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Life as a Charlotte Family Law Attorney - Part 3

Charlotte Divorce Lawyer Tom Bush joins Law Talk with Bill Powers to discuss the practice of law, life as a family law attorney, and the path towards becoming an attorney.

Tom Bush: But there was something I learned. If you are solid and confident in the position you take and if you're prepared, even your enemies appear to be at peace with you. I think that they may not agree with you, they may not even want you to hold the office that you hold, but people are dying for leadership. One thing I learned, whether it's in the courtroom or it's in politics, people will follow a strong leader. And a strong leader isn't an autocrat or a benign dictator, a strong leader is one that is confident, that is comfortable in their own skin, and I think that one of the great benefits that you can be as a lawyer to someone is reassuring in your confidence.

Tom Bush: When we have people come into the office, statistics show that women, their greatest fear they have in divorce proceedings are two things. Financial insecurity and custody of their children. And when they come into the office, and their husband's been the one that's earning all the money and he's a banker and she has done nothing but be a great homemaker, taken care of the children, taking care of the house, and forfeiting her own skills which she at one time had, she's petrified. And then the lawyer can give her some reassurance and let her know that things are going to work out good, to tell her that the forums of the people that sit in the chair and if those chairs could talk, they'd come out okay.

Tom Bush: Confidence is what does that. You, Bill, know, being a part of this group, that we need every month to mentor lawyers and to refresh ourself on what the law is. And it can be that tiny little case that we looked at a couple of weeks ago that your opposition hasn't looked at and didn't know existed that win that case for that woman, or that it makes sure that she has her children or her financial security.

Tom Bush: So, it's back to preparation. Preparation builds confidence. Preparation, like I said, trumps brilliance. So I think if I were writing a book for lawyers the title would be How to Be the Well Prepared Lawyer.

Bill Powers: That's a great title, and family law, what makes it vexing is also what makes it interesting, is it's amazingly complex. I don't think most people realize when people get legally married that that means something more than just on a personal level, from a financial standpoint when you're dealing with child custody, child support, post-separation support, equitable distribution, alimony, and retirement accounts and real property. It really captures every aspect of law, of finance, depending on your individual circumstances. It's really, really, really, really complicated.

Tom Bush: It is complicated. It is. When you marry somebody, there are consequences. I think it was Solomon who made the comment, that in all situations guard your heart because it's the wellspring of light, and once you give your heart to somebody else and once you are married and once you become one with that person, and then like a dying coal in a fire on the beach, when that relationship slowly dies and that last coal goes out, and all of a sudden your life changes and you never thought it would end that way, and no matter how much hurt, no matter how much loss, no matter how many tears, it's not going to change. The lawyer becomes real intimate with that man who is crushed or that woman who is crushed, and you learn all the personalities and the things that people go through.

Tom Bush: Some get very depressed and that depression becomes a preoccupation with self and we call it taking care of the Lord's [inaudible 00:30:17], trying to take care of the loving the unlovely is a pretty difficult ask for the lawyer. But the lawyer doesn't get to choose what facts he wants. People come to us that are clearly both their mother and them love them, and they're very egotistic, some of them are arrogant, some of them are so full of tears and uncontrollable crying that we can't even talk to them till they get some help. So the human heart is really complex, it's not a tinker toy, and family lawyers have to intervene in matters of the heart. So it's an interesting practice.

Bill Powers: There also can be a type of transference of anger and anxiety towards even your own attorney due to a frustration with the system. In criminal court you have a right to remain silent and the state has the burden of proof, and sometimes even in criminal law you have to tell clients, "Listen, this isn't sixth grade math class where the other side's going to get rapped on the knuckles for not necessarily doing something right."

Bill Powers: And family law, it can be very difficult to go through the process, especially if you're dealing with someone who wants to be unreasonable, someone who wants to drag out the process. When you're retaining a new client, I think it's very important in whatever area of law to manage expectations, to prepare the client, to talk about the cost of things. How do you go through that? It sounds like it's a little bit more gradual for you but how do you do that?

Tom Bush: Well, the first thing we do, and I don't know whether other family lawyers do it or not, we want to focus on reassuring them, we want to focus on letting them know that this is your first rodeo but it's not our first rodeo. We want them to know that if they look at the films and if the chairs could talk, as I said earlier, that this is going to be okay. It's going to work out, and believe it or not a year from now you'll be a totally different person.

