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That’s My Client…I Knew Him When…

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It’s not often that practice areas like family law, primarily the province of solo and small law firms merit attention from a legal commentator of Dahlia Lithwick‘s stature.  But Lithwick tackles issues like the problems with an adversarial family court system and how well you really know your clients in her op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled The Fall of the Father of the Year (6/18/06).

Lithwick’s article discusses the issues surrounding last week’s shooting of Reno family court Judge Chuck Weller.  Darren Mack, the suspect, was involved in a divorce and custody dispute before Weller – and, he’s also one of Lithwick’s former clients, from her days as an attorney with a family law firm in Reno, Nevada.  Lithwick writes:

You may think this random connection would give me some insight, some ability to say, “He seemed like the nicest guy,” or “I suspected something like this would happen.” But neither statement is true. I wish I could say this gives me a new window into the perils of family court, or the special laws of physics that apply to a disintegrating family. But all I can say is that someone allegedly snapped, and I happen to have known him a little.

Still, for someone who says she has no special insights, Lithwick uses her experience representing Mack to describe the dilemmas that family law practitioners face every day:

The lawyers I worked for did everything in their power to help clients maintain perspective and foster sanity. But if you are the sort of person who desperately wants to use the courts to crush your opponent, you don’t always hear that[…]

If I hadn’t known Darren Mack, I’d be rounding toward a tidy conclusion about the increasing lethality of the attacks on the judiciary. But because I did know him, I am left with dozens of much harder questions: What did we miss, if indeed he did what he is suspected of doing? Were we such bad readers of human nature, or was he a perfectly normal client who just snapped? Is there some metric by which one can determine which of the thousands of people you think you know will snap?

Maybe someone like Darren Mack — who spent much of the past decade in the family court system — had no business being there. The more you want it and are willing to suffer for it, the greater the chance you’ll be disappointed. Or maybe, and this is the worst possibility, while we thought we were helping our clients stabilize their fraught situations, we were somehow becoming their sherpas to madness.

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