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The Family Law Lawyer as Counselor

It is the existential question: what gives us meaning; what motivates us to do what we do? That is the key ingredient in practicing family law.

As you can probably guess, when I'm wearing my counselor hat, much of what I do is work through people's stories, how they got to where they are, what moved them, where they want to go next.  From the lawyer as counselor perspective, my work is existential. 

Many attorneys treat the lawyer's role as a pure functionary, asking the client "what do you want to accomplish," and then seeking only those ends.  But this seems a terrible disservice to the client and a terrible disservice to the family.  I'm not saying that a client needs to lie upon the couch and talk about their parents.  The practice of law is not therapy.  I am saying that finding out more about where a client is coming from, and finding out where the opposing party is coming from, often does more toward helping resolve family conflict than a bevy of judges ever could.

This is nothing new and not limited to family law.  There is much work identifying parties' real needs to help them get to a good agreement in many practice areas. In a way, this is the aim of alternative dispute resolution such as mediation.  

But in family law, the importance of getting to the heart of the client's matter means so much more because family law, like families themselves, starts with the heart if it is to be any good at all.

It is a dichotomy.  As I've often written, judges usually want the Sgt. Friday approach: "Just the facts, m'am."  But at its core, family law is about hope and expectations, a once promised future and often damaged or dashed dreams.

So the lawyer that honors only his role as advocate is providing the client with less than half the service.  Being unable or unwilling to counsel is as bad as the other side of the coin, being unwilling or unable to litigate.  The lawyer is and should be both an advocate and a counselor because family law doesn't end when the judge hands down the order, it goes on as time passes, as the kids grow and as the parties age, hopefully well into maturity, moving through more of life's banquet of experiences and meaning.

So, as you can certainly tell, I work with that existential question when I counsel my clients and work toward understanding the opposing party.  And as you can probably tell, this provides me with great meaning.  It is why I do what I do.

Michael Manely

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