She was a new client, and she was crying, tears and mascara running down her cheeks. So many people cried in my law office that I bought tissues by the case. With the help of a legal assistant, administrative assistant and associate attorney, I handled a heavy load of divorces. I heard many sad and terrifying stories, and sometimes the stories were so sad that I cried in my office, too, though never in front of anyone and always with the door closed. Over the years, I learned to keep a poker face, but I never learned to shut off my feelings, and I’ve never been able to forget many of the stories.
“We had an argument,” she said. “He got really angry, went to the bird cage where I kept Petey, took him out and stuffed him into the garbage disposal.Then he turned it on.”
An image of blood and feathers splattering the kitchen walls and ceiling flashed through my mind. Sometimes it was almost impossible for me to maintain that carefully practiced poker face.
“I want you to cut off his balls,” she said.
“I’m only licensed to practice law, not to perform surgery,” I said. And then I explained California divorce law.
In 1970, nine years before I started practicing law, California became the first state to enact no-fault divorce laws. By 1985, every state except New York had enacted some version of no-fault, and New York finally made it unanimous in 2010.
Each state has its own rules for dividing property. California is among the few states that require judges to divide the community property perfectly equally between the divorcing parties. No matter what. Even when the wife shoots her husband. Even when the husband grinds up his wife’s parakeet in the garbage disposal.
If you’re fortunate enough not to have been divorced, let me give you a hypothetical to help you understand how outraged you might feel if you were caught up in the California legal system.
Hypothetical: fancy lawyer-speak for “let’s pretend.”
Let’s pretend that:
You have an evil older brother. His name is Bob. He’s bigger, faster, sneakier and a better liar than you are.
When your mom’s not looking, he hits you, pinches you, pulls your hair and farts in your room. Deliberately.
But the thing that puts you over the edge is the chocolate cake—the cake that Mom almost never bakes, that delicious, fragrant, moist cake with fudge frosting. She’s putting it in the oven as you leave for school, and all day long, you think about that cake, the big slice that’s waiting for you.You rush home from school, dash into the kitchen, your mouth watering, and discover that Bob has devoured 95 percent of the cake. There is a tiny sliver left.
You know you’re entitled to every crumb of that tiny sliver, but as you reach for it, Mom walks into the room and stops you.
“Honey, you have to split that piece of cake equally with Bob.”
“But, Mom,” you scream, “that’s not fair! Bob’s already eaten most of the cake, and besides, you know that he beats me up! He humiliates me! He even posted that picture of me with the big zit on my nose on his Facebook page. He put my diary on his blog! I deserve all of the cake.”
“I know you deserve more cake, but I can’t do anything about it,” says Mom. “According to the rules in this family, I have to divide everything equally. And I can’t listen to your complaints about Bob. It doesn’t matter what he’s done. He still gets half.”
“I’ll fix him! Just wait and see!” you mutter, as you plot your revenge.
Divorce generates stress that, according to several researchers, is second only to that caused by the death of a spouse or child. My clients were at risk of losing their children, their homes, their friends, their standard of living, their beloved pets and almost everything else that defined their lives.
The majority of my clients bowed to reality, behaved with grace under pressure and moved on with their lives. But most of us are wired for fairness, and for a small percentage of my clients, moving on was impossible. Under unbearable stress, some of them—who were otherwise rational, kind, upstanding citizens—snapped.
They wanted revenge. And one way or another, for better or worse, some of them got it.
Leanne used a box cutter.
She had already filed for divorce and was behaving as rationally as anyone does at the end of a long marriage. She didn’t snap until the credit card bill arrived.That’s when she noticed that in addition to the fabulously expensive purse he’d purchased for her just before they’d split, he’d purchased another purse, one that she’d never seen.
So she visited his office, and there it was, the second fabulously expensive purse, identical to the one she was carrying, but this one was on his secretary’s desk, confirming that her low-down, sneaky, son-of-a-bitch husband was having an affair. Again. That purse put her over the edge.
So Leanne went back home, got the box cutter, went back to the office, waited for the secretary to leave her desk and sliced the purse to ribbons.
The husband’s attorney called my office that afternoon. “Get your client to behave herself,” he yelled so loudly that I held the phone away from my ear.
“Tell your client,” I replied, “that he is damned lucky she didn’t use the box cutter again. On him.”
Most of my clients didn’t use box cutters. Instead, they bought hours of my time. Some of them were willing to spend an exorbitant amount to get revenge, and they expected to use me as if I were a human baseball bat. A very, very expensive baseball bat.
