August 28, 2014

Baldwin: Collaboration, Speed, Control of the Courtroom Key to Reforming Divorce

A divorce is like a funeral, and just as the dead should be treated with respect and mourned, so too should the death of a relationship, actor Alec Baldwin told 150 people, largely family law attorneys, at the Kickoff to the Family Law Institute on Thursday night.

“What has to start happening in divorce court is you have to have the same ethics that you have at a funeral,” Baldwin said. “It’s the death of something, and the death of something profound and meaningful and very significant in the lives of these people and we have to give it a proper burial.”

Gathered in a ballroom in the Denver Marriott City Center, the star recounted personal details about his own divorce and custody battle as the start to a larger conversation about the future of family law and how to prevent parties from feeling worse off than when they began.

Denver attorney Brenda Storey, who organized the kickoff and the 2011 Annual Family Law Institute, a two-day conference presented by the CBA Family Law Section in Breckenridge, found herself representing a man who was going through similar issues as Baldwin, but her client attempted suicide. At the same time, she was reading Balwin’s book, “A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce” about his odyssey through the family court system.

Brenda and Alec sit together on stage during the discussion

What he said struck a chord with her: “When someone is sick, our society usually offers some means of care,” he writes. “When illness afflicts a marriage however, the professionals who arrive on the scene often are there to prolong the bleeding, not stop it.”

In her time as a family law attorney, Storey had seen the ugliness of the proceedings. “We who are in this system have no idea what it’s like to be in the shoes of those parties,” she said Thursday. “We do in fact leave a lot of the parties that come into this system already broken; we leave some of them worse than when we found them.”

But, the evening was not about dwelling on the bad. As lyrics to the Beatles’ “Revolution” flashed across the projector screen on the stage and filled the room’s speakers, the goal of the kickoff and the institute is to entertain, educate and challenge family law attorneys to think about change.

Storey said she wants to change it, but acknowledged, “it’s going to take a revolutionary change.”

The kickoff with Baldwin is part of the discussion of that change. When he came to the stage, he shared his story of divorce and an event during it that caught the attention of the nation.

It was 2007, and Baldwin got word that a tape of a voicemail — in which he released a tirade on his then-11-year-old daughter, Ireland, and called her a little pig — the evening that he was to serve as an honoree at the Goodman Theatre School of DePaul University.

When he returned home and saw the news, he was blind-sided by what he called a booby trap, which happened at a time when he was utterly frustrated because although he had been prevailing in court the orders in court were being ignored.

“This became this kind of insanity-inducing experience where there was no enforcement of the court’s orders,” Baldwin said.

He felt the tape had portrayed him as the exact opposite of what he was — a caring parent. Meanwhile, the story swirled in the media and there were calls for him to lose all custody of his daughter. The ordeal made him suicidal, but soon he decided to stop with those feelings and take a different tack.

From there, he began working on his book. For Baldwin, it was a way to go on the record about his experience and to think about change, he said.

For Baldwin, that change means a few things:

  • First, it means to work on collaborative divorce clinics. Many in the crowd applauded when he brought up collaborative divorce. “I think people are really, really tired of this system and the way it exists now,” he said.
  • Second, it means speeding up the entire process. “You want to get everybody set and give them this kind of chiropractic adjustment quickly so that you’re all set and ready to go so you can move on with your lives,” he said.
  • Last, it means for family court judges to have more control of their courtrooms. His experience in California courts was that it felt that the attorney were more in control, and he did not see any enforcement of orders of the court. “You must punish people who violate orders of the court,” he said. “I think judges have to really understand that they are in charge of the courtroom.”

In his closing remarks, Baldwin said divorce is one of the most shattering experiences a person can have. “I felt like a failure. … It’s this extraordinarily painful thing,” he said.

But, if the professionals involved in divorce can bring more emotional engagement, and act as a “wise friend,” and work to make the process fast, Baldwin said, then the parties involved will be able to move on with their lives.

“Once they start living inside that new paradigm, everybody heals.”

Photos by Matt Meier, Law Week.

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