WE HELP FAMILIES RESOLVE CONFLICT PEACEFULLY


Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Questions that Lawyers and Mediators aren't asking but should: Let's talk about Pronouns

I recently had the opportunity to train with two of the most prominent mediators in Massachusetts: John Fiske and Diane Neumann. Each time they run a training, John and Diane share what they think is the most important question for a client to answer to have an effective mediation. John says that he thought the most important question is "What do I want?" But then he will tell you, with a knowing smile, that Diane disagreed with him and she would say that the most important question for a client to answer is "Who am I?"

I agree with Diane. The best lawyers and mediators ask their clients not just about what they want, but also deep questions about the clients' identity, goals, and values in order to help the clients resolve conflict in the most effective way possible. Despite knowing this, we often fail to ask clients the simplest questions when we first meet them or have them fill out an intake. We fail to give them an opportunity to answer the question “Who am I?” in the most basic form because most of us don't ask two simple questions:

My Preferred Name or Nickname is: _________________

My Pronouns are: _________________

     Who am I?

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that I may not be the best person to write this article because I have not personally experienced any societal pressure regarding how I self-identity. I was assigned male at birth (AMAB) and identify as male (this is referred to as cis-gender). I am also white living in a predominately white town, county, state, and country. I am heterosexual. I am tall, broad-shouldered, and I have a deep voice. All of these things mean that when someone sees me in my community many of the assumptions they make about me are probably correct without my having to say anything about how I identify.

This is privilege because I am acknowledged and respected for how I identify myself, without ever having to explain it or feel excluded. It is privilege because it is not a benefit that everyone enjoys. I get to define myself and my hope is that you, the reader, will see that everyone should have the same right to define themselves without having to explain it or feel excluded.

Although I may not be the best person to write this post, I believe it is also important for allies to share their support and to acknowledge that while my voice comes from a place of privilege, it is also my responsibility to use that privilege to support those denied the same voice. In doing so, though, I'm going to rely heavily on the resources and assistance of others who speak from personal experience.

     Educate Yourself

In the past, I made assumptions about how I to refer to clients, and what pronouns they use. I am guilty of asking my clients only for a full legal name. If I asked a client what name to use, it was often a lawyer-like leading question: "I prefer to use first names, is that okay with you?" I never asked about pronouns. This is partly because I hadn't had enough education about the many ways in which people might self-identify, but primarily because of the silent but present privilege inherent in my own identity.  I didn't think it was important because it wasn't important to me.

I can honestly say, in my lifetime, no one has asked me what my pronouns are and have always assumed my pronouns are he/him. As I explained above, this has never been a problem for me because those are the pronouns that reflect my cis-gender identity. I had to educate myself about the question “Who am I?” to realize the frustration I may be unintentionally causing my clients. Luckily, we live in an era where resources are available and plentiful to educate oneself about the complicated nature of identity. 

I took a course offered by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education on Transgender Persons & the Law (that program is still available as a webcast here) and I recommend it. You can also find resources online or from your local LGBTQ+ groups.  One site that has particularly helpful resources is the Trans Student Educational Resources site, including a visual breakdown of the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, the Gender Unicorn.

Graphic by TSER, click for more info.
As a visual learner, I found this resource particularly helpful.  They have also provided a table describing some of the most common gender pronouns, and an explanation of their use:

Graphic by TSER

     Why ask about Pronouns?

To show respect for our clients and each other, we should be asking, not assuming, "Who are you?" To those of us who do not have the burden of explaining why we identify as we do, it may seem as if correct pronoun use is not a huge deal. However, for those who find themselves misgendered and with the need to explain who they are at a fundamental level day after day, the need to explain and educate others can go far beyond being annoying to exhausting and even trauma inducing.

At the MCLE program I attended, one of the panelists made a very simple point: what does it cost you to provide this level of respect to others? Essentially it costs you nothing. The small amount of time it takes to learn about and familiarize yourself with pronoun options is nothing compared to the positive impact it can have on someone who feels accepted and recognized, especially if that is not a common occurrence for that person.