I often found myself in the awkward position of urging my clients not to fight over one of the multiple issues in the typical divorce: the car, the furniture, the value of a painting. “I estimate that you have a 60 percent chance of winning on this issue,” I’d say. “If you do win, you will get an additional $1,000.You will probably pay me $1,000 in attorney fees for fighting this issue in court. I have a big self-interest in billing you for as many hours as I can and running up your attorney fees. My kid’s college tuition is due. So please believe me when I tell you that, considering the risk of losing and the attorney fees involved, this isn’t a wise investment of your money. I can negotiate something more cost effective.”
“Cost effective, hell!” I could see some clients thinking. In spite of what I said, in the heat of anger, people did bizarre things to exact their ounce of revenge.
As soon as a petition for dissolution of marriage is filed in California, automatic temporary restraining orders go into effect. One of the restraining orders prohibits the disposal of any community property.
“File a contempt of court against her,” demanded my client, the husband.
“She’s violated the restraining order.”
“What’s she done?”
“It’s Arnold. He’s gone!” he said. He slammed a photograph on to my desk.
There was Arnold, wrapped around my client’s neck. Arnold, the boa constrictor.
I talked Peter out of filing that contempt.
His wife won that round, but her victory was partial and short-lived. It turns out that a full-grown boa constrictor is quite valuable, and Peter got some extra cash in the settlement. Unfortunately, he didn’t get Arnold, who was gone for good. We never did f ind out what she’d done with him.
Sometimes a client snapped in the courthouse, not a good place to lose control. Sometimes both clients snapped. Lawyers, caught in the middle of flying curses and insults, some directed at them personally, occasionally snapped, too, and then everyone ended up yelling at each other. I never snapped, but I came awfully close.
Sometimes you saw it coming, but sometimes it came as a surprise. Once, a couple lost it at a mandatory “settlement conference,” an informal meeting where a jurist or mediator reviews the file and makes recommendations for settlement.
We had settled everything during the lunch hour—except for the chair.
One chair, in the possession of my client, the wife. She and her soon-to-be ex were too civilized to beat each other up physically, but they weren’t civilized enough to give up without a fight, so they were fighting over the chair. They had been fighting over the chair for four hours. Now, it was after 5 on a rainy winter evening. The halls of the Superior Court on Hill Street were almost deserted.
They were so enraged that they had apparently forgotten they were paying their attorneys at the rate of $200 per hour, per lawyer.
The bailiff summoned the other lawyer and me into the judge’s chambers. The judge was furious. “Don’t tell me this case is hung up because of a chair,” he snarled. “I’m not trying a case where the only issue is a God-dammed chair, and you’re not leaving here until this case is settled. I don’t have a thing to do tonight! I don’t care if we’re still here when they open this place up in the morning. Get this taken care of, now!”
Out in the hallway, our clients were still at it.
“That chair is my separate property, and you know it,” snapped Wilma. “My mother left it to me.”
“That chair is community property, and you know it,” yelled Harvey. “That chair was in shreds when you inherited it, and we had it repaired and reupholstered with our savings. We rebuilt that stupid chair.That makes it community property!”
I walked with my client to the other end of the hallway. “How much is the chair worth?” I asked her.
“Only about $50,” she said. “It’s the principle!”
Her soon-to-be ex agreed that the chair was worth $50, but he wasn’t going to give in, either.
I had a pounding headache; I couldn’t take much more of this.The husband’s attorney and I opened our wallets and each pulled out $25.
The lawyers got the chair.
Sometimes the revenge game turns deadly.
Maria came into my office clutching a big scrapbook. Anne, the counselor from a nearby battered women’s shelter, was with her.
Maria had grown up as the child of migrant workers and was working as a waitress when she met Tom, who was 15 years older than she was. They bought a small house in a middle-class neighborhood, the nicest house Maria had ever lived in.
Maria couldn’t remember exactly when Tom started beating her. An all too familiar story: beating; repentance; a period of reconciliation marked by promises, affection and, perhaps, gifts; then another beating. Soon, the reconciliations were shorter; the beatings, worse. Neighbors heard her screams and his curses and called the cops. Maria went to the emergency room. Sometimes she went to a shelter. But always, she eventually went home to Tom, and the cycle started again.
This time, she’d been in the shelter for two weeks and had decided to get a divorce. Maria was so terrified of Tom, who drove a red car, that simply seeing any red car nearby made her tremble uncontrollably.
“I could get a restraining order tomorrow,” I told her. “The court will order him out of the house and will order him to stay away from you. If he violates the order, the police will arrest him. But I don’t think you should go back to the house.”
“I agree,” said Anne. “He’s too violent. Maria isn’t safe there. She’s safer in the shelter.”
