Melanie DeRousse is an associate professor of law at the University’s School of Law. DeRousse teaches classes on family law and is the director of the University Law School Douglas County Legal Aid Clinic.
Kansan: You’ve worked as a divorce attorney in the past?
DeRousse: Yes. I worked for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri from 2008 to 2014 representing people in all sorts of family law proceedings, ranging from custody battles to divorce cases, name changes, anything that someone needed to extract themself from a relationship. My primary focus was working with survivors of intimate partner violence.
Kansan: How closely did you work with couples going through a divorce?
DeRousse: Well, I didn’t work with the couples so much as one individual in the couple. Most of the time I was just working with one party to the divorce.
Kansan: Do you learn about them and what they’re going through during that time?
DeRousse: Yes. As a divorce lawyer, one of the main jobs you have is to help take a person from the identity they have and the property and all the rights they have within the legal relationship of being married and help them transition and rebuild a life as an unmarried person. All through the divorce process, you’re working with the person on identifying what their goals are for what their life will look like moving forward.
Sure, you’re dividing assets, you’re dividing property, you’re fighting about maybe spousal support or child support or child custody, but if you’re really focusing on what that person is going through, you’re looking at how do they change from being a married person to being an unmarried person and what their life will look like after that and trying to help them meet the goals of what they want their life to look like.
Kansan: How long do you usually work with a person going through a divorce?
DeRousse: It depends. A simple divorce that both people agree to can usually be resolved in a matter of months — up to six months or so, but some of our more contested divorces where it’s a long-term marriage or there are children involved, may take a couple years.
Kansan: What emotions do you see in clients going through a divorce?
DeRousse: I’m not a psychologist. I would liken it the best to the stages of grieving an identity that you had or a relationship that you had, but your identity in that relationship.
The idea that someone is moving from being in a partnership to making decisions on their own, so there’s a lot of uncertainty — there’s a lot of worries about what the future holds, especially most of the clients I worked with because we worked with people without a lot of resources, they were moving from a place where two incomes supported a house to a place where maybe one or zero incomes supports a household — so that kind of fear of the unknown can be a big emotion. Part of the work of a family law attorney is figuring out how to help them picture what that future looks like.
Anger, of course — resentment. Family law has gone over a transition in recent decades where fault doesn’t play as much of a role anymore in divorce — you don’t have to allege anything someone did wrong to you. All you have to do is to say that we don’t get along anymore, and you can have a divorce.
Some folks really want that evidence and the things someone did wrong to them to come out, but the divorce process is not always built for that anymore, and so working with someone to have other outlets for working through those emotions, relying on other professionals with better skills in those areas can be part of the work of getting someone through a divorce.
Kansan: Do you see an evolution of their emotions from the time you start working with them to the time the divorce is settled?
DeRousse: In good scenarios, yes. Usually people get to some level of acceptance and hope for the future ahead of them rather than focusing on what’s happened in the past. The divorce case, of course, is looking backwards at everything that went into the relationship: the assets they accumulated, the way they raised their kids, the way they treated each other — all of that might come into the divorce in trying to figure out where property came from or where money came from and where it’s going next.
By the end of the divorce, you’re working with a document, either the decree that a judge will make after a trial or the settlement agreement the parties will follow. That doesn’t really talk anymore about all that past stuff, and so hopefully your client has been moving along through that process as well in a way that gets them ready to look at this is the document that controls what the future will look like. That’s kind of the change that I’m usually looking for.
Kansan: What’s it like working as a divorce attorney?
DeRousse: It was emotionally challenging. Most cases started with a client bringing an entire life into your office — sometimes with an actual shoebox of all the documents that back up that life — but often just coming in, and they want to sit down and tell you everything that ever happened in the relationship. I was a newer attorney when I was doing this, but the work is to separate out your own emotional reactions and your own empathy for that client from what the law will allow that client to achieve, and so taking that giant pile of information you now have that your client has entrusted you with and breaking it down into whether it fits with certain legal rules.
That can be challenging for a divorce attorney; that can be challenging for the client to confront with their attorney. We’re going to put all these things into little boxes of bright-line rules of what you do and don’t get based on this information.
It’s emotionally challenging. There are certainly strategies you can use to try to separate yourself out a little bit more from your clients’ issues, but it’s also really rewarding to see that process — that transformation by the end.
I told my family law class yesterday, we were in the phase of class talking about solemnizing marriages and what kind of ceremonies are allowed under Kansas law, and I mentioned that when I was doing divorces, I was also in the phase where many of my friends were getting married, and I was asked to write their wedding vows or to officiate their weddings as a universal life church minister or you know, just get some kind of internet certifications for whatever state I was in. That was a very therapeutic step, right? You’re doing the divorces but also for your friends and family, you’re thinking about what are the words that will bind you and help guide you into your marriage, I had other ways of balancing it out.
I think some judges really enjoyed wedding day in court as well because they’re doing divorces day in day out and then they had wedding days on Wednesday afternoons. You’d see all these happy couples coming in to get married.