Particularly for lawyers and mediators, the importance of having our clients feel heard is paramount to an effective client relationship. Below are links to a few articles discussing the effects of misgendering, and how asking about pronouns can affect a person’s mindset and health:

Health Line: What Does It Mean to Misgender Someone?

The Aragon Outlook: The Power of Pronouns: How misgendering can affect student health

The Undeniable Ruth: Which Pronouns do you Prefer?

     Next Steps

Hopefully at this point you agree about the importance of allowing everyone to self-identify. So, what can you do to help?

Ask the Question

When we know better, we can do better. What does that mean for our clients with respect to pronoun use and gender? It’s really simple: stop making assumptions and ask a question right up front. Lawyers and mediators should add a line to intake and scheduling forms so that clients can answer the pronoun question, without feeling the need to educate or explain how they identify.

Be thoughtful about the way you ask the question. While some people state that they “prefer” certain pronouns, others find the idea that it is a “preference” offensive because we never refer to cis-gender individuals as “preferring” their gender, it just is who they are. On an intake avoid asking what they prefer, and ask simply “What pronouns do you use?” or “My pronouns are:_________.”

In conversation, start with an introduction “I’m Justin Kelsey, my pronouns are he/him.” This invites the question possibly without even having to ask it by demonstrating first that you are open to the other person identifying their pronouns as well.This can be done when communicating electronically as well.  You can set a tone of open acceptance by proactively identifying yourself even if it is not something you have historically felt the need to do. Lawyers and Mediators should be including this information in their e-mail signatures. Below is a sample:

Peace 
Justin L. Kelsey, Esq.  
he/him

Collaborative Divorce  |  Mediation



  T:    508.655.5980

  E:    jkelsey@skylarklaw.com

  in  Linkedin  

   t:    @skylarklaw

  

You may also want to consider adding pronouns to your social media profiles. These are easy steps that demonstrate to our clients (and our colleagues) that we have a basic understanding of the need to be correctly identified through correct pronoun use in personal interactions.

Listen to the Answer

Once you know someone’s pronouns, use their pronouns without judgment and without questioning. If you have questions, remember that it’s not their job to educate you about the concept of gender identity.  Consider reviewing the resources we’ve provided above instead of asking questions of someone who may already be exhausted or traumatized from being misgendered during their lifetime (for more information watch this video on Thing Not to Say to a Non-Binary Person) This is especially true when you have not established a relationship that includes trust and understanding.

If and when you engage in a dialog with someone about gender, LISTEN first. If you feel like you want to ask questions, always ask yourself if your question could cause additional trauma and if it’s something you could educate yourself on later without placing the burden on your client.

We all make mistakes as well. When using pronouns that may be different than you’re used to it may be uncomfortable at first. Just remember how uncomfortable it must be for the person who is misgendered throughout their life, and if you make a mistake, simply apologize.

Finally, Get Political

It is important to think about the big picture here and to be supportive at a political level too. Ruth Carter, a non-binary lawyer, author, and speaker, kindly agreed to assist me in reviewing this article and has written a helpful piece about the need for non-binary gender recognition on government IDs.

Here in Massachusetts, there is a chance to vote on transgender rights on November 6th. The ballot Question #3 asks MA voters to essentially affirm a law already passed by the legislature that would prohibit discrimination in public accommodations based on gender identity, further described here.

If you are a MA resident, we encourage you to vote YES on Question #3, and to spread these educational resources about identity so others, especially those in privilege, can better understand the complicated nature of identity and how easy it is to show respect for another person’s identity simply by having an open and curious mind, which is the most important tool a lawyer and mediator has to offer.

UPDATE: Question 3 passed with almost 70% of the votes, a resounding affirmation that Massachusetts residents support transgender rights and protections and refuse to stand for discrimination based on gender identity.  While this is a positive sign, the law itself does not prevent people from being discriminated against.  In order to continue to do better, we must insist on enforcement of the law, seek out and share educational resources about gender identity, and continue to work together towards better understanding of each other.  The success of question 3 is a step in the right direction, now let's keep asking the right questions.

