Phoenix attorney Annette Burns has been practicing family law in Arizona since 1984. She talks about how custody arrangements have changed, how her career has impacted the way she’s raised her daughters and why divorce lawyers tend to work extra hard at staying married.
People come to lawyers with disputes. But they come to family lawyers to discuss very intimate, very personal kinds of disputes.
Within five or 10 minutes of meeting a client—and they’ve never laid eyes on me before—they’re telling me who they’re sleeping with, who their spouse is sleeping with and a lot of intimate financial details. It’s really not that hard to draw most people out. They’re in my closed office, it’s attorney-client privileged. It seems very therapeutic to them most of the time.
Have you personally ever been through a divorce or custody situation?
I have not. I’ve been married for 27 years. I’d say that a lot of the long-term divorce lawyers you meet, especially in Phoenix, stay married. I think this work tends to keep us married. We also see how easy it is to throw away a lot—for basically not really big reasons. [With] a lot of people I talk to, I say, “Are you sure you want to get divorced because of this?”
What, specifically, have you learned from your practice that has helped you personally, in terms of your own marriage?
I’m probably more forgiving and let more things go, because in the big picture, it just doesn’t make any difference. I ask myself, “Am I really going to bring that up?” Or, “Is this really worth it?”
Staying married can be tougher than most couples could imagine.
It’s really hard work, and a lot of people didn’t realize that, I guess.
How has the culture of divorce changed since you began practicing?
When I started practicing, joint legal custody was around, but I can’t say that in the mid-1980s it was the norm. Now it’s far and away the norm. The expectation is that even after divorce, the parents will work together to make decisions for the children.
We [also] see a lot of cases where a non-parent has to step in and take over the parental role for some reason. Grandparents…[or an] an aunt or uncle. That’s more widespread, because sometimes the parents just aren’t capable. A lot of times drugs are involved.
Are some people just better at divorcing than others?
I’ve seen people who communicate fabulously with the rest of the world, business-wise [and] have great friends; then in their divorce they’re just a complete failure. They just don’t communicate with that one person. So it doesn’t always translate that if you’re this great person in public that you’re going to be able to translate that to divorce. I try to emphasize to the high-conflict divorces that it’s business. If you write an email to the other person, edit it first. If it’s not an email that you’d write to a business associate, start over.
Has dealing with disputatious clients affected your personal life? Does it stick with you after you leave the office?
Sometimes it does. I’ve gotten better over the years in letting the drive home be the transition. By the time I get home, I’m usually pretty successful at having forgotten what I left the office with. We always had a rule that the kids didn’t attack me at the back door with the broken-whatever or the dog-went-on-the-whatever, and they stuck with that. That was good. And their babysitter knew that, too.
What do you hope that your daughters have learned from growing up with a family practice lawyer for a mom?
Over the years, I’ve seen women who have no skills whatsoever. They hadn’t worked outside the home since before the marriage. They’re home with a few kids. Either they’re ending the marriage or the husband is, and everybody’s telling them, “You’ve got to go work, even if you can [only] make minimum wage; you can go answer phones somewhere.” They’re terrified; I don’t blame them. They did everything right, for the most part. I never wanted to see my girls in that situation. I basically said, get those initials behind your name—M.B.A., J.D. [or] Ph.D.—as a fallback, even if you don’t use them right away. That came directly from what I’ve been doing all these years. RAK