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IF I KNEW THEN … Family law is much more than a division of assets

Latrice Milton-Knighton, a former Milwaukee County assistant district attorney turned family practitioner, has learned to become multi-faceted to take on the many roles that a family lawyer needs to fill. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Experience is sometimes called the ultimate teacher. Unfortunately, most people discover what they should avoid in life only after making mistakes and suffering the consequences.

For those of us who would rather not learn every lesson the hard way, there is this thing called advice.

In this occasional series, “If I Knew Then…,” we ask experienced lawyers to share some of the best tips they’ve picked up over the years.

Today, we offer insights for the practice of family law.

When it comes to family law, being a lawyer is only part of the deal.

“We’re experts in things you probably don’t think about,” said Latrice Milton-Knighton, a former Milwaukee County assistant district attorney turned family practitioner.

Of course, there is the legal component.

For Milton-Knighton, that means handling not only divorce cases, but also custody and placement cases, juvenile criminal matters, guardian ad litem appointments, adoptions and even estate planning and pre-nups.

“A lot of people think family law is all about dividing up the stuff and not talking to their clients about how all this will affect them,” Milton-Knighton said. “But we have to use and understand tax laws, understanding appraisals and deeds and health insurance. I think a lot of attorneys think, ‘We’re just going to court.’ I had a friend once who said, ‘You just break up marriages.’ People think we’re problem-makers, and we’re actually problem-solvers. And a lot of family law attorneys do think long-term.”

They also think about the emotional toll that the legal matters they’re involved in can take on families.

“Sometimes I feel like I could probably use a degree in psychology,” said Lisa Holahan, a family attorney for 19 years, member of the Society of Family Lawyers and board member at the Divorce Cooperation Institute.

Milton-Knighton agreed. In fact, it was her interest in psychology – and her own experience with divorce – that led her to take up family law nearly five years ago.

“I get a lot of despair sometimes. And it’s hard reminding people things will be OK and they can move forward,” Milton-Knighton said. “That’s the hardest part because we can go through the math of the division and talk about custody and placement, but so many people are just so emotionally upset — and they have every right, like stay-at-home moms who have never paid a bill and are willing to start over. But it’s just hard.”

So when clients feel hopeless about their search for work, for instance, she puts on her job-counselor hat and introduces clients to the idea of using headhunters, extols the benefits of networking, discusses various resume formats and advocates reaching out to companies directly.

“We just think about other ways,” Milton-Knighton said. “We brainstorm. We talk about school, job training. And I just reinforce that they can find something. I try to pick away at that immediate pain. We can find a solution and keep trying, and I remind myself of that.”

It’s part of the reason family law, although stressful, can be so satisfying, Holahan said.

Even so, she acknowledges that law school never really taught her ways to help other people deal with sometimes miserable situations.

“You hear a lot, and you have to be a sounding board. That comes with time,” she said.

Sometimes, it also comes at a cost.

“As a younger lawyer I worked around the clock,” Holahan said. “Whether I had to or not, I was taking files home. I was working on them. Now I understand you have to be able to separate. And the longer you practice, the better able you are to do it.”

Still, Holahan said, “Stress management is the most difficult part of this practice, and I’m still figuring it out.”

What she has learned is to offer a sympathetic ear but stop short of trying to be a client’s sole source of emotional support.

“You need to make sure these people do realize that you do have a boundary,” Holahan said. “You can listen. You can refer them out so that, emotionally, they can get the help and assistance they need. But you can’t give them that piece.”

She’s also learned not to get overly invested in a case.

“It’s not my divorce. It’s not my placement dispute. So if your client is OK with something, let them be OK with it,” Holahan said. “We get to be such zealous advocates. We get to know them. We know their children pretty well and their mom is with them, their dad is with them. They bring that moral support. But it’s not your divorce; it’s their divorce. You’ve got to put on the attorney hat and make sure, as this outside person, you’re looking at it from a different angle.”

And, she said, she’s learned to remember there’s always another side to the story.

“I think very new lawyers — and I fell into this trap and I still do sometimes — think everything they’re hearing is the whole story,” Holahan said. “You have to be flexible in knowing there are two sides, two perspectives, sometimes even more than that. And having the full view is going to get you a much better, accurate outcome.”

If the outcome involves going to court, Milton-Knighton said it’s essential to be familiar with whatever venue you’ll be litigating in.

“If you don’t recognize how vastly different the counties are, you can be shocked when you walk into a hearing,” Milton-Knighton said.

Milton-Knighton practices primarily in Waukesha County. But she’s also appeared in Dane, Fond du Lac, Jefferson, Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Racine counties. And, she said, she has been surprised at how differently business can be conducted from place to place.

“Some court commissioners say, for instance, ‘It’s just attorneys making the arguments,’” she said. “They don’t really want witnesses. Others, they want you to put your client up to testify about a bill. It’s thrown me off because everyone just does everything so differently.

“I was just so used to practicing in three or four counties, I didn’t think it would be different,” she said. “Maybe I should have called someone? I’ve even seen experienced attorneys who don’t do it and, on the record, they’re reminded, ‘That’s not how we do it in this county.’”

So now, if she’s headed to a new county, Milton-Knighton will reach out to a lawyer who practices there, even if she doesn’t know anyone in that zip code.

She has also learned to rely on a group of lawyers that she is on familiar terms with.

“For me, when I started my practice, there were a couple other attorneys like me, experienced attorneys, and so to be proactive we went around and had monthly lunch meetings with experts in fields we thought we would need,” she said. “What do we do with a vocational expert? Hey, business valuator, what are you about? So, if I knew a certain issue was coming up, like trying to prove marital waste of funds embezzled from a husband’s company to pay for strippers, I kind of forecast it and I’d read some case law and brainstorm with someone. So even if you’re starting off in a small practice, you should reach out to other people and learn as much as you can. And, most people, if they want your business in the future, are very helpful.”

It’s all part of learning to navigate the practical and the personal — both inherent aspects of a legal practice so focused on interpersonal relationships.

“I think if people understood really how much family lawyers deal with — we’re not just dealing with a simple property-line dispute, not that those can’t be emotionally charged,” Holahan said.

“But when you take that and you multiply it and throw in their kids, throw in their money, throw in their house and the life savings and their jobs and take that as an attorney and try to manage all the assets, debts, liabilities, get them to a better frame of mind and get them to the reality of losing something — how can that job not be one of the most difficult jobs there is?”

That’s true — even if it is also among the most rewarding.

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