Thursday, June 21, 2018

Houston Bar Association Fee Dispute Committee

The Houston Bar Association has a little known committee that handles attorney fee disputes. I've served on this committee for several years. It is under-utilized.

They are interesting cases. I've enjoyed volunteering for this committee.

Unfortunately, the last one I did was family law case.  The attorney's legal services agreement was old and out-dated. She was not responsive to my suggestions on how to improve her agreement to comply with current legal agreements and to bill on a monthly basis and not let the bill build up. Billing every 6 months is just not a prudent way to run a law office.

The 3 person panel (2 attorneys and a lay person) handled the case in a very professional manner. We cut her bill down a bit and gave him 6 months to pay since it took her 6 months to bill him. Both were very happy with the outcome. Both parties felt "heard" and respected.

Basic child issues in Texas

1. You don't want guardianship. You want conservatorship in Texas. There is a big difference.

Guardianship is in probate court. Conservatorship is in family court.

Family court is more liberal that probate court - less reporting to the judge, etc. If possible, use the Family Code not the Estate Code in Texas.

2. Joint Managing Conservatorship or Sole Custody in Texas.

There is no "shared custody" or whatever people make-up.

It's PRESUMED JMC in Texas. BUT JMC can be overcome with proof. Sometimes it's not worth it for the time, cost and aggravation.

3. Texas is a gender-neutral state.

Mommies get no extra points for being mommies.

It's in the TX Family Code that it's neutral.

That said, some judges (often less and less around Texas) prefer mommy to daddy when the child is young. And I've seen female judges in Harris County that favor men over women. So getting a female judge does not guarantee that mommy wins.

I got men custody BEFORE the laws changed to favor dads -- over 22 years ago! So men have always been able to get primary custody in Texas. It used to be harder - but it was doable. I did it and I saw it in Hrris County.

When a man tells me he could not get custody then I often say you hired a bad lawyer. I did it many times. I also picked good daddies and bad mommies and it made it easy for the judge to rule in my client's favor.

At puberty, many men fight and get primary custody.

4. I don't advise men to "put themselves on child support" with the TX A G office. You need an attorney. TX A G is only here to set up child support. They don't care if you never see your child.

Spend the money and hire a private lawyer. PLEASE!

And I have seen typos in the TX A G paperwork - so you truly need an attorney to make sure they do the paperwork correctly. 

5. Rights and Duties - these are important. These are probably the most important thing to fight about. Decisions can be made solely by one parent, independently, after consultation with the other parent or by agreement with a medical tie-breaker.

Don't ignore your parental rights and duties.

There are some rights you have 24/7 - read them!
You have the right to get report cards, go to school, talk to teachers, be informed of your child's health education and welfare, etc.

There are rights you have when you have the child with you -
take the child to the doctor or hospital if it's an emergency (such as a high fever, lots of blood, broken bone, etc.). Plus the right to take the child to any church you want. You have the duty to feed, clothe and shelter them when you have them. So mom can send the child with nothing & you have to have a toothbrush, toothpaste, change of clothes, pjs, toys, etc.

6. It is very common for a decent and experienced family law attorney to add extra stuff not in the Texas Family Practice Manual - such as phone calls, right of first refusal regarding visits, etc.

I encourage you to only hire a lawyer that does family law as their primary practice. I personally dislike having to deal with attorneys that do corporate, criminal or other areas of the law that represent their family members or friends in a "simple" divorce. The attorney is doing a huge disservice to their client.

7. If you don't have much money look around for a lawyer. For example, a basic divorce takes at least 10 hours. With kids bump it up to 20 hours.
If you hire a $500/hour lawyer that's $5,000 - $10,000. Can you afford it?
If not, find someone else cheaper.

Just because someone charges $600 an hour does not mean they are better than someone that charges $300 an hour. Many of the expensive lawyers just have huge overhead.

I office in a cheap space. I save money anyway I can. I don't have a "fancy" office with staff. If you need all the bells & whistles expect to pay for it.

8. Don't hire and fire lawyers. There is an unwritten rule to never be the 3rd lawyer (and to never been attorney 4 or 5) on a divorce case - it shows that usually the client is unrealistic in their expectations or difficult. If you find a good lawyer and you have hired and fired other attorneys then plan on paying a premium.

9. Don't try to hire a lawyer at the last moment. Most competent attorneys won't sign onto a case with less than 90 days to prepare for trial. Attorneys are held to a professional standard and they don't want a grievance because the client is unhappy at the end of a case.

