Friday, May 27, 2011

Girl Lawyer and Fathers' Rights Advocate

When I was in my 20's, my father used to call me a "girl-lawyer" just to see if he could get a rise out of me, which, of course, he did. By the time I was in my 30's, cranking out the hours at BigLaw, the ranks of women lawyers had swelled so much no one paid much attention to gender - except for the proverbial "glass ceiling." And after I'd been a divorce lawyer for roughly a decade, I'd grown tired of being asked by men if it was "better" for them to hire a woman lawyer; I'd also grown accustomed to women who were clearly more comfortable confiding in a female lawyer, while others were happier to be represented by more testosterone than I'd ever have.

Then I found myself tossed onto a few websites, defining me as a fathers' rights advocate. I had some women calling me a woman-hater, and some men saying, yeah, Terri gets it, unlike all those feminist b****s.

Okay, let me set the record straight.

First, I suppose I am something of a feminist, if that's what you call a woman who firmly believes woman and men have the same rights to citizenship, educational and career opportunities, personal choices, etc. I hardly consider that an extreme position. I was raised on the notion that girls could do anything boys did, and I focused on getting a kick-ass education so that I could, in fact, do whatever I wanted. (Being a divorce lawyer wasn't my childhood dream, though, in all honesty...) As a teenager, my views were shaped, reinforced and supported at my all-girls' high school, where I'm pleased to say Sen. Gillibrand (class of '84) is returning to give the commencement address this weekend.

Second, I have, in fact, won many bitter custody battles for male clients, where the kids ended up living with their fathers. Translation: I have represented men who were, I believe, deprived or about be to deprived of access to their kids, to the severe detriment of the kids. And in those cases, the judge agreed with our presentation of the evidence that the father provided the better living environment for the kids for a variety of reasons, usually centering around emotional/psychiatric issues.

Third, I have negotiated many deals (lost count a long time ago) for male clients, where the terms included shared parenting (decision-making and access time) between both moms and dads. In those cases, both parties agreed that the kids would live fuller, happier and better lives, and receive the maximum emotional, educational and personal advantage by having significant access to both their parents.

Fourth, I've done the same thing for female clients over the years. I've also helped - dads, don't gasp - women to relocate with the kids, where courts have accepted the evidence presented that the kids would thrive in that new place with their mom. That the move was not being done to punish the dad, that the move was reasonable and necessary, that adjustments during weekends, vacations and summers could accommodate the need for parenting time with the dad, etc. etc.

Fifth, I loathe beyond words the abuse of legal process, the gamesmanship and the bull***t that preludes and accompanies most custody battles. It happens on both sides - men and women. The way people drag friends and family in to take sides against their spouse, the PR (formal, when it's a high-profile matter, and informal, where people notify their surrounding communities of their private issues). The way people, mostly women - sorry, that's been my experience, ladies - obtain bogus ex parte orders to throw their spouses out of the house and cut off all access to the kids. How child protective service agencies get contacted - again, mostly by the women, in my experience, to bust into homes and grill often-clueless kids about their parents' manner of showing affection. How one or both parents are so fixated on hating the other that they ignore the radioactive damage they're inflicting on their hapless, helpless kids.

So does all this make this "girl" (not so much now, at my age) lawyer a fathers' rights advocate? No. The concept of furthering the rights of one gender over another is an anathema to everything I believe in. I never saw any of my custody cases as a battle between the sexes. To me, it's been a battle between parents - my client (whom I believed in and advocated for as the better, more nurturing parent) and the opposing party - with the ultimate goal of doing the best thing for the kids rather than assuaging the ego of the father or the mother. And if my client - man or woman - was more interested in his/her ego than what was best for the kids, I wouldn't be representing him/her.

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