Thank you to Ruth Carter, Jennifer Hawthorne, and Rackham Karlsson for their assistance in editing and reviewing this article.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Wanted: Diverse Divorce Practitioners. Why Diversity is Good for All of Us

Guest Post from Valerie Qian*
Cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of diverse clients are an essential part of being an effective and successful professional.
My father-in-law recently underwent surgery to remove a kidney stone. It happened at a big hospital in New York City which, I understand, has an excellent urology department. As a first-generation immigrant from Shanghai, my father-in-law speaks limited English. After the surgery, while he was still slightly groggy from the anesthesia, a surgical resident who spoke some Chinese told him, without an interpreter, that the surgery went well and that 90% of the stone had been removed. A week later, my husband found out from the surgeon who actually performed the surgery that the stone was still there in its entirety and had not been removed, and my father-in-law needed a second surgery. My father-in-law went from thinking that the stone had been mostly removed, and the surgery successful – to being told that the surgery had not resulted in removal of the stone at all, and that he needed another surgery.

This was in spite of our being convinced, after learning the full story, that my father-in-law’s surgeon was an excellent surgeon and had made the best medical decisions under the circumstances during the surgery.  So how did the lines of communication get so crossed? 

There is an unspoken and unreasonable tendency to assume that professional services – such as getting your kidney stone removed, or negotiating a divorce – are somehow divorced from real life. We assume that the professional only needs to be someone who knows how to do their job – and that their cultural background, their “bedside manner,” their manner of relating to me and communicating with me as a human being, is irrelevant or not as important. This is a grossly inaccurate assumption – as much in the operating theater, as in the legal field. Cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of diverse clients are an essential part of being an effective and successful professional.
History, religion, attitudes towards gender roles, norms about the purpose and role of the family, and the importance of individual happiness versus the collective good of a society, are all many-colored threads that run through a marriage 
– and tangle, when a marriage is broken up.
This is even more the case in the context of family law, where cultural competence may be crucial to a divorce practitioner’s ability to fully understand and advise a divorcing couple, or one of the parties to a divorce. No one can deny that every culture approaches marriage and family in very different ways. Even just looking at the wedding ceremony itself, this is abundantly clear. History, religion, attitudes towards men’s and women’s roles, norms about the purpose and role of the family, and the importance of individual happiness versus the collective good of a society, are all many-colored threads that run through a marriage – and tangle, when a marriage is broken up. Nobody is looking for divorce and nobody expects it to be pretty.

Especially when a couple seeking a divorce comes from a culture that holds marriage and family in high regard, it should be approached delicately. It’s a situation that calls for sensitivity, and cultural and ideological literacy.  This is why we need more diverse family law practitioners.

The importance of cultural understanding: Couples from diverse backgrounds need diverse family law mediators or attorneys, who may be better equipped to understand the cultural nuances operating between a divorcing couple if they share that cultural or ideological background. There may be unique stigmas faced by a divorcing couple from a specific cultural background: shame and ostracization; heightened incentives for privacy; and potentially many more players involved in the decision-making process than just the two parties.

Parties should not shortchange themselves nor discount the importance of having a mediator or attorney who understands the interplay of these many factors. Having just one culturally-sensitive collaborative attorney on a collaborative team for a divorcing couple could mean that the team as a whole – both attorneys, and the coach, and any other neutrals – approach a couple from a different cultural background with much more insight and sensitivity, too.

The importance of feeling understood:  We need diverse practitioners all the more in out-of-court processes such as collaborative law and mediation, where the parties to a dispute retain control of the decision-making process from beginning to end, and are not giving it up into the hands of a judge as they would in litigation. When so much elbow grease is required outside of the courtroom and from the parties themselves, a culturally-sensitive or literate mediator could mean the difference between settling a case and getting stuck at an impasse that exists because of some unspoken and ingrained cultural or ideological value that one or both of the parties subscribes to, but is unable to or does not ever think to share.  It could also mean the difference between a party feeling comfortable enough to trust and build rapport with the practitioner(s), an element that is key to effective dispute resolution.

