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Bar News - July 16, 2014

Book Review: Highly Readable Stories from the Family Law Trenches


Keeping It Civil:
The Case of the Pre-nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer

By Margaret Klaw
Algonquin Books (2013), 272 pages

The deceptively long full title of Margaret Klaw’s Keeping It Civil disguises an eminently readable and breezy work that should educate and entertain both lay readers and attorneys who practice outside of the domestic relations arena.

While few, if any, of these war stories from Klaw’s Philadelphia practice would surprise a law student who took a survey course in domestic relations, the author lends a personal perspective that most published decisions and casebooks lack.

Most of the chapters use one or two sample cases, with changed personal details or composite characters, to illustrate an issue that arises within modern family law. These include: relocation of a former spouse and children, negotiation and enforcement of a pre-nuptial agreement, property division in the absence of a pre-nuptial agreement, an irreversible paternity judgment against a man later determined to not be the biological father, an attempt to enforce a non-Pennsylvania homosexual marriage through Pennsylvania contract law, division of property with sentimental value, enforcement of child support arrearages, drafting contracts (and looming uncertainty over the enforceability of those contracts) for alternative reproductive arrangements, and judicial discretion in assessing fitness of a parent.

Lay readers will doubtless find many of the laws – and, just as importantly, many of the ambiguities – surprising. Unmarried readers, given this opportunity to peek at the far end of divorces and other domestic disputes, will doubtless find many causes for circumspection in making major marital decisions.

Three of the chapters are focused on the day-to-day work of practicing family law. Klaw talks bluntly about the collegial relationship that she enjoys with many of her opposing counsel, the minority of opposing counsel who do not maintain a respectfully professional tone, the difference between attorneys who uncompromisingly fight and attorneys who try to broker the most viable outcome without running up their billable hours, the practicalities of running a firm and employing support staff, and the choices that she has made in balancing work with family over the course of her career.

Interspersed throughout the book in episodic fashion are seven chapters chronicling a particular child custody trial. The author guides the reader through the history of the case, to direct and cross-examination, to the judge’s interview with the children in chambers, to the judgment and the consequences for Klaw’s client. A family law practitioner will probably not find any new ground here, but attorneys who do not practice family law will take interest in observing the differences between traditional civil or criminal trial practice and child custody trial practice. Lay readers, as with the other chapters, will learn a great deal here about the rigors of a trial and the uncertainty that both clients and attorneys wrestle with in anticipating a result.

While Klaw does not offer direct advice to the reader on managing his or her own relationships, she does not really need to; her cases and insights speak boldly for themselves. Her writing is smooth and entertaining, and she makes modern issues in family law very accessible to non-attorneys.

In an age in which divorce rates have never been higher, and in which more than a few personal and household budgets are ruined by the fallout from domestic legal issues, most casual readers would gain a great deal from taking this light and well-narrated tour through the travails of modern family life. That said, most readers will be reluctant to envision themselves standing in the shoes of Klaw’s clients – and for that, no one could blame them.

Kevin J. Powers

Kevin J. Powers was admitted to the NH bar in 2006 and currently prosecutes criminal appeals and white collar crime at the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office in Canton, Mass.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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