A life turned upside down

A client’s perspective on living through what parallels a war

“The world is full of good people and good food. We all want to live a life without drama, some security and comfort. Raise our children and live in harmony.

What if that life of yours is turned upside down and you find yourself in a war zone and there was nothing you could have done to avoid that? What if you have children next to you in that war zone, buildings collapsing around them? What if the place you used to call home became that war zone?

Many years ago, I was told by an attorney to separate from my wife. I asked what would happen to my boys and he said not to worry about them. When they become teenagers he said, they will want to live with you, their father. He told me that based on the thousands of divorce cases he worked on throughout his legal career, I will not have a chance to obtain custody in Utah, being a male immigrant. Well, leaving my children with their mother was not an option. I knew from watching my grown step-children how they would develop. So, I stayed. Every day, for years, walking through a minefield. Every day, trying to dodge bullets. Life paralleled war zone psychology.

The day came where risk mitigation and attempts to negotiate for a better life simply came to a halt. I filed for a restraining order and held on to my children. I worked with the same attorney who recommended to me to walk away from my children. He was the only one I knew and trusted at the time. Once my abuser filed for divorce in an attempt to be financially cared for, as she later admitted to me, I was told that that normal divorce has been turned due to her filing into a hundred-thousand-dollar divorce. It was on – without having been prepared for what to expect, life became all-out war. Most people who find themselves in that situation do not want to be in it, did not seek it.  Life just comes to you in ways you often cannot predict.

A nightmare of joined custody followed with irresponsible behavior for months. And finally, the court ordered drug testing of both parties. The outcome was clear – the abusing former love of my life tested positive. I got temporary primary custody. I did not get temporary primary custody because my attorney at the time right away recognized that that was the right moment to request it from the court. I, the inexperienced client, recognized it and insisted that a motion is filed. The motion was successful and in the months to come I did see how different parties involved in the system really tried hard to help “the mother”. I knew better, knew that all chances given by the court and parties involved will fail. I lived with that love of my life for 13 years. I knew. The question was only for how long we will have to go through it, and if I and my children will make it out of that nightmare in one piece. Will the operation be a success, but the patient be dead?

Besides not having identified the opportunity to get me primary custody, my attorney at the time was too friendly to the opposing party’s lawyer. Or in other words – “can you please stop being accommodating and not detail oriented about my life and the life of my children just because the opposing party’s attorney is blond?”  Sometime before, I saw Emily Smoak in a courtroom as she worked on one of her cases. I did not catch her name at the time, but I liked her style. Little I knew when watching that persistent lawyer, that destiny had plans for us.

I was looking for a new attorney, an attorney who would not give up, who would not be influenced by the looks of the opposing attorney. I asked around and someone described to me his attorney. What I heard sounded familiar. He described to me what I noticed back then in that courtroom. He described Emily. So, I got the phone number I needed, called, met, and hired Emily Smoak.

Years followed that can only be compared to an all-out war. Years of desperation. Years during which I was hardly able to function, paralyzed by fear, depression, anxiety, scared for my children and life.  At one time I even hired a detective to provide security services for me and my children.  It was a nearly daily bombardment with documents during the daytime, and text messages or emails during the night. The only person to help me and my children making it through, getting us bandages for our legal and emotional wounds, was Emily Smoak. Besides everything a lawyer does, Emily filled the role of a battlefield medic.  Who wants that job? Who wants to live in that stress environment for a living?

When you live for many years through a case like that, the attorney is affected as well. We as clients often do not see it because we are focused on us and deal with our un-diagnosed PTSD. But we are not the only one affected. Attorneys are human beings. And that is good because you need a human being who is an attorney on your side and not an attorney in a suit.

After years, the other party had to reveal and admit to the gravity of the problems involved, the lies, the unsupported slender. A peace agreement was negotiated and signed.

I now have 100% physical custody of my children. I did not turn my back on them. I did not walk away. I did what in my opinion a man has to do. I still do not know if it exhausted me so much that I will not be able to fully recover. No one thanks you for what you have done. Everyone affected is still trying to process the experiences of the past, present, and future. It remains hurtful every day. You try to get back on your feet, you fail, you get back up. Life became hard but at least no more bombs falling on you, no more bullets to dodge.

Life calmed down, but you live in constant fear that a new letter is served that opens up old wounds and continues the destruction your life just went through, and you try to recover from.  All you want is get back on your feed, enjoy good food and live in harmony. Your life is blown into pieces, you try to rebuild, some people care and help, most don’t, just talk. You are alone with your experience for many years to come, still fearful, living in a financial struggle trying to rebuild your life.

