I have been on a mission to inform the world that there is a better way for couples to divorce than hiring attorneys and litigating through the Family Courts. I think most spouses are capable of working together with a divorce mediator to get fully educated on the issues, exchange all pertinent information, explore their options and negotiate a reasonable settlement without a Judge stepping in. I tend to vilify the litigation process in comparing it with mediation. I will continue to do so but in the meanwhile I want to take a step back and recognize that there are very exceptional attorneys and very exceptional Judges in the Family Courts that make it their daily work to do good for the families they work with. This past week I had the pleasure of having lunch with an old friend, Commissioner Lizbet Muños, who started as a fellow Divorce Attorney in Chula Vista and was later appointed as a Department of Child Support Commissioner. It is my hope that one day she will move on to become a Family Law Judge.
So what is it that makes a good Divorce Attorney? I attended the Norby Awards this past week during which one of the presenters mentioned that our role as divorce attorney is to be a zealous advocate for our client in the courtroom, but also a compassionate, practical and realistic counselor to our clients outside the courtroom. I have always been of the opinion that if we all did a better job being compassionate, practical and realistic counselors in our work outside the courtroom, our clients and their families would reap the benefits and we would need far less time being zealous advocates in the Courtroom. Throughout my years litigating it was always a pleasure to receive a case where I knew that the attorney on the other side was a reasonable problem solver first and then a zealous advocate if that didn’t work. This leads me back to my lunch with Commissioner Muñoz.
Back then she was just Liz Muñoz. When I was being hired and she was the attorney on the other side, or when she was subsequently hired as the attorney on the other side of the case I could tell my client that this was a very good development. So if she was such a good attorney why would it be a good thing that the other spouse had hired her? I think the answer is Lizbet was that mix of strong advocate and compassionate counselor. She was always very well prepared. She stood firm for the rights of her client. It was also clear that behind the scenes she was being that practical counselor, instilling reasonable and realistic expectations in her clients. The focus working with Lizbet, as with the other great divorce attorneys I have worked with over the years, was to identify what information needed to be exchanged, give our clients reasonable expectations about the issues we had to tackle, and then sit down and have a respectful conversation to find the best and most fair solution for the entire family. Lizbet and I would certainly disagree about what exactly fair should look like, but that is where our advocacy skills would kick in until we had persuaded one another and our clients what the right settlement might be. In my cases against Lizbet and when I observed her at Court as I waited for my matters to be heard, it was always very clear that her heart was in reducing conflict and solving problems for the families she worked with.
When I stopped litigating divorces and needed to refer old clients and new couples not suited for mediation to a good divorce attorney, I was happy to have Lizbet as an exceptional referral option. That option was short lived, as the powers that be recognized her qualities that made her a fabulous Divorce Attorney also would make her a fabulous judicial officer. Lizbet was appointed Commissioner in January of 2020. My loss of her as a referral option was a huge gain for the family law bench. Having stopped litigating, I will never get the opportunity to argue a case in front Commissioner Muñoz. I did recently peek into her department and got to watch her in action. For me, a good judge is one that is well prepared, is firm yet compassionate with the clients, is respectful to the advocates and demands respect from them, makes both sides feel like they had been heard, and makes decisions that may not necessarily be in my client’s favor, but which are well thought out and well explained. What also makes for a good Judge is their attentiveness, their willingness to smile, and a strong sense that their heart is in the work they are doing. I have no question that Commissioner Muñoz checks all these boxes.
The bench is fortunate to have such an experienced and compassionate new Commissioner sitting in Downtown San Diego’s Department 802. Those of us who got to work with Lizbet over the years recognize all the attributes that have raised her to the bench. The Department of Child Support Services litigants are fortunate to have her overseeing their matters. It is my hope that one day those powers that be will take that big heart of hers, her skills and experience and move her to becoming a Family Law Judge. Good people like Commissioner Muñoz are making a difference for divorcing families needing to litigate their matters in San Diego.