A Court Case: Myth Versus Reality
As a first year law student, I had a recent opportunity to shadow Van Smith when he successfully represented a mother seeking to enforce and adjust child support payments in a hearing before the Henrico County Juvenile and Domestic Relations (JDR) District Court.
Most people would probably assume that I had witnessed a number of court proceedings as part of my legal training. Surprisingly, however, that was not the case. Walking into the Henrico JDR court on a Wednesday afternoon represented only my second visit to an actual courtroom and my first exposure to a domestic relations proceeding. I had no idea what to expect. My pre-conceived notions about what was to happen were informed largely by my guilty pleasure television show – The Good Wife. I would soon find out that a child support hearing is much different from the predominantly criminal trials seen on the show, but certainly just as compelling in many ways. When the proceedings concluded an hour later, Van’s very grateful client had the assurance that her young daughter would receive back child support from her father and that future support payments would be elevated to reflect the realities of her educational and medical needs. I, in turn, had a heightened appreciation from Van’s approach that successful client representation begins with a sound legal grounding, but requires equal measures of compassion, client preparation, and artful presentation by both attorney and client.
As I was ushered into the courtroom by Van and the bailiff, I immediately felt immersed in the pre-trial buzz. I was taken aback by the extent of preliminary communications between Van and opposing counsel. I naïvely had assumed that both attorneys would have their “game faces” on and would keep pre-hearing interaction to a minimum for fear of giving something away about their strategy or their respective clients’ positions. However, Van immediately greeted opposing counsel and a lively conversation ensued about the pre-hearing discovery just a few days before. The attorneys agreed to stipulation of the father’s income, removing the uncontested amount from consideration in the hearing. The pre-hearing discussion was the first of many indicators that child support proceedings, while adversarial, are not without collaboration and congeniality. Van’s demeanor certainly confirmed that.
Prior Preparation is Key to Success in Court
When Judge Deglau stepped into the courtroom, the child support hearing officially began. From Van’s opening statement, it was evident that he came prepared to prevail. The giant binder in front of him signaled that the seemingly effortless and confident manner in which he presented an overview of the mother’s case was actually the result of an exhaustive amount of pre-hearing research and preparation. But it was when Van had the opportunity to question his client and essentially allow her to make her own strong case for an improved child support arrangement that the benefits of pre-hearing preparation and client support became most evident.
Van’s interaction with the mother as he guided her through questioning seemed much more like a conversation than an inquisition. I was struck by how much compassion Van showed toward his client as she responded to his questions. Obviously a child support hearing is not an easy process to endure and the highly personal subject matter is difficult to talk about; but Van made the mother feel comfortable every step of the way. At one point, his client became emotional when describing the challenges caused by failure of her child’s father to meet his support obligations. While many attorneys would have kept interrogating their client with rapid-fire questions to get the most information on the record, Van took a moment from the time-limited proceedings to comfort his client and allow her to regain her composure before continuing with the questioning.
Van’s compassionate approach essentially placed his client in control and empowered her to present her own compelling narrative. I was struck by how confidently the mother, guided by Van’s questioning, was able to articulate why her financial circumstances and her daughter’s needs warranted a ruling in her favor. It was apparent that Van had fully prepared his client to ensure that she did not waiver at all during questioning and could inform the judge of her circumstances in a concise and effective manner. I was particularly intrigued with how Van guided his client to frame her responses for maximum impact and how he made sure she presented evidence to confirm in tangible terms how granting her child support request would positively impact her daughter’s development. For example, in urging the judge to set the father’s child support obligation in an amount sufficient to cover activity fees and other expenses at her daughter’s preschool, the mother’s testimony was supported by exhibits to document that her child was thriving in the environment -- pictures of the child in her school uniform with a beaming smile on her face and reports from the school documenting the child’s developmental milestones. In this manner Van personalized the case and ensured that his client’s child support request was presented to the judge in meaningful and memorable terms. At the same time, Van strategically chose to forego expert testimony out of respect for his client’s limited resources.
Staying Calm Under Pressure
When opposing counsel cross-examined the mother, the congenial pre-hearing tone and the supportive coaching that had characterized Van’s case presentation evaporated. A rush of anxiety and aggression filled the courtroom. Still, it was evident that Van had prepared his client for this phase of the proceedings, as well. She remained composed and bore up well under to opposing counsel’s assault of questioning. The transformation in hearing tone was predictable in view of the adversarial nature of cross-examination and the tensions and high financial stakes of contested child support proceedings. What was surprising to me, however, was how opposing counsel chose to limit her own client’s role in the hearing. The extent to which Van’s representation style empowered his client to personalize her case became even more apparent when contrasted with opposing counsel’s limited questioning of the child’s father. Opposing counsel clearly did not want to relinquish control to her client. It appeared that she lacked confidence in her client and had elected not to prepare him to narrate his own circumstances.
Because of the shortage of judges in the Henrico court system, child support hearings of this nature are severely time-constrained, with each attorney allowed only 30 minutes to present a client’s case. Even when confronted with the pressures this system necessarily presents to craft expedient legal arguments, Van consulted with his client to determine her preferences in allocating his time. It was a collaborative attorney-client decision – and ultimately a highly effective one -- to reserve his concluding 3-minutes for a powerfully convincing closing argument, rather than to cross-examine the father. When the judge issued her ruling at the end of the hearing, it was fully consistent with the child support terms Van had sought for his client. More personally for the mother and child involved, the ruling represented a guarantee of financial security to meet essential educational and medical needs.
I arrived at the JDR Court that afternoon very much a novice in the protocols and practices of a child support hearing. I left fully aware that the successful representation I had witnessed was the result of elaborate and strategic preparation that created an effective attorney- client partnership. Partnering born of compassionate and supportive client-coaching had ensured that the presiding judge issued her ruling on the basis of the compelling narrative of the circumstances and financial realities in the mother’s life. The client’s effusive gratitude at the conclusion of the proceedings reflected how the ruling would secure her daughter’s future. Just as importantly, the emotional “Thank you, Van” the client repeatedly stated following the hearing seemed to me a proud acknowledgement that, guided by her attorney, she shared responsibility for securing that future.
Article written by Kerrigan O'Malley, University of Richmond Law Student