Marriage Story: A Cautionary Tale on Selecting a Divorce Attorney

Netflix recently released a film that warrants the attention of anyone who has been through the divorce process, is currently involved in a divorce, or is considering divorce. The film is Marriage Story, and it stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as two young parents who must come to terms with the end of their marriage, and navigate their way through the divorce process.

As a film buff, and divorce lawyer for over twenty years, I watched this film with a critical eye. With a few minor exceptions, the film brilliantly and accurately captured many of the struggles and challenges that individuals face as they go through a divorce. The divorce attorneys in the film (portrayed by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda), while fictional, are characters that I recognized from my own practice. The arguments advanced by those attorneys in the film are arguments that would be familiar to any family law practitioner. From the feel of the courthouse hallways (where a passing shot captures a heated argument of two litigants frustrated by the divorce process) to the cringe-inducing exchanges of the custody evaluation, Marriage Story had numerous authentic scenes.

For someone dealing with the divorce process, one of the most important lessons to take from the film is the importance of taking control of one’s divorce litigation.

While Charlie and Nicole (the divorcing protagonists of the film) are resigned to the fact that their marriage has run its course, the story makes clear from the outset that neither wants a knockdown-drag out divorce. That levelheaded approach to divorce (the opposite extreme of the tactics employed by characters Charlie and Barbara Rose, in War of the Roses) is refreshing. It encourages the viewer to hope, along with the protagonists, that they will be able to make it through their divorce with few battle scars, and end up with an amicable co-parenting relationship.

Enter the attorneys.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is not without antagonists, and those roles are reserved, primarily, for the divorce attorneys. There are multiple attorneys in the film, and each is presented, in different ways, as having a strong personality. We first meet Nora, played by Laura Dern, who has mastered the art of the intimate “best friend” consult so thoroughly that she does not give a second thought to slipping off her shoes and joining Nicole, her prospective client, on the couch, less than five minutes into their first meeting. Within minutes, Nora has Nicole convinced that she is the victim, and that her husband Charlie is the villain. While Nora’s relational style of representation is effective and her motives may be sincere, there are multiple occasions in the film where she takes actions on behalf of her client that are contrary to her client’s wishes:

NICOLE(clinking glasses)

OK, good. Thank you for everything, Nora

NORA

You’re welcome, doll. (pause) And when Charlie’s in

LA, I got the custody breakdown to be 55/45, so

you’ll have Henry one extra day every two weeks...

NICOLE

I thought we made it equal.

NORA

I tweaked it at the last minute. I just didn’t

want him to be able to say he got 50/50.

NICOLE But I don’t—

NORA

Bragging to his friends.

NICOLE

--want to do that. NORA Take it! You won.

NICOLE (sadly)

Uh huh.

Nora’s counterpart is Jay Marotta, played by Ray Liotta, who not only convinces his prospective client, Charlie, that his wife is the true villain, but that she must be destroyed by any means necessary. At the initial consult, Ray, with the assistance of his associate, lays out an aggressive strategy to fight fire with fire, showing little regard for Charlie’s clear misgivings about this scorched-earth strategy:

JAY MAROTTA

Does your wife’s family have money?

CHARLIE

Her mother has some from her

TV career and her father died—

JAY MAROTTA

We could say we don’t want her mother

to see the kid, draw HER into the case.

TED

In that instance, her mother

could pay your legal fees too.

CHARLIE

(can’t believe his ears)

No. I’m very close to her mom.

Nicole’s family has been my family- -

JAY MAROTTA

That’s going to change and I suggest you get

used to that. (to Ted) We should hire a private investigator—

CHARLIE

Really? I mean...REALLY?

JAY MAROTTA

We need to look for ways we

can show she’s a bad mother.

CHARLIE

But she’s not.

Finally, there is Bert Spitz, played by Alan Alda, the antithesis of attorney Jay Marotta. Bert is personable, collaborative, and, unfortunately for Charlie, too quick to recommend conceding on the central dispute in Charlie’s divorce, which is the question of where the parties’ son will reside, Los Angeles or New York. It is interesting to note that while Bert’s conciliatory approach and soft spoken manner may make him appear as less of an antagonist, his advice leads to just as much trouble for Charlie as that of Ray, the pit bull:

BERT (a bit overwhelmed)

Nora’s a very good lawyer.

CHARLIE

Uh huh.

BERT (impressed)

Tough, right?

CHARLIE

Yeah.

BERT

And you’re in a bind because you’ve

shown that you’re willing to fly out here

and rent an apartment to see your son—

CHARLIE

You told me to do that!

BERT

I know that.

CHARLIE

And I’m doing that because I want

to see my kid. Not to set a precedent.

BERT

Yes, but unfortunately you are setting a

precedent. And a judge may look at it that way.

CHARLIE

What’s the alternative? I stay in

New York and never come out here?

BERT

No, because then it will look to the court

like you don’t care about seeing your son.

CHARLIE

Court or no court, stop saying

court and then never court!

BERT

Well, the way this is going, we

might have to go to court.

CHARLIE

Are you aware how maddening you sound?

Charlie and Nicole begin the process committed to an amicable divorce, but before it is over, mud is slung in the courtroom, holes are punched in walls, and a child is used as a pawn—all because both Charlie and Nicole allowed themselves to get caught up in a system that feeds off of chaos, if you let it.

One of the most important decisions that a person contemplating a divorce must make is choosing the right attorney. At Laterra & Hodge, we endorse an IDEAL approach for choosing an attorney. The IDEAL attorney is one who displays Integrity, Diplomacy, Empathy, Advocacy and Legal Knowledge. The IDEAL attorney must be both diplomat and advocate, simultaneously pursuing all reasonable avenues of settlement, while also knowing when it is necessary to stand firm on a position and litigate. Not all cases can be settled, and there are times when a trial is not only unavoidable, but the appropriate course of action. An attorney must have the integrity to put his or her client’s interests at the forefront, the empathy to appreciate the client’s individual needs and concerns, and the legal knowledge to know when it makes sense to settle and when it makes sense to litigate.

At Laterra & Hodge, this is the IDEAL approach that we seek to implement in all of our cases.

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