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Marriage Story: A Cautionary Look at Divorce Lawyer Selection

Marriage Story is the latest Netflix film to sweep the world. This film is a self-reflective piece on how a marriage can end but a family can endure. Every generation or so there is a big divorce movie. We all remember Kramer v. Kramer. It was interesting to compare both movies. What is clear is that human emotions don’t change. The anger, resentment, hurt and sense of loss felt by those going through a separation and divorce were still very present in this movie. What we had hoped to see was a sea change in the way that the Divorce Lawyers approached helping their clients. Sadly this wasn’t evident in this movie. 

Marriage Story has a star-studded cast, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as the titular married couple Charlie and Nicole. They are supported by Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw, Alan Alda as Bert Spitz and Ray Liotta as Jay Marotta – the divorce lawyers. Charlie and Nicole attempt to go through an amicable split without the involvement of divorce lawyers initially but eventually involve divorce lawyers with mixed results due to the disastrous way the divorce lawyers manage their clients’ expectations. 

The film has received praise from many parties, including those involved in the family law profession, for its accuracy in its portrayal of proceedings. This is down to the fact writer-director Noah Baumbach has very real parallels to draw from. His divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh will have inspired much of this story, with Nora being supposedly inspired by his wife’s real-life lawyer, Laura Wasser. Many of the scenes are even filmed in her law practice, where many of their own sessions would have taken place. At Cath Karlin Family Law we would suggest that the film is a template of how to divorce badly. 

Finding the Right Divorce Lawyer for Your Situation

The couple initially goes down the route of mediation. They were not a particularly high conflict couple and this was an appropriate means of dispute resolution for them. That didn’t work as Nicole felt the mediator (a man) was biased towards her husband Charlie. 

At Cath Karlin Family Law we believe that the most dignified way to conduct a divorce is either through mediation or collaborative practice. Had the couple been screened properly and perhaps had a more directive mediator or had they opted for a collaborative divorce where they had there own collaborative lawyers and a family therapist as part of the team, they would likely have had a successful outcome. Even after mediation ends, they remain civil and cooperative that is until their divorce attorneys enter the picture.

The aggressive lawyers played by Laura Dean and Ray Liotta behave in an appalling fashion. They stoke up past resentments where few really exist. They approach the separation as a battle. They actively encourage court and thereafter encourage both parties to present a picture of their ex based on half-truths in order to discredit them in court. This then destroys any goodwill either party had towards the other. There is a scene in the movie where after a particularly nasty court hearing they have a horrible altercation having tried to resolve matters between them amicably. 

One can understand why and how they got to this position.  You love someone and then fall out of love with them. You have a child together whom you both adore. Both of you have your own perceptions as to the role you played in the marriage and the sacrifices you made. You both may feel hard done by but ultimately, you still respect your spouse and want the best for them and your child and want to do right by them. 

Charlie originally wants to manage it all without lawyers but Nicole feels vulnerable without having someone advocating her position.  The issue in this movie is that Nicole chose an attorney who was putting words in her mouth and steering her in a direction she didn’t really want to go down. Once served with divorce papers Charlie reacted in a similarly polarised, aggressive manner which then led Nicole to up the ante and so it went on. 

The lawyers essentially stoked up negative emotions and provided no outlet ( in the form of family therapists.) This ultimately destroyed the good relationship Charlie had with Nicole and her wider family and led to a miserable existence for their son who was exposed to a lot of their bickering. 

There was one chink of light in the whole movie when Charlie consulted a less aggressive attorney played by Alan Alda. Alan Alda was seen as weak and Charlie failed to take his advice and resorted to using Ray Liotta, despite early reservation. “I need an asshole of my own” he so eloquently puts when questioned why he went with him. This leads to events escalating in court and this film is a pretty authentic portrayal, of what happens when you instruct the wrong legal team. 

Don’t think for one minute that a strong divorce lawyer – “one who has your back” has to denigrate your spouse and adopt fighting talk. Be very concerned if they suggest court as a first resort. 

Lawyers make money from the court and from essentially engaging in pointless battles where there are no winners except the lawyers. Many of these legal battles in this film were set in California. You may think that this is just the way the Americans do divorce. 

Not so. Collaborative Practice – a kind divorce where lawyers work together in a team with family therapists and financial advisers not against one another in the interests of their clients and children was born in the US. The movement is now worldwide. Good divorce lawyers know that the value they add is keeping the family from imploding, making sure that the children have two happy, cordial parents and preserving the marital estate not throwing it away on a court battle.

Find a Lawyer With Your Best Interests at Heart

A lot of the time, it seems like Charlie and Nicole are haplessly going along with what their lawyers want. This often can happen but clients should always remember that it’s their case and their life, so take control and vet your divorce solicitor well.

Neither of the lawyers seems to have their clients’ best interests at heart in this film. The Ray Liotta character doesn’t listen to his client and instead tells him what to do. A good lawyer will listen to and try to find out what the client truly wants.

The character of Nora seems to have Nicole’s best interests at heart, providing her with someone who actually listens to what she wants. This seemed like a well-scripted act to reel Nicole in and persuade her to go to court. A cynic would say this “act” was financially motivated. Even at the end, Laura Dern’s character gets Nicole 55/45 split in custody because she didn’t want “Charlie bragging to his friends that he got 50/50.” Nicole clearly wasn’t interested in the deal, so again it seemed personally motivated. Make sure you find a lawyer who is motivated to support and look out for your children’s best interests and doesn’t want to destroy your spouse. 

We here at Cath Karlin Family Law believe that divorcing well with the right guidance is less financially, emotionally and psychologically draining and will go along way to preserving good relationships for you, your spouse, children and the wider family and mutual friends. This is why we aim to have you carry out your separation in the most respectful and dignified way possible – always placing the best interests of the children first.