What is it like to be a Virginia divorce lawyer?
This job (like most things in life) is full of moments that teach me things. Almost every day, I have a moment where I think, “Wow, that’s something I never thought of before!” I make note of it, and move on. It’s experiences like this that make me a better attorney. Usually, it’s just something that happens in passing; I see something in a letter or a draft of a separation agreement that another attorney has done that I admire, or I speak with a client and she presents an interesting wrinkle that we have to find a way to wiggle around. As much as I feel like a lot of the cases I handle a very similar, there’s almost always something new, different, or interesting to contend with. In fact, that’s one of my favorite things about doing what I do—there’s always something a little bit different. It keeps it fresh and engaging for me. It also keeps it challenging, which is another thing I love.
The other day in court, I had one of those “aha!” moments. Or, maybe, more accurately, I had an aha moment after I left court.
I went to court to help out another attorney who had a scheduling conflict. I was handling a case for a brand new client who hired us with only two days before her initial appearance in a custody case. That’s fine; an initial appearance is really no big deal. Most of the time, an initial appearance is just a time to go to court, figure out what all the issues are, and, ultimately, set a trial date.
In this case, it was a little more complicated. Since our client, Amanda, and her child’s father had both moved away from Virginia Beach (which was where her divorce was originally finalized), she didn’t want to litigate custody in Virginia Beach. Usually, when a divorce is finalized, the final decree includes language that specifies that for any subsequent custody issues, the case be remanded to the juvenile court of whichever circuit court granted the divorce. In fact, that language is required to be there.
The client’s child’s father filed petitions for custody, visitation, and support, and we filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that the court didn’t have jurisdiction without the language in the final divorce decree that would have remanded the case back to the Virginia Beach juvenile court. We were feeling pretty confident—after all, we’d have not one but FIVE attorneys read and re-read the final divorce decree. Since we hadn’t prepared her final divorce decree ourselves (she had used another attorney), we didn’t have a file copy. Instead, we had the copy that her child’s father used to file his petitions, and the one she sent to us from her other attorney.
We were confident, like I said, but, just in case, we also filed a motion to transfer venue to something a little more convenient to both parties, just in case we weren’t able to get it dismissed.
So, I go to court. I even invited our newest attorney along to watch. I even said to her, jokingly, something like, “Usually, when I go to court, it all settles and nothing big happens.” Foreshadowing? Maybe. But I’m being dramatic.
I got to court right at 8:30, found our client, met up with our new attorney, and chatted until the case was called—which took just over an hour. It’s not unusual. I wasn’t too fussed by the wait, though, of course, I would prefer if my cases were called immediately upon my arrival. That’s also almost never the case.
Finally, our case was called. We went in, and I made my motion to dismiss on the basis that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. Then, I wasn’t sure what happened. The judge looked sternly at me over his glasses and read a provision, presumably from the agreement, that specifically remanded the case to the juvenile court. He said it was clear that the court did have jurisdiction. I flipped through the final decree, and still didn’t see that language anywhere in the document.
I had a choice to make. Argue with the judge? Tell him that it wasn’t there? Or just accept his word and move on, making my motion to transfer venue instead?
I decided not to argue with the judge. I didn’t want to argue with him on jurisdiction because, frankly, judges don’t really like that. Besides, if he decided he wanted to hear the case anyway, there’s very little I could do to stop him, and often it’s best (for the client) to stay on the judge’s good side anyway. If, on the off chance he had found language that five of our attorneys missed, I also didn’t want to be left looking like I couldn’t read an agreement on my own. Besides, if it turned out badly, we could always appeal. So, I decided to take his word for it and move on, arguing instead for a transfer of venue, which he granted.
On my way back to the office, I was thinking about what happened. It was pretty confusing to me. I had read through the agreement (and so did several other attorneys!), and didn’t see the remanding language anywhere. I had agreements that were provided to me by two different sources—one from the child’s father, the other from my client. Where on earth did the judge get that the court had jurisdiction? And how did I miss it? Did he make a mistake? Or did I? Should I have argued?
When I got back, I read through the agreement again. The language still wasn’t there. There were no page numbers, so I couldn’t tell exactly how many pages were supposed to be there. The last page ended in a period, and there were signatures on the following page. Both documents were exactly the same.
We called the client. Could she please call her attorney and get us a copy of the final divorce decree? She did, and we were sent a document with TWO more pages than the one we originally received. Sure enough, the remanding language was there—which was why the judge denied my motion to dismiss!
There was really no way I could have known, but I’ve learned a couple of things about the experience. I should always, always, always check the page numbers, especially for documents I haven’t drafted, and make sure that all the pages are there. This one didn’t have page numbers, so, another lesson I learned was that I should always use them myself—this whole mess could have been avoided. Another lesson? Make sure to double check with the client, or with the previous attorney herself, to make sure that the document I have is complete, especially if it’s missing language that I think it should have.
Of course, it isn’t my fault. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some real lessons to be learned here to avoid trouble next time. All’s well that end’s well, anyway, though. The result was good, because we got the case out of an inconvenient jurisdiction and moved to somewhere more convenient for the client.
Lessons learned. It’s one of the things that I love the most about this job, though! Every single day, we’re all better attorneys. And it’s these types of experiences (especially when they end perfectly anyway) that help us all grow. Of course, I told my story to the entire office—and we’ve all made notes so that we avoid this type of trouble in the future. So, really, it’s a good thing. We all learned something, and we learned it without making any mistakes ourselves.
Ever wondered what it’s like to be a lawyer? That’s what it’s like. It’s fun, crazy, exciting, stressful, and always a challenge. That’s what I love most.
For more information about our firm, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.