This past weekend I was cleaning up some old files and I happened across a copy of my old bar exam dated Tuesday morning, July 28, 1992. I didn’t even realize that I had kept a copy, yet here it was over 30 years later, reminding me of my beginnings in the law. At that time the bar exam was a 3 day affair and this particular Tuesday morning portion of the exam was a three hour block of time where we were to write three separate essays based on fact patterns and questions that were included. I opened up the exam to the first question, and there facing me so many years ago as the first of the three problems was a fact pattern involving a California Divorce. In this week’s blog I ponder and reminisce about how I arrived at where I am and how sometimes our paths move in directions we could have never imagined. Sometimes we don’t actually know where we are supposed to be going until we get there.
Me and My Early Career Aspirations. When I was in kindergarten I wanted to be a police dog. I’m not sure where I got that notion, but before long I realized it probably wasn’t a very realistic career choice and over time my strivings moved through being an astronaut, a fireman, a professional baseball player, and by the time I got to high school I was thinking of being a writer. In college I majored in English and got a job on the school newspaper. I quickly became disillusioned with journalism when I received the first article I had written back from my editor, completely torn apart and turned into something unrecognizable from what I had written. Around that time I shifted gears and decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I had a class in high school where I was assigned to be the criminal defense attorney for King Henry the VIII against Anne Boleyn in a mock trial and I had managed to get an acquittal so I was no stranger to the courtroom. I was drawn to the law at the time because I wanted to make the world a better place and I saw myself going into environmental law and fighting polluters and preserving the earth for our posterity.
Law School and Family Law. I would love to say that my Family Law path was clear from my early days of law school, but that is not so. Every law school student is required to take property law which includes an introduction to community property so I had that under my belt. Law students who had any interest in possibly pursuing family law could take elective courses to learn about the subject. I took a total of zero such classes. My law school had a Family Law Club. I was not a member. I can say that I did attend one of their meetings, and that was because word had gotten out that the meeting was being catered by El Pollo Loco. I managed to graduate from law school with almost no understanding whatsoever of the legal workings of divorce law.
Bar Study and the Bar Exam In stumbling across this copy of my old bar exam and seeing the family law question, I was reminded of where I was introduced to divorce law. It was in my bar study class. I will confess that my success in passing the bar exam on my first go had nothing to do with my three years of hard work in law school. It instead had to do with the two month intensive bar passing class I took. This is where I learned all the sneaky little bar passing strategies, all the legal nuances and subtleties that would be tested, and yes, this is where I learned the essentials of family law so that when I got a family law question on the bar, I was able to identify the issues, understand the law, and was able to write a cohesive essay.
Humble Beginnings Law school teaches us to think analytically, to write and to research, but the real learning begins when we start actually practicing law in the real world. My initial divorce training was from the school of hard knocks. With whatever family law knowledge I had crammed into my head getting ready for the bar, I hung up a shingle with a couple of law school buddies. It didn’t take long to realize how little we knew. At that time there were a couple of programs through the County Bar association that would provide us volunteer and low income cases to help us hone our skills needed to be divorce attorneys. The most amazing part of this program was that we were assigned a mentor who was an experienced family law attorney willing to make themselves available to help us out when we ran into challenges. Little did I know then that I had been assigned a legend in the field. His name was Michael Shea. The San Diego Family Law Bar has since established an annual award in his honor called the Michael C. Shea award to honor attorney’s who unselfishly give of their time to mentor young family law attorneys. He was fantastic. As a brand new family law attorney I constantly found myself with clients in dire situations, where I was expected to be able to navigate them through impossible situations, with high stress and high stakes. Michael Shea was always just a phone call away to talk me down from the ledge, and to ultimately teach me a little bit more about becoming an effective family law attorney.
Finding my Place. I have come to gather that there are two things that largely draw people to become attorneys; the conflict and the solutions. I quickly identified that I am drawn to the law, not because I like to fight, but because I like to solve problems. I am not afraid to fight, especially in the interest of justice and fairness, but I found that in working as a divorce professional my skills in identifying and fostering practical problem solving were much more valuable than my ability to fight.
In 2003 I finally found my place. I signed up for a divorce mediation training course and after a week of training I knew I had stumbled upon the right way to approach and resolve divorce. Out of necessity I continued to litigate divorces while also splitting my time with mediation, but my focus had shifted and I set my sights on getting to a place where I could focus exclusively on working with couples who wanted to resolve their divorces out of court through mediation. By 2020 I had finally gotten to that place where I was able to stop taking litigated divorce cases and focus entirely on mediation. Having long since come to the realization that mediation was a far superior way to handle the challenges of a divorce than litigating, I had finally gotten to a place where I was able to do that which I was always meant to do.
So, here I am. I have come a long way from being that little boy who wanted to be a police dog. I learned family law so I could pass the bar, then started taking on family law cases because that is what came through the door and helped to pay the bills. I went through a period where I was a little down on myself because I had not gone the environmental law route, which I originally thought was my calling to the law in the first place. Now I realize I am precisely where I am supposed to be. I have found this little place in the world where I can relieve a little bit of the suffering that divorce can bring, by helping couples navigate it in a good way. I would have never imagined that this would be my life’s path. Yet here I am, and happy to be here at that.