At DivorceForce we are lucky to connect with great subject matter experts and compassionate people looking to help others through their divorce process and the emotions that go along (and long after) divorce. It is rare to find a lawyer so knowledgeable on all matters of divorce and one that is so caring about his clients and others affected by divorce. Larry Sarezky is that person.
Larry is the author of the amazon #1 best-seller, " Divorce Simply Stated – How to Achieve More, Worry Less, and Save Money in Your Divorce ," which Foreword Clarion Reviews describes as written by "the kind of divorce lawyer anyone would want: funny, kind, laser-focused, nonjudgmental, and extremely informative." Larry is also the producer/writer/director of the short film " Talk to Strangers ." Talk to Strangers is a gripping portrayal of the children in the midst of their parents' divorce. Talk to Strangers has won a Telly Award, has been endorsed by The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and is being used by divorce professionals across the U.S. (including the Massachusetts family court system) and abroad.
We had a chance to speak with Larry and gained some great insights that we would like to share with you via the interview that follows.
DF: For starters, please tell us about your professional background as it relates to divorce?
Larry Sarezky: I've been practicing matrimonial law for over 30 years. Initially, my practice was a traditional, court-based one. But that gradually changed until eventually I dedicated it exclusively to divorce mediation… which I feel is a much better and efficient way to resolve family disputes. When I became Chair of the Connecticut Bar Association's Family Law Section in 2002, I believe I was the first Chair to have made that transition.
I was able to combine my experience as a lawyer and my experience with independent filmmaking in making "Talk to Strangers, which is intended – and actually has - dissuaded parents from unnecessarily subjecting their kids to child custody and access battles. "Talk to Strangers" in turn provided me the opportunity to meet and address judges, lawyers, mediators, therapists, and divorcing spouses across the country. And that helped me learn about divorce customs across the country, which was a big help in writing "Divorce, Simply Stated."
DF: How has your experience as a lawyer shaped your perspective on divorce?
Larry Sarezky: I'd say two things have impacted me most. First as time went on, I became increasingly dismayed by so many folks paying too high a price—both financially and emotionally—in their divorces, and achieving too little. That's the main reason I transitioned from slugging it out in court to mediating divorces. And it's also why I decided to write "Divorce, Simply Stated." Neither of those moves, by the way, were brilliant ones financially. But they, along with Talk to Strangers" allowed me to stay in the divorce field in a way that felt comfortable to me.
My other major take-away from my experiences was how custody battles and other child-related litigation risk emotional harm to children. That conviction, which I shared with my predecessor as CBA Family Law Section Chair, a lawyer named Deb Grover, led to "Talk to Strangers." During the writing and pre-production stages, I was the only one involved who had any film experience, so it meant taking a hiatus from my law practice to get all that organized. And THAT was REALLY not a smart financial move. [Laughter.]
DF: In your movie, "Talk to Strangers," you fictionally depicted the pains and insecurities of divorce for children. At the same time you portray many different perspectives of divorce from parents, children, and state and private professionals. While this is fiction, what is the underlining point you are making as judged by your real life experiences?
Larry Sarezky: It's interesting – some people actually think " Talk to Strangers" is a documentary because it's the story of a family that agrees to the filming of their journey through the custody process. In actuality, the kids and their parents are all actors chosen at auditions.
Anyway, the message is intended for parents who've had trouble making custody and access decisions. So they decide they'll let a judge make those decisions... and they feel it's okay to choose that path. The film's message is that (absent extreme situations like abuse or neglect) it's NOT okay to just give up and let the court take over. The result is a high-conflict divorce that traps the kids in anxiety-ridden limbo for months and months, subjects them to a frightening, humiliating and compromising custody evaluation process, and exposes them to terrible parenting models.
Thanks, by the way, for calling "Talk to Strangers" a "movie" and not a "video." Though it's only 25-minutes long, it is in fact a dramatic story—scored by a Grammy winning composer—of a brother and sister trapped in the custody evaluation process. I should add, however, that a great deal of the kids' dialogue is right out of the files of the lawyers, court personnel and therapists who consulted on the film.
DF: Your book, "Divorce Simply Stated" is an extensive game plan for people to "Take Control of Your Divorce!" How do you recommend people avoid an "overwhelm" while dealing with divorce?
Larry Sarezky: At the risk of coming off mercenary, I did write "Divorce Simply Stated" as a place for folks with no family court system experience, to ease into that foreign world in a more encouraging way than usual. As its title suggests, it's intended to offer—as simply and plainly as possible—divorce basics plus "inside tips" and strategies I've used for my clients. I mean, even we lawyers learn something after 30 years. [Laughter.] And the book is a way for clients to get this sort of inside stuff that lawyers don't often share with their clients.
Putting THAT aside, your first goal should be to get to a place where you can make decisions relatively unemotionally. That can take a while, which is one reason not to rush to file for divorce, or jump into a divorce mediation until you're ready.
To help you get ready, consider talking to a therapist. Personally, I believe anyone embarking on divorce can use some counseling. Therapists can help you get your bearings… and for a lot less than divorce lawyers charge. In the book, I also talk about relaxation techniques, good sleep habits and the like, that are not only good for divorcing couples, but benefit the little ones around them as well.
Divorce brings with it a huge dread of the unknown that can hang over you like a dark cloud. But that cloud is made up of the specific worries that keep you up at night. I tell my clients to attack those anxieties by identifying what they're about. For example, you might be particularly anxious over whether you're going to lose your house or whether you're not going to have enough time with your kids.
Then get educated about your specific concerns so that you can begin to feel empowered to address them. Obviously, one source of education is a local matrimonial lawyer, and I definitely recommend at the very least, a consultation with a local lawyer. In the appendix of the book, there are questions to ask, and also a financial summary that saves lots of time at an initial consultation, so instead of reciting a bunch of facts for the lawyer to write down, you can be getting advice, and your questions answered.
But before making that investment, you can learn a lot elsewhere. For example, experienced certified divorce financial analysts and divorce coaches can explain a lot about the process and how your financial circumstances fit in. Also, state court system and bar association websites offer plain language pamphlets about the mechanics of divorce in your state that can be very helpful.
DF: Anyone going through a divorce knows that there needs to be divorce reform. Too many get taken advantage of or do not see justice. What are your thoughts on some changes that would be prudent in divorce mediation/litigation?
Larry Sarezky: Ultimately, I'd like to see mediation and other forms of what's now called "alternative dispute resolution" become the go-to divorce resolution models. I'd like to see the adversarial system of the courts become the "alternative," to be used only when good faith efforts to resolve a case by way of mediation or collaborative law, fail. Many courts have mediation available. But it's often limited to children's issues or a system that tries to resolve all issues in one sitting, which is hard to do.
I'd also like to see court systems require attendance at a divorce education program BEFORE a spouse can file for divorce. These programs would explain that people have choices, such as ADR, tell folks what's in store for them if they can't settle their cases, familiarize them with court forms, and help them get organized.
The mandatory parenting education programs required in many states is a good beginning. But they apply only to parents. And parents often don't attend until the process is nearly over, when it's too late to use what they learn there.
Finally, I'd like to see mentor programs set up through which young lawyers mentored by experienced divorce practitioners represent clients needing lawyers but unable to afford them. There's been an explosion of self-represented divorcing spouses in recent years that leaves too many people at a disadvantage, and also slows down the movement of cases through the system… which is bad for everyone. In Connecticut we have such a program but it's not used nearly as much as it should be. I actually designed a revamping of the process when I was Chair of the Family Law Section but I didn't follow up sufficiently to really get it moving. If you had asked me what regrets I have about my legal career, I would have mentioned that.