Only one thing remains a constant – that phone number I can call again if I have to go back to war. I do not want to go back to war but if I have to, I know that that Special Forces Medic, that Legal Delta Force we call Emily will be back next to me, gearing up.”

How much will my divorce cost?

How much will my divorce, paternity, modification, civil suit cost? I am asked this question by every prospective client to whom I talk. It is a question I cannot answer. If you have a flat fee type of case (criminal defense for example), a lawyer tells you the flat fee. If you have a contingent fee case (personal injury for example), you usually have no upfront costs. The main question in those cases is how much will you gain for your injury or loss. In my area of work; divorce, custody, paternity, modification, family law, civil litigation, we work at an hourly rate. Most lawyers, including me, ask for an upfront retainer. We ask that the retainer be replenished when it is nearly exhausted. Of course, I do not speak for all lawyers.

Here is why I cannot answer the question. There are too many variables. For example, some clients contact me with questions every day, by email, text or phone call. They feel anxious, unsure, and full of questions. They require more of my time than clients who contact me rarely. The opposing party and their lawyer are other significant variables upon which I cannot put a cost. Some cases are very hostile and contentious. If this is true about the opposing party and their lawyer, more motions, court hearings and drama are sure to come. This type of conduct is more costly. Other cases may be very complex (multi-million dollar divorces, businesses to be valued, etc.), but if everyone is cooperative and there is little emotion in the legal process, the cost is much less. On the other side, cases that may appear small (very little to no assets, perhaps even no children) can become very expensive over pets, or an argument of principle. Over the course of my career thus far, I can think of many cases that were very expensive, required a lot of my time and energy, were very emotional and hard for my client, for reasons I could not fathom at first glance. It comes down to basic human nature and how that translates into my time on a case.

There are so many different legal routes from point A (when I meet with a client) to point B, when the case is over, and I do not know the path at the beginning. It feels like standing in front of a thick forest, one that I know and am very familiar with, but one that has too many angles and paths, not to mention the trees that can be used, to climb up, over, and through, to use one analogy. Sometimes the route is direct, with little cause for courtroom action, litigation in the form of motions, pleadings, hearings and the like. Other times, the route has so many unforeseen twists and turns, you would not believe the stories, even if I were to lay them out for you. Some cases take years. Some months. I understand that this is not always comforting for people to hear when they first meet with lawyers. Most people do not trust lawyers in the first place, so naturally this is a frequently addressed topic of conversation.

What you can do is look for a lawyer willing to go over this with you. I have found it very helpful to openly talk about this topic, and from there address matters as they come. Usually any individual issue has many possible ways of resolving. Sometimes no response is recommended because things might actually fall in place on its own. This is less expensive. Sometimes mediation or communication is a possible tactic, and sometimes litigation is necessary, litigation being the most expensive route of all. If you have a sense that you have some control over how and what choices you and your lawyer make, this will make for a better experience. You cannot control the opposing party or their lawyer(s). You must understand this to understand why I, and most lawyers, cannot tell you how much your case will ultimately cost. If you are talking to a lawyer that seems to know everything about your case, how the other side will be, what the Judge will decide (the classic “know it all”), this is probably not a good lawyer to retain. It is not honest. No lawyer, or human being, can know the future or choices that other people will make.

You can control your side of the action, assuming you have a lawyer you can talk with, understand, and make informed decisions on strategy and moving forward at any given time. This is the best cost control you have. Approach your choice of lawyer with all of this in mind, and my hope is that this perspective will help you, and perhaps reduce your legal cost.

How do I find a lawyer?

I have spent almost 25 years helping people answer this question. Even though I started my practice at a time of no internet and no social media, the answer is fundamentally the same. At the end of the day, whether you are talking to a lawyer in a large firm, or a sole practitioner, it is you and your (potential) lawyer sitting across a table talking with one another, eye to eye. There is nothing fancy or complicated about it. You are looking for the same thing. A connection. Do you feel the lawyer is able to understand you and will fight for you if necessary? If you feel like you are being talked down to, or that nothing you are concerned about is important, this is not a good fit. If the lawyer likes to use fancy words that leave your head spinning, or if the lawyer has a set-up that makes it hard for you to reach him/her, this is not the lawyer for you. We all have cell phones.

Whether on the phone or in person, you should leave the initial conversation feeling better than you did before. You should know a little more about your legal situation and a few strategies on how to approach it. You should know a little more about your legal situation and a few strategies on how to approach it. You should know how the billing works. You should not feel stupid for asking questions. What I hear people describe is a sense of relief. If you do not have that feeling, move on. There are many lawyers in the sea. Find the right one for you. Do not ignore that little voice inside that says, “this doesn’t feel right”. Eye to eye, person to person, you should feel there is a good connection you can trust. Finally, if you leave the conversation having paid a retainer, and have a small follow-up question, the lawyer should answer you in a timely and comfortable manner.

