Are lawyers the only true experts on family law matters?

Like many Americans, I have gone through both a divorce and having to litigate family law issues in a court of law. I have spent enormous amounts of money hiring lawyers to represent me, and have often represented myself.

Unlike most Americans, while I was going through the litigation, I decided to enter law school. So my approach to family law is also intersected with my academic life of being a PhD in Technology. Yes, I like to learn. That is obvious. And it is upon this nexus of real-world experiences/law student/academic that I’ve started blogging.

Recently, I pitched an idea to a legal website about the potential use by family law attorneys of the Ashley Madison data dump. My idea was quickly rejected; I was told that I could not write about substantive law because I was too junior of a lawyer. I found this humorous because I’m not yet a lawyer at all! However, this dismissal was telling.

Do lawyers really believe that only other senior lawyers are qualified as experts in family law?

Are lawyers the only experts of family law?

Are lawyers the only experts of family law?

I beg to differ. First and foremost, a JD or bar-passage does not make anyone an automatic and well-rounded expert in every legal sense. Many lawyers I know believe the degree means you’re ready to start practicing law. It’s the same thing in many colleges… students learn the most after they receive the degree.

Secondly, being dragged through litigation almost forces a party to compile and acquire legal knowledge.  My knees were skinned with the “real world” applications and twists of the family law courts. And I was able to see the disconnection between what I was experiencing within the courts as compared to the beautiful theory of the law. Law school taught me the law and what the ideal process should be. My experiences as a defendant taught me the applications and realities. Additionally, most of my law professors would answer my questions with, “Family law has its own rules”, which gave me the impression that this area of law truly needs people who have practical experiences gained in more ways than by being the attorney of record.

On that same note, the fact is that many people are litigating without the assistance or representation of legal counsel. It’s incredibly expensive to be involved in a lawsuit. A surprising fact is that 2/3rds of California family law cases are filed by a self-represented litigant! So whether it is by choice or by default, people going through the system are learning in a way that is experiential.

Additionally, the State of Washington has started a program where, surely, these non-lawyers will claim expertise in family law matters!

Some lawyers are taking note of these changes and reacting in a flexible way. They may be offering non-traditional services like limited scope representation (ala Julie Tolek) or teaching people how to represent themselves without an attorney (ala Jason Levoy)

Based upon my experiences, the changing fee structures offered by flexible attorneys, and the emerging programs to license non-lawyers in the area of family law, I think that the belief that senior attorneys are the only family law experts is, well, antiquated. We become experts in various ways.

How might family law attorneys use the Ashley Madison data?

If you’ve been following the coverage of the Ashley Madison data dump, you may have read the stories about the expected surge of traffic to a divorce attorney’s office. It is anticipated that prospective clients who find that their spouse’s e-mail or name is within the database may contact a divorce attorney. Of course we would hope that it is not this simple trigger that would lead a client to contact attorney… that there are additional facts/evidence/suspicion of marital problems.

However IF that is the case, the next question is, how might a family law attorney use the information found on the Ashley Madison data dump?

Ashley Madison data

How might the Ashley Madison data be used in a family law dispute?

1. Attorneys should verify that the information is indeed connected to the person of interest.

One big disclaimer to all of the reporting of the Ashley Madison breach and database posting is that the e-mails in the database may have been hijacked, in a way. The site does not validate e-mails when accounts are created. So, in theory, anyone can create an account with another person’s email.

The other information posted in the dump includes full names, addresses, telephone, partial credit card numbers and physical descriptions including height and weight. It also includes the profile write-ups. All of these could be reviewed by the client to see if (most likely) she sees a similarity to what her spouse would post, or where they live, or if he has a telephone number that matches, etc.

2. Attorneys will want to search for additional evidence of the affair by reviewing other dating sites. The Ashley Madison data dump includes names. Of course, if a user used his true name, this is a relevant find. However, users who created false names could also be informative.

Although Ashley Madison is (by now, most certainly) the most famous salacious website, there are other websites a person could use to arrange an affair. Adult FriendFinder, who had their own database hacked into in March, 2015, is direct: Sign-up now and start hooking up tonight, they post on their home page. Okcupid lets a member search by “Covert Affairs”, and Craigslist allows posters to set their posting category to a “Casual Encounter”.

A family law attorney might find that the husband has additional postings on these other sites under the same handle/user name or with the same written description.

If an attorney can find additional profiles on other sites, the validity of the user being the one who posted on the Ashley Madison site becomes stronger.