Diversity strengthens the professions as a whole: Couples from all backgrounds can benefit from help from diverse family law practitioners. In out-of-court processes in particular, a diverse practitioner’s varied experiences and competency at adaptation, flexibility, and thinking outside the box (because they have been forced to, coming from a non-mainstream culture) can be invaluable to crafting out-of-the-box solutions to problems that might seem insurmountable when approached from a more traditional perspective.
In many ways our country has been taking a long, hard look at ourselves, and reevaluating whether it is really true that as a nation we hold certain truths to be self-evident – about race, race relations, cultural diversity, and the value and place of women in society, for example.
The family law bar needs diverse practitioners, so it can grow within itself and broaden its perspectives and approaches to diverse populations, and also sharpen its ability for out-of-the-box thinking. The family law bar should foster diverse and culturally-sensitive practitioners if it really desires to provide access to the law to a diverse population.

In many ways our country has been taking a long, hard look at ourselves, and reevaluating whether it is really true that as a nation we hold certain truths to be self-evident – about race, race relations, cultural diversity, and the value and place of women in society, for example. Our choices reflect and test who we really are. We should walk the talk – and show by who we foster and mentor among our colleagues, and by who we seek to hire to help us with our problems – that we really believe diversity matters. For my Shanghainese father-in-law who deserves to know what happened in his two-hour surgery – and for all of us.


*Valerie Qian has been an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC since February 2013.  Valerie was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Hong Kong, and has also lived in Shanghai, the United Kingdom, and Boston. She speaks semi-unembarrassing Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Valerie's practice focuses on divorce mediation, collaborative divorce, paternity, and modification, and she also represents youth, incarcerated and in the community, in the Middlesex Juvenile Court and the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Divorce Mediation Training Associates Prepares to Change Leadership

Divorce Mediation Training Associates has just announced that long-time trainers John Fiske and Diane Neumann will be stepping down and, starting in 2019, Justin Kelsey (of Skylark Law & Mediation, PC) and Ellen Waldorf (of eWaldorf Mediation) will be the new training team.

Justin has taught with John at the MCLE Family Mediation Workshop for many years, and Ellen has been a part of past DMTA trainings.  Both Ellen and Justin are excited at this opportunity to continue the excellent legacy of DMTA, and carry these trainings into the future.

Justin and Ellen will be participating in Diane and John's last DMTA training next month, starting on October 9.  Click here for more information or to register.

To read the full press release from DMTA visit here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What Does it Mean to Call Yourself a Collaborative Lawyer?

It's not unusual to hear a lawyer describe themselves as collaborative.  I've also heard "I haven't taken the Collaborative Law training, but I certainly consider myself collaborative!"

But what do they mean by that?  Does it mean they offer collaborative law as an option to their clients, or just that they're willing to start a case in out-of-court negotiations and see where it leads?  Does it mean that they understand the collaborative law principles, or simply that they try to be civil with opposing counsel?

Civility and Collaboration are not the same thing.  In fact, many lawyers think of true "collaboration" as a dirty word.  I imagine them picturing the World War II signs labeling French civilians as "collaborators" and shuddering at the thought.  The problem with this mentality, especially in family law, is it means that you are thinking of the opposing party (and their counsel) as the enemy.  You might be civil to an enemy, but begrudgingly at best.  You might cooperate with an enemy for mutual self-interest, but you'll never trust them.  You'll never truly want to work together with an enemy.

Collaborative Law asks us to take a different approach.

The opposing party in a conflict is not my enemy.  They may have some competing interests, but in all likelihood they have many of the same goals and interests.  If you ask most parties in a conflict, they would both agree that they want to minimize lawyer fees, that they want to minimize the amount of time they spend in conflict, and that they want to have control over the outcome.  In a family case, they will almost always agree that the best interest of the children is a priority and that financial stability is also an important goal.

