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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 42)

First stop in the search for a good lawyer leads to a 'hand-off'

Dear Pinky and Spike:

I know that Spike is on a cruise to Alaska and Pinky is at Club Med — again. I’m going to continue to write about Ralph while you are gone. My letters will pile up with the rest of your mail, which will reduce the probability that you will read them. And still I persist.

Although it wasn’t something he often noticed, Ralph was almost always the “smartest person in the room.” He had lived his life with the confidence that no matter what problem he might confront, he could handle it to his benefit — or at least with no harm to himself. But the truth was that very few problems had come his way and none were particularly difficult. Although he may be smart, Rebecca is shrewd and cunning at times. He was very concerned about this divorce; for the first time in his life, he felt the need for a protector.

The first lawyer Ralph interviewed was George Bensen, who was a partner in a firm of 50 lawyers. When he entered the building, he noticed youthful people in matching smocks carrying papers. Some walked in haste from one direction through the reception area and others came from the opposite direction. Ralph told the receptionist who he was, and she handed him a green identification tag to go around his neck.

“Mr. Bensen is on the third floor; an escort will be here momentarily,” she said.

Before Ralph could say that he didn’t need an escort, an attractive young woman appeared at his side and asked if he would rather use the elevator or the stairs. She wore a blue tag around her neck, and she said that her name was Nancy. Ralph elected to use the stairs.

Once they reached the second-floor landing, they faced a window that was 50 feet wide and 10 feet tall. It looked down on a room with a dozen people. Most were young. Several were wearing the smocks he had seen in the reception area. A couple of men were wearing shirts and ties with jackets over the back of their chairs. He saw two men fully rigged in a lawyer’s uniform — a dark blue suit, white starched shirt, a red necktie and shiny black shoes. Except for those who were seated and in deep concentration as they read or wrote, everyone was moving quickly and deliberately. This was obviously a place where serious business was being conducted and a place where things got done.

After allowing him as much time as he wanted to look at the beehive, Nancy took him to the third floor, on which there was no visible activity. The stairs led to a hall with a highly polished hardwood floor covered with evenly spaced oriental runners. There were five highly polished doors on each side of the hall. They, too, were made of highly polished wood. Next to each door handle was a small brass plaque with a well-engraved name. George noticed that the plaques appeared to be permanently installed on the wall, which gave the place an aura of permanency.

Nancy knocked on a door and was summoned to enter. She introduced Ralph to Bensen, who rose from behind his desk. He was in the lawyer’s uniform. The first thing Ralph noticed was that Bensen wore no security badge, so there was a visible distinction between those who owned the organization (no tag), those who worked for the organization (blue tag) and those who paid to keep the organization going (green tag).

Ralph took in the office, which at first glance was stunning. There were no offices like this in his company. No one would want a fancy office because his company’s customers would think that the cost of the office was built into the cost of the product they sold.

Bensen led Ralph to a sitting area of a well-worn sofa and two matching leather chairs. Ralph sunk into the sofa; Bensen sat in one of the chairs. It may have been a trick of the eye, but Ralph sensed that Bensen was sitting a couple of inches higher than he was.

Bensen asked if Ralph wanted coffee. Ralph declined because he didn’t know how much it would cost.

Bensen said, “I understand that you are here to obtain representation in an action for dissolution of marriage. Is that correct?”

Ralph said that it was.

Bensen said, “Are you or is your wife the initiating party?”

Ralph said that it was Rebecca.

Bensen asked, “What is your best estimate of the value of your entire estate?”

George said that it was about $200,000 — and Rebecca wanted all of that because he had supported his first family during the marriage.

Bensen said, “We will see about that.”

Ralph was certain that he saw Bensen push something even though he couldn’t see what it was. His hand was in the same area it was in when he asked Ralph if he wanted coffee.

Ralph was asked no other questions about his case. Bensen delivered a rehearsed description of the history and the excellence of the firm. The pitch was well-timed to a knock on the door and the entrance of a man in his early 30s. He was wearing the lawyer’s costume with a red identification tag around his neck. Benson made the introductions and explained that the young lawyer would maintain the primary contact between the firm and Ralph. Ralph could still make direct contact with Bensen if he ever thought it was necessary. With that, Ralph was handed off to the man with the red tag and escorted by elevator to the fourth floor. It looked a lot like the third floor, though there were eight doors. Some had permanent-looking engraved plaques while others were in holders that made possible the facile removal of one name and the substitution of another.

They entered a room called “Conference IV.” It had the same view enjoyed by Bensen, but there was a lot less of it. Conference IV was a quarter the size of Bensen’s office, and it was furnished with one round table around which four chairs had been set. Ralph had figured out that he had been the subject of a “hand-off,” and also that, economically, it might be for the best. However, if he ended up sitting in a chair that was lower than red-tag’s, he was determined to insist that they change places.

Ralph’s chair was the same height as red-tag’s chair, and that comforted him. He felt that these people could protect him from Rebecca and her bloodthirsty lawyer. However, as his interview continued, that feeling began to fade and he couldn’t help worrying about what these protectors were going to cost.

He asked red-tag if he knew anything about the “Williams case,” which was what Rebecca said would cost him his half of their estate.

Red-tag said, “Not off-hand, but I can have it researched and briefed before you come back for the first follow-up appointment.”

Ralph’s feeling of safety sagged. While he didn’t look forward to telling his story again, he was glad he was going to talk to two other lawyers before he had to decide whom he would ask to handle his representation.

Your friend,
Bucky

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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