10. Due to the huge number of grievances against family law attorneys, family law attorneys must protect themselves from a future grievance from an unhappy client. So you can expect them to do "discovery" to determine what assets and debts exist.

11. Beware of lawyers that promise you the sun, moon and stars. I know of no judge in Texas that gives one party everything they ask for. I had one judge say I always give something to both sides because I don't want anyone to feel like they left with nothing

12. A trial is expensive. Most lawyers charge at least $5,000-$10,000 due BEFORE the trial begins.

13. A jury trial is very very expensive. Expect to pay over $10,000 if a jury request is asked for.

Plus remember you get the 12 dumbest people that could not figure out how to get out of jury duty.

Most juries are mean - they are mad at being picked, missing work, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, sitting next to people they don't know, eating bad food, having to go to court early each morning & finding a parking spot, etc. In Harris County, I've seen some really mean juries that often don't apply the law correctly. They can be scary.

14. Around 90% of all cases settle at or before mediation.

Why? It works, the judges know it and will keep sending you to mediation - sometimes 2-3 times.

Some reasons are that people run out of money. People surrender & give up. The attorney withdraws if you don't pay their bills. You are left hanging. It's not pretty.

That is why I shifted my practice to 100% mediation over 13 years ago. I saw where family law was going in Harris County & I wanted to actually help people. I made a lot less money being a mediator  -- but my hugs and thank you's went up 1,000% & I can sleep at night knowing that I help people.

15. The only forms in Texas to use are on

Avoid all other websites! Don't pay for forms!

16. If you have someone else's child over 6 months you have legal standing to file for custody. Do it!

17. If you are pregnant, talk to a family law attorney BEFORE the baby is born. It's sad when a young lady has a baby and does stuff before talking to a lawyer. Sometimes it is worthwhile not to apply for Medicaid and food stamps. Sometimes it's best not to put a man's name on the birth certificate.

18. After practicing over 27 years, no case is ever identical.

Many cases are similar -- but none are identical.

And your case is not unique or special.

Most divorces are pretty much the same. I rarely see a truly unique case.
After practicing 27 years, I have been involved in 3 really "interesting" cases with unique facts. Such as "sex slave", "nursing while on drugs" and "husband hiding all of wife's stuff & lying to the judge" (he was a truly evil and mentally ill fellow but looked & acted totally sane).

And, a $3-5 million dollar estate is not that much money in Houston.

I've handled mediations with lots of zeros -- it's just "stuff" that needs to be divided.

19. If you go to trial the judge will access who is telling the truth and your attitude. Judges don't like people that refuse to "co parent" or "bad mouth" the other parent. I've seen judges limit visitation when one parent cannot control themselves when bad mouthing the other parent. Judges know about parental alienation and they take it seriously in Harris County.

20. Talk to a lawyer before you do anything. I would talk to a lawyer before separating.  PLEASE!

21.  Texas does not have legal separation. You are married or divorced.

22.If you are married, then you cannot have a "common law marriage" with another person.

23. If you think you might be married, please talk to a lawyer before getting married again.

24. There are a lot of bigamists out there. It's more common than you realize.

25. Many family law attorneys and mediators get death threats. I've had so many that my husband refuses to allow me to take new cases or be appointed an amicus attorney for kids in cases anymore. I get about 1 a year.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Advice from a Judge about divorce and children

Profound Advice From A Judge About How A Few Words Can Hurt Your Child
Parents involved in high conflict divorces are often so emotional that they forget the impact a few harsh words can have on their child.  We hear parents daily in the courts saying terrible things about the other parent; it is often reported that, for example, a mother says to her child, “Your father is an idiot,” or a father says, “Your mother is a fool.”  Those few words, while said about a child’s parent, are also a direct criticism of the child.  Lawyers, judges, therapists and child advocates tell parents not to make such statements to their child or within hearing of their child, but no one has explained why better than in the following advice from retired Minnesota Judge, Michael Hass.
Judge Haas retired in December 2002 after 26 years of service as a Judge in Cass County, Minnesota. Below are his remarks from a particularly difficult divorce case.
“Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is YOUR problem and YOUR fault.
“No matter what you think of the other party – or what your family thinks of the other party – these children are one-half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an ‘idiot’ his father is, or what a ‘fool’ his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of HIM is bad.
“That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love! That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
“I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.”
Judge Hass’ words are well known in the family law community.  Judge Haas’ advice is so well regarded that his words of wisdom have been referenced in multiple appellate court decisions, law review articles and other legal publications.
Hopefully parents remember these profound words as they consider how to proceed with what no doubt is a very difficult time in their and their child’s lives.