Dear Pinky and Spike:
Once again I don’t know if you will ever read my letters, but I’m compelled to finish the account of Ralph and Rebecca’s divorce. Ultimately, I’ll get to a situation where both lawyers believe sincerely in opposite interpretations of the law — and the effect that will have on their clients.
I won’t get to it in this letter because Ralph still needs a lawyer. Sunshine Wallace’s office canceled his appointment because she had been called to court. However, another firm — the law office of Jennifer Costanzo and Ashley Elizabeth Gaunt — was recommended to him by one of the brighter guys at work, and he was able to schedule a meeting at the very end of his long day of lawyer-hunting.
Ralph was learning to judge every aspect of a law practice, starting with the exterior appearance. It was like the three bears: The first office he visited was too grand. The second office he visited was too sleazy. Costanzo and Gaunt’s office was close to the courthouse, but it was old — not old enough to be charming, but old enough to be semi-crappy. In other words, it looked just right.
The same was true of the interior. Most of the furniture had come from someone’s parents’ house (you could tell because it looked slightly out of place in an office setting and also because the quality was a lot better than what you usually see in an office).
There was a receptionist’s desk but no receptionist. He stood in the waiting room for less than a minute when a tall woman entered from the opposite direction. Her hand was extended before they were in contact range.
“Mr. Robinson, I’m Ashley Gaunt. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Ashley was older than Rebecca and much younger than Ralph. She wore a dark blue dress and good navy leather shoes. Although her shoes had low heels, she was still as tall as Ralph. Her posture was erect, but Ralph was starting to slump. At second glance, it was possible she was even taller than Ralph’s 6 feet. Her blond hair was well cut just above her shoulders. It was parted on the right and held with a silver barrette. She wore no other jewelry. She looked smart — but then there was a thing about books and their covers. Whether she was smart or dumb, she was self-confident.
She took him to her office, which was furnished with an oversized desk (and immediately disproved Ralph’s theory about why male lawyers have big desks). There was also a round table where Ralph was directed to sit. Then Ashley asked, “Do you want anything to drink?”
“This is the third lawyer’s office I’ve been to today, so I think I need a martini — make it a double.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, but there’s no alcohol in the office.”
“I was just kidding. A very stiff drink sounds good to me, but it is exactly what I don’t need right now. How about a Diet Coke?”
“That I can do. Have a seat at the table and take a minute to spread out any material you want us to look at.”
Ashley returned with a thick crystal glass full of ice in one hand and a can of cold Diet Coke in the other. There were two paper napkins under the Coke, and she deftly separated them to place one under the glass and one under the can.
She took a pad of white, letter-sized paper from her desk and sat down. Ralph liked to see that at least this lawyer didn’t use the Richard Nixon long, lined, yellow legal paper.
She said, “Before you and I start, I want you to meet my partner, Jennifer Costanzo, who is coming through the door as I speak.”
Jennifer was wearing dark blue pants and a white, short-sleeved blouse. Thanks to his time with Rebecca, Ralph knew that it was made of silk and that plain, white silk blouses could be both hard to find and expensive. Like her partner, Jennifer wore no jewelry, but instead of being noticeably tall and lithe, she was of average height and (Ralph could think of no other word) “buff.” She, too, had no lack of self-confidence.
Ashley explained how she and her partner worked together on every case. If engaged, Ashley would have primary contact with Ralph, but together they reviewed the status of and discussed all of their cases on a weekly basis. So Jennifer could also take Ralph’s calls because she would know the background and current status of his case. Before Ralph could ask, Jennifer explained:
“We will not work on an hourly basis. Once we know what the case is about, we’ll set a take-it or leave-it flat fee. Most of the people we see ‘take it,’ but, if you decide to ‘leave it,’ there’s no charge for the time we’ve spent up to that point. All I know about your case is that your wife is represented by Ms. Heep, so the fee, no matter how it is calculated or what lawyer does the calculation, is going to be high. The lawyer you hire will be worth every penny if the fee is perceived as payment for difficult, unpleasant and exhausting work. If the fee is perceived as a payment for benefit conferred to the client, it will look like a rip-off no matter how small it is. This isn’t good news, but you’ve got to hear it.”
