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VOL. 37 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 18, 2013

Lawyers struggle for balance in family court ‘theater’

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You went to work today, and nothing happened.

Oh, there were the usual things: papers to sign, calls to make, clients to soothe. Your job didn’t entail someone losing their home. Nobody relinquished their children. Retirement accounts kept intact, belongings weren’t divvied up and checkbooks weren’t decimated. Nobody lost their life at your job today.

But Margaret Klaw sees those things and more. She’s a family lawyer, and in her new book “Keeping It Civil,” she writes about her most memorable court cases.

At the beginning of her college years, Margaret Klaw wanted a career as a professional musician.

That didn’t work out very well, though. It wasn’t long before she realized that violin practice didn’t necessarily make perfect. Besides, the language, ideas and the preciseness of law intrigued her more than clefs and notes.

There was never any question about the kind of law she wanted to practice. Klaw was fierce about the rights of women in court and in family matters because she saw how divorce ruined lives and custody battles ripped families apart.

“Lawyers either love or hate family law,” she says. She’s in the former camp – has been, for more than 20 years ­– but the job, admittedly, has its ups and downs.

Keeping It Civil

by Margaret Klaw

c.2013, Algonquin Books

$24.95   

272 pages

Klaw says the courtroom is basically a “theater,” complete with costumes and special rituals performed at every trial. Though most people wouldn’t think it possible, lawyers are usually friends with opposing counsel – they have, after all, probably worked together before. There’s a lot of strategizing, prediction, psychology, and surprises involved when one is a lawyer, and that’s fascinating.

On the flip side, lawyers need to “find the right balance” between identifying with clients and internalizing their problems. Lawyers need discretion and the ability to walk a fine line between what’s allowed and what they think is best. They know that law is “a public acknowledgement that not all playing fields are level,” and they try to fix that inequality. They need listening skills, “a degree of dispassion,” and the understanding that “there’s no guarantee of happily ever after.”

And they need to know that the “unimaginable can and does happen.”

What doesn’t happen very often is that I read a book straight through, but that’s what I did with “Keeping It Civil.” I just couldn’t stop myself.

That’s because author and Pennsylvania “Super Lawyer” Margaret Klaw shares her cases with excitement, energy, and compassion here. Among other tales, we’re treated to an account of a real-life case involving a he-said, she-said situation and two small children, as well as bits of other conflicts, judgments, legal wrangling, and personal anecdotes. That makes this an easy book to jump into, one that will hold your interest throughout, and one that’s over, sadly, altogether too soon.

Though this book appears to be more consumer-based, I think anyone who is involved in keeping or practicing law will also get a kick out of it. If that’s you, then grab it because reading “Keeping It Civil” is what needs to happen.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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