When we recognize that the joint goals often significantly outnumber and outweigh the areas of disagreement, we acknowledge the value of working together towards a mutually agreeable resolution of the conflict.  We see the value in collaboration, because we are not enemies just because we have a disagreement.  Even if that disagreement is painful and difficult, when we acknowledge the human dignity of the other side of a conflict, we invite a mutual respect and we make room for creativity and cooperation in joint problem solving.

Being a Collaborative lawyer is not just about civility.  That should be a given anyway.  Being a Collaborative lawyer is about shifting from a mindset where the other party or counsel is the problem to overcome, to a mindset where we define the disagreement as a joint problem and try to solve it together.

So if you want to call yourself collaborative, take the time to learn what it's really about.  Challenge yourself to set aside your misconceptions about problem solving, and offer to your clients an opportunity to find peaceful resolution instead of waging war and creating an enemy.

If I've piqued your interest or curiosity, there is an upcoming training in Salem, Massachusetts on September 20 and 21.  Learn more or register here.


Bringing Home the Bacon, and Frying It: The Appeals Court Defines Economic Partnership

Guest Post from Valerie Qian*

Does it make a difference for my legal rights if my spouse and I lived together before we got married?

The lawyerly answer, which I know is one most people can’t stand, is “it depends.” The Bortolotti v. Bortolotti case, a 1:28 unpublished decision that came down from the Appeals Court in April 2018, sheds some more light on this situation. The relevant statute, M.G.L. c. 208 §48, provides that the legal length of a marriage may be extended by periods of cohabitation if the parties had an “economic partnership” during these periods of cohabitation. The Bortolotti decision clarifies that “economic partnership” exists both in situations where both parties contribute income to the household, and in situations where one party may be economically dependent on the other. The decision further notes that when a judge exercises her discretion to exclude premarital assets from the marital estate, she should use a valuation of those assets at the time of the marriage.

The Appeals Court’s approach to the definition of “economic partnership” is broader than the lower court’s, and rightly takes a more broadminded approach to what this should mean. The commonsense definition of “partnership” suggests that both parties to a partnership contribute to it. But what qualifies as a “contribution” in a marriage/cohabitation partnership? The lower court seemed to only consider economic contributions in the form of one partner’s contributions of his income to the parties’ expenses during their cohabitation. Because the other partner did not contribute financially during their cohabitation, and appeared to be economically dependent on her male partner, the lower court did not believe there was a partnership.

The Appeals Court’s broader definition of “economic partnership” suggests that contribution to an economic marital partnership may involve more than simply depositing your biweekly paycheck into the joint bank account. While one party may be economically dependent on the other, she may still be considered a “partner” in an “economic partnership” that extends the legal length of the marriage for alimony purposes. The Appeals Court keeps its rationale for this broader definition of “economic partnership” grounded in rules of statutory interpretation and in case law, but the wider implications of this definition are clear and, I think, only right. Here in April 2018, we should be beyond the point where we believe that a stay-at-home wife (or husband) who is not bringing home the bacon is not contributing financially to the economic partnership of a marriage simply because she (or he) is only frying it. 

*Valerie Qian has been an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC since February 2013.  Valerie's practice includes family law & divorce representation, collaborative law and mediation, and juvenile representation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Will the Alimony Tax Change Pressure Couples to Finalize their Divorce in 2018?

As we have previously covered here, The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 Includes a Divorce “Penalty” for divorces that take place after December 31, 2018 if they involve alimony.  Prior to this act, and up until December 31, 2018, alimony was tax deductible to the payor and taxable income to the recipient, which allowed for a shifting of taxable income to a lower tax bracket.  If an agreement is entered prior to the end of 2018, and this benefit is preserved, then it continues into future years, even if the amount is later modified.  This has led many couples, already in the divorce process, to consider whether they want to work on finalizing their case prior to the end of 2018 to preserve this option.