Ashley continued, “I’m going to do the initial interview and will learn as much as I can about you, your wife and your marriage. When the personal interview is over, I’ll be able to isolate the issues and tell you where you stand with the law. Then we’ll talk briefly about the way you like to make decisions, and the values and beliefs you’re likely to use to make them. Our clients’ divorces are based on their decisions and values; we don’t substitute our own. You’re about to spend two hours with me. After that we’ll both be tired and ready to call it a day.”
“Jen is about to leave us, but before she goes can you tell her what your case is about in a nutshell?”
Ralph said, “Yes. I’ve been married to Rebecca, who is 15 years younger than me, for about four years. First marriage for her; second marriage for me, and she’s a bitch. I think I am going to have to pay heavy spousal support for 25 months, and I’m prepared to do it. I also understand that anything acquired during our marriage gets divided in half. I earned considerably more than she did, but the equal division is something I can tolerate. That’s the case in a nutshell. Plus, Rebecca — did I mention that she’s a bitch? — sought out and hired Ms. Heep, who is going to make me reimburse Rebecca for half of the support I paid, out my own salary, to my first wife for child support.”
Jennifer interrupted, “That’s preposterous!”
Ralph replied, “I hope so. Rebecca says that the magic words are ‘the Williams case.’”
Ashley said, “I’ve never heard of it, and I agree with Jen — did your wife know about the first marriage and the support obligation before you married her?”
Ralph answered, “Of course she did.”
Ashley said, “Then that was part of the package she got. Jen, could you do some research on this Williams case while I get to know Ralph? Is it OK to use your first name?”
Both Jennifer and Ralph said yes at the same time. Jennifer closed the office door. Ashley looked directly at Ralph and said, “Tell me what you think we need to know in order to help you.”
“I need to hear the story, your narrative. How did it come to pass that you find yourself sitting in that chair?”
“I don’t know where I should begin.”
“David Copperfield starts with, ‘I was born ...’ so why don’t you begin there?”
“Do you mean it?”
“Yes, and I’d also like a brief biography of Rebecca, but start with yourself.”
“I was born ...”
Ralph talked for exactly one hour and 15 minutes. He knew he had Ashley’s full attention because she interrupted only twice to make sure she understood his chronology. It had been a long time since anyone had really listened to him talk about himself. He liked it, and he liked the woman sitting at the table with him even though he had heard her speak no more than 100 words. When finished, he was embarrassed by how much he told her and by how long he continued to talk. Before she said a word, he knew he had been heard and that he wasn’t going to be judged.
They took a short break. Ashley got another Coke for Ralph and one for herself. Before they resumed the conversation, Jennifer entered the office to ask, “May I interrupt to give you the short version of what the research turned up?” Both Ralph and Ashley said yes.
Jennifer said, “Ashley, I agree that the idea of a husband — or a wife — repaying half the amount of child support he or she paid during the marriage is wrong. I agree that if the second or third or fourth spouse knew of the support obligation before the wedding, what’s there to complain about? I also think that if the right to this kind of reimbursement were the law, at least one of us would have heard about it since this is what we are doing with our lives. Now, think about the idea of ‘benefit to the community.’”
Ashley said, “If either spouse spends community property on something that was not for the ‘benefit of the community,’ he or she has to reimburse the community at the time of divorce.”
Jennifer takes over, “Earnings during marriage are community property. If some of those earnings are spent on support owed to former spouse, what’s the benefit to the community?”
Ashley exclaims, “That can’t be right!”
Jennifer replies, “It isn’t. But there’s more to the reimbursement claim than we thought at first, and it’s going to take some time to explain.”
Thus ended Ralph’s daylong search for a lawyer.