Keeping It Civil
California Lawyer

Keeping It Civil

The Case of the Pre-nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer

May 2014

Keeping It Civil: The Case of the Pre-nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer by Margaret Klaw
Algonquin Books, 272 pages, $24.95, hardcover

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The phrase family law encompasses a stunning array of activities. Experienced family law attorneys are expected to know how to do business valuations; recognize personality disorders; do mathematical equations for dividing property between parties and calculating support for spouses, children, and partners; and devise parenting schedules that best serve the interests of children whom we never have met. We practice law where the rubber meets the road on such socially divisive issues as same-sex marriage (and its mirror image, same-sex divorce), surrogacy, and sperm donation. We do adoptions. We write prenuptial agreements. We put on long and complicated trials where millions of dollars' worth of property is allocated between warring parties.

Every time we wait in line to pay for our groceries at the supermarket, we are surrounded by magazine covers telling "family law" stories. Inevitably, one of the Kardashians will be getting married, divorced, or pregnant. A movie star's substance-abuse problem will lead to losing custody of children. Family law is all around us. But few people understand what family law attorneys actually do.

Into this complex and frequently misunderstood arena comes Margaret Klaw, telling stories from her own experiences as an attorney practicing family law in the Philadelphia area for more than 20 years. Klaw writes in a chatty, easy-to-read way about the legal and emotional complexity of the work, engaging the reader with her humor and insights into the dynamics of this particularly volatile area of law.

In Keeping It Civil, Klaw tells of the trauma of underestimating the seriousness of a domestic violence case, only to have her client murdered by an ex-husband. She vividly details the painful issues raised by parental relocation cases, in which one parent typically loses the chance to share in the daily joys and responsibilities of parenting. Klaw aptly describes many family lawyers' irritation at having to spend time negotiating - or even litigating - the division of personal property between divorcing spouses, when the property's value is almost entirely emotional rather than financial. And she does an excellent job of helping readers understand the dynamics of a child custody trial, describing the process from preparation through judgment in seven chapters interspersed throughout the book.

In addition to describing the types of cases handled by family lawyers, Klaw shares her opinion of what characterizes a "good" family law attorney - and what doesn't. "Some family lawyers relish a fight. They take on the causes of their clients with rabid abandon - the client's fight becomes the lawyer's personal crusade," she writes. "This is clearly not how good family law practitioners should act. Our job is not to be cheerleaders for our clients. Our job is to be the cooler heads that prevail."

For family law practitioners, Keeping It Civil will be a quick read, familiar and affirming the importance of the work we do. For attorneys seeking a realistic description of a vibrant and innovative family law practice, this book is a must-read.

Deborah H. Wald is the founder of The Wald Law Group, a family law practice in San Francisco.

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