and daily online at abqjournalsage.com. Find Sage at facebook.com/sageabqjournal and “like” the page to get it in your newsfeed. You may reach the editor at 505-823-3870, firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.