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Scortched Earth Divorce Creates a Pyrrhic Victory

I was sitting in Court last week waiting for the Judge to finish a case she was hearing so that I could seek an Ex-Parte Emergency Child Custody Order for my client.  While waiting, I watched and listened to the trial taking place before me.

Apparently a former husband who was representing himself, pro se, had filed to reduce his child support and the former wife, who was represented by an attorney, had filed to hold him in contempt of court for non-payment of child support and had sought formal discovery from him which he had not supplied.

And then the husband said words to the effect of  “your honor I have no money as I have spent over $250,000.00 in attorney fees over the past three years.”  And then he related that he was representing himself because he was financially devastated and did not even have enough money to pay his accountant to file his taxes.

A quarter of a million dollars, in attorney fees!

I must admit our firm has never collected this amount of money from a single client for a divorce case.  My first humorous thought was that I was not charging enough.  And then I reflected on the seriousness of the case before me.  This couple once had multiple properties, significant assets, a successful business and they lived well.  Now the husband, if you believe him, has nothing.  His properties went into foreclosure, his business was shut down because he could not pay creditors and his income gone.  And I think I do believe him because he also told the judge that she should put him in jail because he had no more money to pay.  But the wife certainly does not believe him and obviously distrusts him because she has her lawyer chasing documents in an attempt to prove he is hiding cash.

This case caused me to think about a Pyrrhic victory.

In 279 B.C., King Pyrrhus of Epirus, defeated the Romans at Heraclea and in 280 B.C. defeated the Romans at Asculum but his army suffered such irreplaceable casualties in winning that the win was a “loss” thus coining the phrase “Pyrrhic Victory.”

It would seem to me that this couple is like King Pyrrhus and the Romans.  I am not sure whether the wife or the husband “won.”  From what I heard in Court, it appeared both had lost a great deal.  It appears that the scortched Earth policy that each took with the other resulted in neither having much of anything.  Perhaps in the end only the attorneys won in the case I watched.

And this would seem to teach us a few things.

1) As attorneys, we need to be mindful of the cost/benefit of the actions we take for our clients and we need to educate our clients on this and include them in the decision making process;

2) Litigants need to take a step back and consider the whole picture; and

3) Avoid Pyrrhic victories.

As an end note, I am not a fan of collaborative law.  In fact, I wrote a very negative review of collaborative law in 2009.  If collaborative law is one extreme then a scortched Earth Pyrrhic victory is the other.  The successful litigant falls somewhere in between.


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