I could feel it before I could see it. I knew immediately that something was off. I walked down the courthouse corridor, unaware at first that I was walking directly down the battle line. I spotted my client and his family nervously waiting for me. I did not recognize, because they were strangers to me, that his wife and her relatives sat on the bench opposite. As soon as I stopped and stood before my client and his family I could see them all avoiding any direct glances over my shoulder. The “other side” was behind me. The tension bore down on me like their eyes on my back. I was suddenly hated, feared, judged, and maybe even mocked.
I have been sitting in the courtroom with clients a lot lately. As much as we strive to adequately prepare our clients for the courthouse experience, our efforts fall short. How can I prepare someone for how it will feel to have your soon-to-be former family now staring hatefully at you from across the room? How can I warn them that they will feel like they have been punched in the stomach when they hear their spouse of several years coldly testify that their contributions to the marriage were minimal? How can I describe the image they will see when they stand up, turn around to leave, and see families on opposite sides of the pews not smiling in support of a union like they once did, but instead glaring or crying about the dismantling of it?
Nevermind the surrounding dynamics for a minute, how do I delicately deliver news to my client that the judge was not persuaded at all by a detail they hold dear? How do I convey everything that happened behind closed doors in the judge’s chambers while they sit silently in a large courtroom with their spouse sitting mere feet away – the very spouse who they once laid in bed nose-to-nose with whispering into the night?
The courtroom serves as a crushing blow to an already difficult divorce. But when settlement negotiations fail, and your best efforts at being objective and reasonable, are not successful, you may find yourself without a choice. If you find yourself on the way to the courthouse, the following may be helpful:
Be as present as possible. It is natural when confronted with an adversarial event like a trial or a hearing, to start recalling every negative piece of evidence you can about your marriage. However, this distracts your focus and your lawyer. What you most want to pay attention to in front of the judge is the outcome you are seeking. Be mindful of the big picture and what you actually hope to achieve in the end – the life you want to lead in the future. Write it down as a reminder. Do not distract yourself with old dirt.
Bring support with you. The best supporters these days are not those who will readily bash your former spouse and focus all of their energy on hashing out the horribles about your spouse. The best support comes from those who are specifically focused on how you are doing – how you are feeling. Those in your life who will bring comfort to you, rather than bring a fan to fuel the fire.
Trust your lawyer. Lawyers are instinctively competitive. We want very much to have more wins in our side of the column than losses on the ledger sheet. We are working very hard to prioritize your needs and goals and to get the absolute most from the top of the list for you. Listen to your lawyer when he or she counsels you at the table. Trust that they are directing the evidence in the best way possible for you and when they tell you that it may be time to let go of an issue, they do so with sincerity.
Most people live their lives hoping to never step foot inside of a courtroom. These suggestions in approaching that dreaded day can make the experience easier and the focus on your future clearer.