Bringing a sense of service to family law

Thirty-three years ago when Arnold J. Gibbs started practicing law here, he saw a survey ranking legal specialties. At the bottom in interest, income, and importance, he now recalls, was family law -- that broad area embracing marriage, divorce, child custody, and a host of other domestic concerns. As a young lawyer who hadn't settled on a specialty, Mr. Gibbs -- ``A. J.'' to friends and family -- rather inadvertently happened into that basement of the legal profession. He met an avid family lawyer at a conference and found himself recruited as chairman of the ``practicing law committee'' of the American Bar Association's family law section. In the decades since, he has headed up the family law section, remains on its governing council, and has served on the board of editors of Family Advocate, a journal devoted to trends in family law.

This genial Louisianian has never regretted his forced marriage, so to speak, to family law; as he tells it, he's never had time to. In recent years, the field has burgeoned, he says. The stigma of ``divorce lawyer'' has been lifted, many law schools emphasize family law, and even some established law firms are opening divisions dealing with it -- something unheard of formerly.

But it's something more profound than today's packed agendas or better earnings that keeps A. J. Gibbs in what he calls ``one of the more stressful fields of law.'' As he relaxes in a roomy law office bedecked with stacks of well-leafed law journals, old sabers, and other evidence of its occupant's passion for history, a kind of reverence for his profession comes through to the listener. Here's a lawyer who views his work almost as a ministry.

``You don't deal with any more important subject than what affects the family members. Children and parents need the best that the court can give, and that a lawyer can give,'' he says in slow, Southern tones. ``You gotta be a counselor to them -- give them the alternatives.'' The family's role as the basic unit of society is clearly never far from his mind.

While family law can now touch such diverse subjects as estate planning, care for the elderly, and genetics, the core of Mr. Gibbs's workload -- some 70 percent -- remains marital problems. ``I try to help salvage a marriage, if I can,'' he says. ``Sometimes, they've got seven years or more invested -- with two children. What better service could you give than to help them sort it out?'' This may mean referring a client to a professional marriage counselor, or it may mean simply sharing one's own accumulation of domestic wisdom. But if it comes to what he calls ``the surgery,'' his credo is ``do it cleanly as possible.''

``My approach to practicing family law is to take a bad situation and make it better -- with as little hurt to all parties as possible,'' says Mr. Gibbs, sounding a recurrent theme.

This father of four and grandfather to two has an intense interest in the welfare of children. He advocates a tightening of immigration laws to prevent child abduction across national boundaries -- often by a parent trying to subvert a custody ruling. And he has been heartened by the surge of publicity about missing children. Looking at what the media and corporate resources -- for instance, pictures of missing youngsters on milk cartons -- have accomplished in this area, he muses, ``Think what we could do to help people be better parents.''

Too often, he says, he sees parents trying to use children as a means of punishing each other. In this area as in most facets of family law, he points out, there are ``no formulas'' -- no passages from a law book to fall back on. For instance, joint custody in a divorce settlement may be workable, or it may be very unworkable, depending on individual circumstances, and always keeping in mind what's bearable for the children. In any case, he says earnestly, ``I'd like to change the word `custody' to `responsibility' -- responsibility for producing a well-rounded, capable citizen.'' That means a lot more than ``I got custody,'' he adds.

``Sometimes a person comes in here so full of vim, vigor, and hate that you spend the first hour just helping them settle down and finding out what the difficulty is . . . where the shoe is pinching them,'' says Mr. Gibbs. To accomplish this, the family lawyer often has to be one part minister, one part family doctor, and one part psychologist, he explains. ``You have to give your client a chance to see there may be two sides -- that you may get what you need without doing violence to someone else.''

And the lawyer himself, although confronted with the ``raw human being,'' to quote Mr. Gibbs, has to maintain objectivity. ``If I side with that woman or man, I've just increased the venom. I haven't helped anyone,'' he says.

Asked to specify some of the hotter issues in family law today, Mr. Gibbs ticks off: foster care (when should the state take charge of children); drug abuse in the family; discipline in the home and the school; child abuse and spousal abuse; a need to better prepare people for parenthood.

Delicate areas all, they underscore one of Mr. Gibbs's fundamental observations about his profession: that in this field maybe even more than most, formal training can help lay a foundation, but the crucial teacher is experience. ``A lot we've talked about doesn't come out of the law books,'' he says. ``I have people come in here and drop off a bag of dirty laundry and expect to pick it up in the rear. But that's not the way it works. No matter how much people have lost the ability to patiently wait, they won't get instant service here.''

The key, he says, is the well-honed ability to ``read people'' sympathetically and a genuine desire to help them. Approaching family practice in this way, he declares, a lawyer just may be able to reestablish self-confidence in people and show them that even though ``family life didn't work out once, it still can.''

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