The February, 2012 issue of the Whatcom County Bar Association Newsletter contained the following article that I was an invited to pen as a means of introducing myself to the Bellingham legal community. It’s republished here so that clients and potential clients can get a better sense of who I am and my views on the practice of law.
Many thanks to Rajeev for inviting me to introduce myself to the community through the Bar Newsletter. I’m so grateful to be in Bellingham. Many years ago, I lived in the Pacific Northwest, having moved to Portland soon after graduating from college, and then later to Seattle, where I worked as a computer programmer with Boeing. At age 28, I realized that I wanted to attend law school. At the time, supporting a wife and two young children, the realization hit me more like, “If I had my life to live over…” Then a layoff came and I was forced to grapple with the reality of having to start over one way or another.
Offered a full scholarship to the University of Arizona down in Tucson, I decided to leave Washington. My wife at the time, to her credit, agreed to the move. The plan was to return upon graduation. However, a really nasty divorce got in the way. After the dust had settled, my then-wife, who suffered from mental health issues, disappeared from my children’s lives. By then, they had been through so much; I just couldn’t put them through any more. So I stayed in Tucson for 18 years until my youngest, who had been born in Washington, went off to college — ironically, to the UW. (I tease him that he’s like the salmon returning to its spawning grounds.)
This nasty divorce had a lot to do with my decision to become a family law attorney. I had a wonderful lawyer who held my hand through an incredibly daunting and painful process. My ex-wife’s first attorney turned everything into a fight and made things miserable for all of us. However, her second attorney did his best to steer toward reasonable compromise and settlement. After observing what a difference divorce lawyers make in the lives of clients and their children, for better or worse, I imagined that I might contribute something of value to real people by practicing in this field. I knew divorce law could be demanding, but after so many years of working with computers, it felt like an amazing opportunity.
A few years later, that choice felt naive to say the least. Already starting to burn out on the high level of conflict, one case in particular showed me that I was often causing more harm than good. It was a difficult case in which I had “won” custody for a father of two young sons. The court also consented to a major relocation. The following summer the children returned for a visit and the next thing I knew the case was reopened on an emergency basis. The boys were now claiming they had been abused. One of them, referring to the divorce, said to the CPS caseworker, “No one listened to us.” I knew his list of “no ones” included me.
At that point, thoroughly discouraged, I began learning immigration law. Fortunately, right at that time, a colleague told me about a new approach to divorce. A group of lawyers were signing up for collaborative law training in Phoenix and I was invited to join them.
I’d never heard of collaborative law. It was 2001 and, outside of a few hotspots around the county, the collaborative approach was pretty much unknown. But that training restored my desire to practice family law. A year later, I had gotten trained as a mediator too and was refocusing my energy away from conventional practice. By the time I left Tucson, some ten years later, my entire caseload consisted of collaborative divorces, mediations, assisting those who had negotiated their own settlements prepare legal documents, and the occasional conventional case taken by choice. It was a wonderful practice. One that provided a front row seat to the miracle that happens when conflict softens, first into openness to the perspectives of another, and then into settlement, sometimes contributing to significant healing of the relationship along the way. There was just one problem: Tucson never quite felt like home.
I was born in New York City and raised on Long Island but knew from an early age that New York was not where I belonged. In my teen years, when I first read about Oregon and later followed the coverage of the Mount Saint Helens eruption, the Pacific Northwest called to me. After college, I moved cross-country and began exploring (and moving) ever further northward. When I lived in Seattle, I would drive through Bellingham and think, “How cool it would be to live here someday.”
After so many years, I’m thrilled to finally be back in the Northwest, specifically in its most beautiful corner, and grateful for the opportunity to become a part of this community. As it turns out, Bellingham is more than a sublimely gorgeous place. It’s also a great town in which to practice law. It’s wonderful that, by the time I arrived, there was a collaborative law group already here which welcomed me in so graciously. And more broadly, it’s been great to discover that so many attorneys in this town — whether formally collaborative or not — have a pragmatic, problem solving approach to practice that mirrors my own.
At our last bar lunch, I was struck by Deborra Garrett’s comments about the Whatcom County Bar having become more welcoming over the years. Her words rang true. I have found this community to be both warm and open. Attorneys have been encouraging, helpful and extremely generous with their time. I don’t want to embarrass anyone by naming names but, to everyone who has helped me to feel accepted and shared freely of their knowledge as I slowly get up to speed on the specifics of local practice, thank you. And to those I have not yet gotten to know, I look forward to our meeting and to working together on cases.