Tom Bush: So we approach it establishing a relationship where the client, whether the client makes five or six hundred thousand dollars a year, or whether the client makes $45,000 a year as a starting police officer, to reassure them that this is a storm in life but that storms never last, as Dr. Hook says, and that sooner or later things are going to be okay again and we're going to take your hand and walk you through it.

Bill Powers: Boy, that's easier said than done in my humble opinion because clients... I think it's important for them to understand that going through that storm, there's a procedure, there's a process, there are [inaudible 00:33:35], there are depositions, there are requests for production of documents, there are requests for admissions, there could be a mediation. And it could be a marathon. You just mentioned a year, a year from now. And divorce may... You can't even file for a divorce unless you've been legally separated for the requisite period of time.

Bill Powers: And you handle some of the biggest cases not just in Charlotte but statewide, Tom, and you walk that high wire. How do you deal with that personally? Meaning do you allow yourself to both be professional and caring while also having a degree of separation?

Tom Bush: Yeah. The way I deal with it, and part of it is I've got a wonderful partner in life, my wife, who when I come home in the evenings she lets me vent and she lets me complain about the day and I will vent and express an opinion and she never gives me an opinion until I either ask for one or she feels [inaudible 00:34:44] reveal that I'm on course.

Tom Bush: I hate it when God speaks through Chrissy but sometimes he does, and sometimes it's a time you're going down the wrong path. So I have the ability to vent, which helps me. The other thing that helps me is I have just about every day of my life, I exercise. It's a rare time, maybe once every... Maybe one or two days a month that I don't exercise. I think the exercise, whether it's getting on my bike or whether it's walking, there's something that lets my thoughts clean out my brain a little bit and let's me come down from the day.

Tom Bush: My office realizes that when you're in the courtroom and you're giving closing arguments or you're giving an opening statement and you've finished, you're still grading yourself after you've finished for maybe 45 minutes or an hour, you're still thinking things through.

Tom Bush: So they try to give me space when I come back in, we try to block me off so I can either get up for something or I can come down for something. But in the practice of law we do have a lot of addictions, we do have a lot of suicides, we do have lawyers and it's very difficult not to do this, that take their clients' burdens for them and make them into their burdens. That's where you cross that line because if you sympathize, that's wonderful. A little bit of empathy and the difference between sympathy and empathy is sympathy is you see somebody hurting and you feel bad for them, you want to help them. Empathy is where okay, I've walked this road too, I've been a part of what you've been a part.

Tom Bush: And that's where you can get into trouble by saying I went through a divorce or I know what depression is. And so then you've gotten overly intimate with your client, which can cause you some problems. You tend to not be able to see where the facts are on the other side. You tend to lose your perspective in the case, and what might be important to you trying to help your client, the judge is not important about, which is a whole nother issue. People should stay out of courtrooms, if you want to know the truth, and family law.

Bill Powers: Absolutely.

Tom Bush: We have some brilliant judges but we also have some judges where you probably could take a monkey and put a robe on the monkey and they could just as good a job. We've got such a [crosstalk 00:37:38]. So you just, you don't know what you're getting in the courtroom. A lot of our judges have never been out in the private practice of law, they've never had to earn a living on their own, they've always worked for the government as a district attorney or as a public defender or as an administrative person and they become judges at a very young age without a lot of experience.

Tom Bush: So one of the greatest losses we have in this country, this great judicial system that we have, is the loss of the concept of precedent in law. We've become [inaudible 00:38:18] of what we call equity where we do what's fair under the particular circumstances. We no longer have the ability to say that precedent, this is how things happened, to make it easier. F. Lee Bailey is one of the well known lawyers of a different generation, decided that he was going to try a defense for a woman charged with first degree murder of PMS.

Tom Bush: So he attempted to set up that she had such difficulty time during a certain period of time in the month and her husband was just constantly poking at her that she killed him. Well, that defense was stricken by the court as a matter of law because precedent said that that's not a defense. But in the family court where we operate pretty much as a court of equity, what's fair under a particular circumstance, you can't predict an outcome because you have no precedent.

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