Statistically, the time immediately after the breakup, when the abuser realizes he’s losing control over the victim, is the most dangerous.
“But my things,” said Maria. “He’s in the house with all of my things.”
She opened her scrapbook and lovingly caressed pictures of rooms full of lamps, mirrors, china cabinets, chairs, couches, draperies and framed artwork. She looked at those pictures with the tender love that a mother might bestow on pictures of her child.
Anne and I persuaded Maria to remain at the shelter, and every week, Maria called me, asking when her case would be heard.
“I wonder what he is doing with my things,” she would moan.
“Your things aren’t worth your life,” I told her, over and over.
California courts are so backlogged that it takes months to get a trial date.Tom’s lawyer and I were attempting to negotiate a settlement. Until the shots were fired.
I read the transcript of the conversation that the officers had with the dispatcher on their way to Maria’s house.
“My God,” said one of them, “he’s finally killed her.”
But it was Tom they found in the driveway, wounded but alive. It was Maria whom they took to jail.
The defense attorney Maria hired took a lien on her half of the community property and did his best to persuade the jury that Maria was suffering from battered woman’s syndrome and that because of past abuse, she had a reasonable fear of immediate harm when she fired that gun. I testified in her defense, as did Anne, as did the neighbors who repeatedly called the police when they heard her screams.
The jury didn’t buy it because weeks before the shooting, while safe in the shelter, Maria applied for a permit to purchase a handgun. When the waiting period ended, she picked up the handgun and a box of bullets. She left the safety of the shelter, went home and sat in one of her beloved chairs, surrounded by her beautiful things, facing the front door, waiting for Tom to come home from work.
As he walked through the door, she shot him.
She was a poor shot. She only winged him.
She followed and shot him again. And again.
Tom recovered, although he now walks with a limp. Maria was convicted of attempted murder.
The lawyer’s fees consumed all but a few thousand dollars of Maria’s half of the community property.The furniture and her beautiful things were sold. Maria got revenge. And six years in state prison.
It’s not only the spouses themselves who are victims of anger and, sometimes, violence. Frequently, the spouse of a client takes out his anger on the opposing attorney. There is a cliché in the divorce business: Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.
The American Bar Association reported that 60 percent of divorce lawyers have been threatened. I’m part of that 60 percent. More than one irate soon-to-be ex has called me a fucking bitch, a comment that I sometimes take as a compliment. I’ve been escorted from the courthouse by armed sheriffs many times, and I’ll always remember the long-dead, bloated, stinking animal that ended up in the middle of my front lawn, the urine sprayed on the tires of my car, the damage to my car’s paint job when someone ran a key down the panels and, of course, the anonymous telephone caller who threatened to kidnap my daughter. When you add in the threatening e-mails and voicemail messages, some of which came from my own clients, you can understand why I never had a personalized license plate or a listed home telephone number.
Less often, someone takes revenge on the jurist who heard the case.
At 9 p.m. on March 18, 1999, H. George Taylor, a family law commissioner in Norwalk,
Calif., pulled into his driveway after attending a retirement party for another jurist. Hiding in the bushes was a killer, who shot George twice in the head and once in the chest. When his wife, Lynda, ran outside, the killer shot her twice in the chest. Both died instantly. There were no witnesses.
I drove to the funeral with Dr. K, a psychologist. George had admired Dr. K and frequently appointed her as an expert in nasty, bitter child custody cases. She evaluated families and prepared extensive written reports for him, including suggested custody orders. “I can think of an awful lot of people who might have killed George,” she said. So could I. Quite a few of them were my own clients.
Uniformed and plain-clothes officers, including some sharpshooters with telescopic sights on their weapons, ringed the perimeter of the church, which was crowded with George and Lynda’s family and friends, as well as jurists, lawyers and Lynda’s coworkers.
An intense investigation started immediately after the murders.The police reviewed hundreds of the files George worked on, and interviewed and investigated the parties in especially contentious cases, and the murder was featured on national true crime television shows. A reward was offered.
No arrests have ever been made.
A framed pencil drawing of George hangs in his old courtroom.The artist captured George: his thick, wavy gray hair; the glint in his eye; just the hint of a smile on his lips. He looks just as he looked before someone blew his brains out.
Several years ago, I spoke to a detective familiar with the case. He told me, “It was a clean hit, so clean that it might have been professional, a hired hit. Use a shotgun, you don’t leave a lot of evidence. Unless someone gets talkative, we may never solve this one.”
It’s been 12 years since George and Lynda were gunned down, but their friends, many of them lawyers, haven’t given up hope. We are too sophisticated to call what we want revenge. We call what we want “justice.”
Even lawyers, who should know better, are wired for fairness.