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The Netflix hit movie Marriage Story is Noah Baumback’s critically-acclaimed depiction of a couple, played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, going through the process of divorce with all the anger, denial and emotion that comes with it.
Central to the story is the role of the couple’s divorce lawyers played by Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this weekend for her role as cut-throat attorney Nora Fanshaw.
Expert family lawyer Sarah Wood-Heath says separating couples can learn a lot from the achingly accurate portrayal of the breakdown of a marriage and should particularly take note of the impact the choice of lawyer can have on proceedings.
Sarah, a partner at national law firm, Clarke Willmott LLP, said: “When clients first come to see us they are often experiencing a whole variety of different emotional states. Some are distraught, some are angry, some are completely lost but the overriding emotion is definitely a feeling of vulnerability.
“No matter what walk of life a person is from, regardless of occupation, income or age, divorce is an unsettling process, full of unknowns, and it is the family lawyer’s job to guide a client through the process as painlessly as possible.”
After watching Marriage Story, Sarah says there are some key take-aways for separating couples.
- Choose your lawyer wisely
Even if a couple has agreed between them what they plan to do, there is often a real sense of nervousness about instructing a lawyer. Some have never seen a lawyer before, others perhaps unfairly but understandably, worry that they will lose control of what they want to do. Often the anxiety is not about their own lawyer but about the lawyer the other side may instruct and what advice their partner may be given.
The most frustrating part of my role is when I have a client who is on relatively good terms with their ex, perhaps with a few issues, but the ex then instructs an aggressive solicitor. The tone of the letters and correspondence instantly gets the other’s back up and the effect can be catastrophic. All good will can be lost.
These lawyers may be acting on instructions, with the ex ‘hiding’ behind the lawyer and the correspondence in order to get what they want. However, there are some lawyers who see each divorce as a ‘fight’ and is focus simply on ‘winning’.
There are of course times when someone is so unreasonable or difficult that a more aggressive stance is required in order to try and encourage someone to be fair.
- Prepare for an emotional rollercoaster
Throughout the course of acting for a client I will see a rollercoaster of emotions and I always tell my clients to expect highs and lows. Even if they are in agreement on most things, there will inevitably be small contentious points when ironing out the arrangements for children or finances, which may cause a few bumps.
It is how we, as family lawyers, deal with those bumps which matters and can impact the whole course of the divorce and separation.
- Consider counselling
Ultimately we have to take our clients instructions but it is part of my role to guide and steer them and the words of one client always stays with me: ‘I want to look back with dignity and be able to hold my head up high, I need you to tell me when I’m being unreasonable.’ With such strong emotions in play I believe there is a very real role for emotional support for couples going through a divorce. We will do our bit but full counselling sessions can make a huge difference to a person’s outlook and can make the process much more smooth sailing.
- Take a collaborative approach
I am a trained collaborative lawyer and truly believe that if couples work together the outcome is far better in the long term for them. At the time clients may not feel like working together and may be more inclined to bicker. Obviously, we do come across cases where the parties are so entrenched in their positions and so angry that they just want to fight. These high conflict divorces are the most difficult to deal with.
Every divorce is different, each client is different but it is very rare, especially if there are children involved, that the clients want the relationship to have broken down entirely so they can no longer speak.
- Think of the bigger picture
Ultimately every decision made during the process is down to those in the relationship. The choices made throughout should be made with the bigger picture in mind.
When the dust has settled, emotions have calmed down and the rawness of the pain has eased, couples must live with their actions and a split which is amicable and collaborative is much easier to live with long term.
Sarah continued: “Watching marriage story made for difficult and uncomfortable watching as a divorce lawyer. It was a good depiction of how quickly the sense of control was lost for the parties.
“The court scene, whilst not an accurate depiction of what would happen here in the UK, highlighted how innocent comments made to a lawyer could then be used as ammunition against the other. The lawyers in this scene lost themselves in the perception of ‘winning’ and ‘point scoring’ believing that was best for the clients. The clients trusted them but had no control over what they were saying. It was quite clear that they felt lost and out of control as the lawyers made representations on their behalf.
“I would encourage separating couples to meet with their divorce lawyer and get a feel for them before instructing. It’s easy to think you have to get the most aggressive to fight your corner but that might not always be the best long-term decision.”
Clarke Willmott LLP is a national law firm with seven offices across the country in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Southampton and Taunton.
For more information visit www.clarkewillmott.com