Under Analysis: The stressful practice of family law

Patrick Berry, The Levison Group

For those of you who have read my columns in the past, you know that I have a serious love and appreciation for travel. From an early age, my parents instilled in me a strong belief that we learn most – about ourselves, our culture, our planet – through the type of immersive experience that can only come from physically visiting a place. Several of my columns have documented these excursions: from jaunting through the jungles of Thailand to dodging spider monkeys in Costa Rica to sipping sake in Japan.

Unfortunately, however, this time I’m not the one skipping off to an exotic land (my law firm has a relatively gracious vacation policy, which I’ve taken full advantage of, but even it has its limits). Rather, I’ve been asked to “manage things back home” while my parents and brother go on separate, but simultaneous, international trips. Again, if you’ve read my columns in the past, then you also know that this will be far from an easy task, and could require me to put my legal skills to use.

I first got wind of the trips a few weeks ago. My mother called me at 2 a.m. She was in a state of panic. She explained that my stepfather had talked her into booking a last-minute, rugged, no frills trip to the Brazilian rainforest, with a stop-off in Argentina. They’d be staying deep in the jungles, hiking several miles a day and sleeping in small tents with mosquito nets. Although my mother has been all over the world, she’s never been an “outdoorsy” type, and she isn’t one for physical exercise or exertion; she fully embraces a quote attributed to Neil Armstrong: “I believe that every human has a finite amount of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.”

She was terrified and utterly convinced she’d perish on this trip. She rattled off the myriad calamities that would surely befall them on their hiatus: they’d catch malaria as a result of a defective mosquito net; their single-engine plane would go down somewhere over the jungle; they’d be eaten by alligators while swimming in the Amazon; the FARC would kidnap them and hold them hostage, etc. Long story short, she needed me to draft a Last Will and Testament, which she emphasized would need to account for the grim eventuality that they would go missing deep in the rainforest, with their bodies never to be recovered. I sighed, reminded her that I don’t practice estate law, referred her to a colleague, and told her to go back to bed.

The next day, I got a call from my younger brother. He informed me that he found a great deal on a trip to Italy, and that he planned to surprise his girlfriend with a romantic getaway. I wasn’t invited. He had, however, heard that my parents would be traveling at the same time, and he was very concerned that he wouldn’t be around to check in on the health and safety of the house sitter my parents had hired. I sighed, knowing full well that this innocent individual couldn’t possibly be prepared for the hazards that awaited her. My brother and I agreed that I’d drive down over the weekend that my parents were departing to “prepare” the house and give the house sitter some essential guidance.

As it turned out, this was no easy task. My parents’ house, which was originally built in the 1800s, is a trap for the unwary. First, fire hazards abound: my parents have eschewed central heating for the more “historically accurate” approach of warming every room separately by fireplace. However, many of these fireplaces seem to have been hastily installed and they require meticulous precision to safely light, so there is always the specter of a three-alarm fire. Then, there is exposed construction: with a 19th century house, there’s always work to be done. My mother, however, is very frugal and either does the work herself, or hires the cheapest workers money (or a few cases of beer) can buy. These workers are far from expedient with their work, and apparently store all their tools, trash and the empty cans of said beer throughout my parents’ house while the work is in progress. I couldn’t take five steps without falling in an unfilled hole or running into a buzzsaw. Finally, there are dogs: five to be exact, three of which are massive Great Danes. Unless proper precautions were taken, I was convinced that the dogs would overpower the house sitter, escape into the neighborhood, and wreak all manner of havoc on unsuspecting bystanders.

Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. I hastily typed up and printed out a detailed instruction guide on how to work the fireplaces and stuck a copy on each one. I threw all the tools in the basement and covered the holes with cardboard. I made sure all the dogs had identifying tags and that the backyard fence was devoid of obvious holes that they could escape from.
Exhausted, I went inside the kitchen, opened one of the warm beers I had found on the floor, and reflected proudly on my work. I had fulfilled my duties as their son and lawyer, I thought to myself.

But then it struck me: I’d helped minimize their legal risk back home, but what about all the possible legal issues that awaited them overseas? My mother is strong and opinionated – traits I’ve always respected – but she also has an anti-authority streak and has been known to get grouchy with law enforcement officials and airport authorities who she perceives as being overbearing. She has also been known to bring back as many souvenirs as possible, antiquities laws be dammed. I thought Brazil and Argentina could present unique risks considering these tendencies. So, with my hands still muddied from inspecting the backyard fences, I grabbed my laptop for some research.

That research didn’t put my mind at ease. The first Google search result for “brazil police” + “tourists” linked to an article detailing how the Brazilian police had recently held a massive sign at the Rio de Janeiro airport that read: “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio De Janeira will not be safe.” Well, that doesn’t sound good. Then, a quick search for “souvenirs” + “Argentina” notified me to the risks of inadvertently travelling back to the U.S. with “coca tea”, which is prevalent throughout Argentina, but is highly illegal in the U.S. Tourists were sharing horror stories of being arrested for attempting to carry the illicit tea through U.S. customs. I now had the vivid image in my mind of my parents being handcuffed by TSA over a handful of tea bags. I spent the next few hours going over various other Brazilian and Argentinian laws. That research became a formal memo, which I promptly emailed to my parents, hoping beyond hope that they’d read it in route to their destination.

I had done all I could do. When working for a client, a lawyer often takes on multiple roles and responsibilities. Sometimes, your job is to simply provide emotional support when a client calls you convinced that something terrible is going to happen to them (such as perishing in the bowels of the Amazon rainforest); other times, a lawyer’s job is to roll up his or her sleeves and do some of the dirty work necessary to protect the client’s interest (I know more than a few lawyers who could benefit from a little manual labor now and again); and, sometimes, it requires giving a dry, detailed legal analysis, even when you know the client won’t read it. But, once you’ve done all that, sometimes the most appropriate thing to do is to simply assure the client that everything will be fine, and convince them to stop worrying and enjoy the ride.

I shot off a text to my parents: “Have the time of your life. I’ve got everything covered back home.” A few minutes later, I sent a second text: “AND NO COCA TEA!”


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
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