As an attorney, I’m supposed to be tactful by training and tradition. But “knucklehead” is the kindest and most diplomatic word I can use to describe both my client and his supposed adversary—the mother of his baby. What brought them together—sadly but not surprisingly—was child support.
These two “kids” are unmarried, barely educated, and grindingly poor. My client, the father, is now in the military, and soon to be shipped overseas. All told, this situation argued against a successful outcome. And now we were in Family Court, a cathedral of misery. What could possibly go wrong?
We were there to get a child-support order in place. And if we were really lucky, we might also get the 21-year-old parents to agree on some workable parenting plan—not even a custody arrangement. All we were seeking was a simple agreement about how often and where the father would spend time with his child. But as the two one-time lovers sat down on the waiting room bench, a great freeze of hostility descended on them. They wouldn’t even look at each other.
I was representing the father on a pro bono basis, through one of the many volunteer programs that lawyers participate in to help poor clients. The mother didn’t have a lawyer with her, but she was accompanied by her own mother: a smart, tough woman who would have been a formidable opponent even if the law had been at issue. But it wasn’t; this was about getting two 21-year-old kids to act like adults.
My client, the baby’s father, said that he wanted to do the right thing, not just financially, but as a participant in his son’s life. Anyway, the money part was easy: the father was serving in the military, and he wanted the support payments—which the judge would set, based on a simple formula—to be automatically withdrawn from his paycheck and sent to the mother.
The hard part would be visitation. The parents sat on a bench with their backs to one another, separated not just by three feet of dead air, but by a cloud of visceral recriminations, fears, and uncertainties that I couldn’t begin to understand. I couldn’t even get them to begin to articulate their concerns about each other’s parenting skills or home environments. It was looking to be a long, sad day.
Then, from over my shoulder, I heard a whisper. “Can I give it a try?”
In addition to meeting my client for the first time that morning, I had also just met my legal intern: a thirtysomething NYPD officer in his third year of law school. In New York, law students are required to complete 50 hours of pro bono work before they qualify for the bar.
Clearly, I was far from getting these two late-adolescents to make any progress on a parenting plan, so I was happy to let my new intern take a shot. With a confidence borne of scores—perhaps hundreds—of doorway encounters and interventions, “Tony” spoke to them with a kindness, toughness, and street-smart savvy that could be gained only on the job. Tony was an Iraq War veteran, too, and that helped him connect with the father. For the first time in an hour, both parents started to pay attention.
Tony was good. I’m not sure why I was surprised, but I was. He had none of the pretensions common to interns from prestigious law schools. Instead, he had a quiet seriousness that got these kids to speak, and more important, to listen. Tony wasn’t in uniform (wearing “the bag,” as cops put it). And though he wore a nondescript suit and an uninspired tie, his shoes were meticulously spit-shined. Our problem couple turned their heads—and imperceptibly their bodies—toward him. In a silent moment, Tony turned to me and whispered, “Take the father out into the hall. I want to find out from the mother and grandmother what their real concerns are.”
So, under a pretext, I ushered my client out of the waiting room and down the hallway. When, about five minutes later, we returned, Tony nodded and whispered, “I got it.” In another ten minutes, we had a parenting plan that everyone seemed happy with.
The hearing itself was quick and anticlimactic, albeit confusing to the young parents. Unfortunately, the process wasn’t over. In another room inside the courthouse, the clerk gave the mother a 45-page questionnaire—necessary to get the support payments flowing. Overwhelmed by the paperwork, the mother was ready to bail. And that wouldn’t help my client, who was about to be shipped overseas.
Tony stepped in and began filling out the form for her. Accustomed to the NYPD’s voluminous paperwork, he joked about this form’s unnecessary obtuseness. Again, everyone calmed down. Then it was back up to the courtroom for more paperwork and a different clerk’s confusing next-step instructions. As a group, we schlepped four blocks to the Child Support Enforcement office, a state agency even more depressing and bureaucratic than the courthouse. And again Tony intervened when the clerk wouldn’t speak with the mother and father at the same time—standard operating procedure because warring parents might get into a fight. Standing between them, Tony got the clerk to repeat his instructions slowly, making sure that both mother and father understood the process.
I then had to step in and explain some Old World basics to my client: yes, he had to go to a bank and get what was known as a checkbook. Then he would have to mail the thing—in an envelope, with a stamp—to a Post Office Box in Albany. The twentysomethings seemed to understand, and reasonably asked why this couldn’t be done from their cell phones. Good question.
So, fully six hours after we had arrived at the courthouse, the pieces were in place. We all shook hands, and the mother and father headed north on the avenue, talking to each other for the first time in who knows how long.
I turned to my intern, and thanked him. Not just for defusing a tense situation, but for helping seemingly hostile parties get to “yes.”
“It’s what I do every day as a cop.”
I believed him. As we parted ways, I wondered how we attorneys—we typically see ourselves as professionals with unique knowledge and skills—could learn more from these street-smart men and women who face difficult and often dangerous situations every day. I don’t think there is an easy or practical answer. But I’m grateful that Tony is out there, and hope that most of the 33,000 others in the NYPD are half as good.
Photo by Courtney Keating/iStock