Because some states, like Massachusetts, have waiting periods for finalizing a divorce, this law change raised a question:

Does the deadline of December 31, 2018 apply to the divorce being finalized, or just having a written agreement completed?

The answer to this question in Massachusetts, which has a 90-120 day waiting period for the finalization of a divorce after the Judgment of Divorce Nisi, could mean the difference between having to have an agreement done in August rather than December.  For more information about the timing of the divorce process in Massachusetts read our post: How to be Divorced by the End of the Year.

According to a recent post from local CPA firm, Gosule, Butkus & Jesson, LLP,
"The key for parties getting divorced in 2018 who want alimony to be deductible to the payer and taxable to the recipient is to have a written, signed, alimony agreement in place by December 31, 2018."
They note that the couple does not have to actually be legally separated or divorced for the alimony to be deductible as long as there is a "written separation agreement" with clear statements for support that otherwise meet the requirements for deductible alimony.  To read their entire rationale for this conclusion, complete with tax court citations, read their full article here: What Constitutes an Alimony Agreement?

Monday, July 23, 2018

Appeals Court Confirms Again, Verbal Agreements are not Good Enough to Modify Support

Guest Post from Julie Tolek*

In the recent case of Smith v. Smith (17-P-765), the Appeals court upheld a finding of not guilty of contempt of disobeying a court order to pay alimony, but vacated and remanded as to the retroactive modification of alimony made by the trial Judge due to the parties' verbal agreements, stating that retroactive modification of alimony requires findings “reflecting [the judge’s] consideration of all the factors mandated by” the statute. quoting Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286 (2009).

After a divorce which included an order for the husband to pay alimony, the parties agreed among themselves that the husband would pay less than the amount of alimony in their separation agreement. Relying on this agreement, the husband contributed financially to various expenses for his emancipated children, including payment toward a wedding, down payments for two of his children’s houses, and payment toward liabilities. After receiving a letter from the Wife’s attorney, the husband began paying the originally agreed to amount. Subsequently, the wife filed a complaint for contempt for failure to pay alimony to collect the arrears.

The trial court found the husband not guilty of civil contempt as to the non-payment of alimony because although it did meet one requirement of contempt of “clear and unequivocal command” (not paying the amount of alimony required by the agreement), it did not meet the second requirement that the plaintiff show “clear and undoubted disobedience” by the husband, since he did make the reduced payments that he and his wife had agreed upon outside of the separation agreement. The Appeals court upheld this finding.

The trial court also retroactively (but not prospectively) modified alimony to bring it in line with the husband’s previous payments. The trial court based the modification on the same findings that led to the court to find the husband not guilty of contempt, however the Appeals court states that the two issues are separate and that “a party may not be in contempt, yet still owe alimony under the existing court order.” In reversing and remanding as to the modification, the Appeals court continues that although the retroactive modification is in the judge’s discretion, the judge must make findings “reflecting [the judge’s] consideration of all the factors mandated by G.L.c. 208, s. 34.” Pierce v. Pierce, 455 Mass. 286 (2009). Even prior to Pierce, case law has demonstrated that an alimony order can only be modified upon showing a material change in circumstances which involves looking at the statute at that time, the s. 34 factors, when evaluating the circumstances. Since the judge in this case did did not make findings addressing the current statute factors, the Appeals court reversed and remanded for an evaluation of the appropriate factors as well as if there has been a material change in circumstances since the divorce in relation to those factors.

As to the husband’s defenses of laches and estoppel, the Appeals court found, in accordance with case law, that laches is not a defense in a claim such as this, and that in any case where the elements of estoppel are analyzed, it should be done so relative to the required factors.

*Julie Tolek is an Associate at Skylark Law & Mediation, PC and runs her own practice, Think Pink Law.  Julie's practice includes family law & divorce representation, prenuptial agreements, mediation, firearms licensing & NFA trusts, estate planning & probate, and adoptions.
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