When I worked for Justice Paul Pfeifer at the Ohio Supreme Court, he used to say that the saddest cases we handled were the ones that had the same name on either side of the “v” – as in “Smith v. Smith,” or “Taylor v. Taylor.” Those case name designations usually indicated a divorce or a nasty custody battle, which meant that two people who once set out to build a life in a bond of love and matrimony were now embroiled in a legal battle that involved lawyers, depositions, judges, and reams of paperwork. When the names on both sides of the “v” were the same, it represented shattered dreams and broken hearts.
Laurel Stein knows that very well. In her seventeen years as a domestic relations attorney, Laurel has handled hundreds of divorce, dissolution, and post-decree cases. The nature of her work means that she’s interacting with people who are living through one of the worst times in their lives.
A divorce attorney, she says, is “part counselor, part attorney. One of the best things you can do is just listen. People want so badly to tell their story.”
Quite often her clients don’t want the divorce, but they can’t control what their spouses want. “It can take a period of time – six months, maybe a year – for some people to accept that this thing, this divorce, is going to happen. During that time I have to maneuver through the legal system on their behalf, and I need them to work with me whether they want it or not. I’m always so proud of them when they finally get to the point of acceptance.”
At the beginning of the process, there’s a need to calm things down. “They need to understand that I can’t fix everything, and neither can the court, so there’s a lot of educating going on. I need them to recognize that not all their grievances – legitimate though they may be – can be addressed.”
Laurel credits her training at Morganstern, MacAdams & Devito – a firm that was known for doing things in an ethical and proper manner – with teaching her the “right way.”
A divorce lays bare your personal life. The court, the lawyers, a host of other people, are making decisions about you, about your kids, about your future. That’s why Laurel almost always tries to settle these cases without going to trial. “I want my clients to have a hand in settling things, settling their own custody schedule, because it’s better than a judge – a stranger who really doesn’t know your kids and their personal lives – settling it for you.”
But not every aspect of Laurel’s work is so contentious. She also assists couples with the process of adoption, which is almost the polar opposite of divorce work. There are several different types of adoptions: she helps couples that are adopting from an agency finalize the process in court; she helps couples with the private adoption process; and she helps stepparents legally adopt children of the other spouse.
Some couples have a history of disappointment. “That’s when it’s so rewarding,” she says, “when all the paperwork is submitted and the court gives the final OK for the adoption. There’s one judge who says to the families, ‘It’s like you’re being reborn again today.’ The people involved are really happy and the court is happy to help them. It’s just the best. And it’s all in the same building where the divorce cases are happening, so you have those folks fighting in the hallways while the adoptive parents are all smiles and I’m getting hugs. It’s a real dichotomy.”
Sure, the work of a divorce attorney can be trying and antagonistic, but Laurel finds the sunlight behind the clouds. Her favorite part of the job – whether it’s adoptions or divorces – is “getting to know my clients and their families so well. I really develop a bond as I listen to their stories. My relationships with them are built on trust. That trust is absolutely essential as I try to do my best to help them through the most vulnerable time in their lives.”