Your Ex is not your child’s Ex

DK Simoneau is famous for this quote, and her book, “We’re Having a Tuesday”, published in 2006.  If I could make every parent going through a divorce sit down and read this book together, I would.  The book is written from a child’s perspective of going back and forth between two homes, missing her Dad when she is with Mom, and Mom when she is with Dad.  She has a little brother, and his crazy, lovable behavior to deal with.  She is missing her little things left at Dad’s house, and she is missing little things left at Mom’s house.   I rarely see both parents understand the importance of little things to their child.  It really matters if they have their favorite teddy bear, backpack and sweatshirt.  It really matters that they miss small things that Dad does (reads their favorite book), and they miss the small things that Mom does (maybe she cooks the best waffles).  This means I rarely see both parents even think much about their children during a divorce.  The worst is knowing that I’m “preaching to the choir” putting this out there.  But, on the off-chance that I catch someone’s eye and make them stop and think, I’ll put this out there anyway.

Parents, (absent obvious circumstances) you should always keep a family unit in place after a divorce, and even if you are remarried.  It’s cruel what I see children go through and the legal system is not built to handle it.  The legal system certainly cannot undo the harm you do when you speak ill of your ex, or battle one another in court, just because you can, or you need to be “right”.  Judges and lawyers can’t fix the broken hearts of children caught in the middle of a horrible divorce.



Never Give Up

Thomas Edison is famous for saying a lot of things, but my personal favorite is this:

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”

There are a lot of reasons this can make sense to a lawyer, and their client. The more years I practice as a lawyer, the more I learn what works, and sometimes more importantly, what does not work. Particularly with certain Judges, on certain issues, in certain areas of Utah. The number of variable are endless. So, if we have an objective, we have to never, ever, give up. As long as it makes sense to continue trying, we must try. Remembering this quote helps. Sometimes, it takes the feeling of “losing” and turns into, “let’s try a different way”.

Remembering this quote helps. Sometimes, it takes the feeling of “losing” and turns into, “let’s try a different way”. You aren’t always wrong because you don’t get what you want in a certain way. Maybe you need to ask in a different manner. Maybe try a different angle or direction. This is hard, as the lawyer, when we are dealing with people’s children, their day-to-day lives, their money, their companies or business interests; their most important issues, but it makes the quote even more helpful. Even if I feel like Rocky in the last few rounds of a fight, maybe it seems I’m down, I’m going to keep getting up and I’m never going to give up. I’m never going to stop looking for a different angle if I found a way that didn’t work. Maybe the lesson will help me succeed later in the same case, or maybe in a different context.

Just don’t give up if it matters.


Anger. We all feel it. After all, we are only human. But, there is no place for it in the legal system so far as I can tell. It seems best to write your angry email, wait 24-48 hours, and hit delete. Or wait and send a note that is to the point and polite. Of course, it’s easier said than done. Lawyers can spend a lot of their retainer money writing angry letters back and forth. At the end of the day, most Judges can’t figure out who is “right” or “wrong”, its usually not relevant, nor do they have time. Judges seem to see a lot of unproductive chatter.

“A quick temper will make a fool of you soon enough”

Bruce Lee

Facing Challenges

Taking any legal path is challenging, for you and your lawyer. This is especially true when you face a turn not anticipated. There are few straight forward answer. Your case(s), be it divorce, a civil or criminal matter (or all three at the same time), is ever changing. How do you handle this? Sometimes it feels like the liars and cheats of the world “win”. For the most part, they don’t. But, the challenge can be relentless at times, over years. You need to rely on your life experience, honesty, and dignity. This even in the face of others who are not conducting themselves accordingly. This is famous quote, but I think of it all the time.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perspective is Survival

The more years I practice, the more I see. Oftentimes, I think I know every angle. Then a colleague, client or Judge points something out and the entire perspective changes. Good, bad, or indifferent, I try to learn from it.

So, today some food for thought~

“Sometimes what looks like falling apart is actually everything falling into place”


Dads – You are as important as mothers in the eyes of the law in Utah

Happy Father’s Day.

Dads, in Utah, a 50/50 custody arrangement is recognized by law as best for children if possible. Don’t be fooled by lawyers claiming to uphold “father’s rights” as if you need that. You don’t. You just need a good lawyer.

“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

Sigmund Freud