3. Allegations or proof of an extramarital affair could be used to argue for sole custody of a child.

Like many other states, Michigan is a ‘no fault’ divorce state. This means that residents can establish a divorce without having to establish that the other party did something wrong. So although an affair is one reason a party may ask for a divorce, this reason will not be considered by the courts for granting a divorce.

However, proof of an extramarital affair could be used in determining the custodial arrangements of the divorcing parties.  In Michigan, we have what are called the “Best Interest Factors”. These are used to help make determinations of custodial arrangements between divorcing parents and their children. Factor F is the moral fitness of the parties involved. A family law attorney could most certainly use evidence of an extra-marital affair to argue against the cheating spouse receiving joint custody.

4. Allegations or proof of an extramarital affair could be used to argue for an increased amount of alimony and the division of the marital estate.

Similar to the Best Interest Factors, courts have factors to consider when dividing marital property and awarding spousal support. When dividing the marital property, one factor is the cause for the divorce, including fault in the breakdown of the marriage. When awarding spousal support, two factors are past relations and conduct of the parties and a spouse’s fault in causing the divorce.

In conclusion, evidence of an e-mail being listed in a database that contained information from the past seven years is probably not enough to completely sway a judge in a family law matter. But if the family law attorney leverages this information and builds additional evidence against the opposing party, this could be something included when arguing the big-ticket items within divorce matters.

Are appellate court rulings helping most of the people in family law matters?

As Joshua Lenon, Go Clio’s lawyer-in-residence tweeted recently, 2/3 of California family law cases are filed by a self-represented litigant.

With that in mind, I wonder how many of the 1/3 who can afford representation at the trial level can also afford to file an appeal to their suits!

As a law student, I have learned that we only read appellate cases because they have written legal opinions.

As someone who has been a defendant in a multi-year family law dispute, I know the thousands of dollars it costs to being a defendant in trial. And that is just for trying a case at the lowest level without continual representation by a lawyer.

The majority of all civil litigation happens at the trial level, yet these rulings are minimally studied by law students. We focus on the reasoning made by the higher-level courts.

With this in mind, I’ve often wondered, how representative are the appellate level cases of the trial level suits? Is the issue being appealed a common one? Or is it a problem that only wealthy people face? (This is assuming that those 2/3rds of self-represented folks are not the one filing appeals, of course.)

As an academic, I’ve used the term “generalizability”. It’s a made-up term and certainly sounds impressive, right? A good definition is here, which is “the extension of research findings and conclusions from a study conducted on a sample population to the population at large”.

Simply stated- how relevant is your research to everyday people?

Now if we apply that concept to my questions from above… one could ask, “How generalizable are the corrections made by the appellate courts to the larger population who litigates family law cases at the trial level only and who most commonly litigates without the help of legal counsel?”

Let’s “plain language” that question…

How generalizable are the opinions of the appellate courts?

How generalizable are the opinions of the appellate courts?

Are appellate court rulings really helping most of the people who are suing over family law matters?

If an appellate court is a corrective court, then they are there to correct the mistakes made by the lower courts. My concern is not with this process (and I’m thankful for it!), but with the generalizability of the their correcting rulings and if they predominantly apply to issues that most people may face within the world of family law litigation.

What do the best lawyers and professors have in common?

What do the best lawyers and professors have in common? They’re expert communicators.

My education and degrees include a Doctorate of Philosophy in Technology (a PhD in Technology) and an expected Doctor of Jurisprudence in the law (a JD) next year.

The profession that has recently shown me the most enthusiasm regarding this combination is the legal profession.

But I am drawing upon my experiences as a professor when I have written for legal outlets about spotting manipulation of digital photographs, audio recording by patients of their medical visits, and the overall need for workshops aimed at advancing lawyers’ software skills.

What I have also realized is that the common thread between what the best litigators do and what the best teachers do is efficiently and effectively communicate to their audience. The lawyers communicate to the jury (or judge, in the case of a bench trial). Professors communicate/teach to their students.

And I teach my students about visual communication. I communicate about communication! My students learn how to make logos, manipulate images, create newsletters.. basic graphic design. I have even begun to teach about 3d printing! Simply put, I teach how to create visual things because we communicate with visual symbols.

Now lawyers are undoubtedly trained in the art of written communication. But they need to be able to communicate to a jury, which is comprised of the general public. And, unlike lawyers, the general public prefers to learn visually, so they mainly want to see evidence rather than hear it.

This has led to the surge in the use of trial evidence of photographs, videos, audio recordings, etc. Given the abundance of visual images posted online, or captured by smart phones, lawyers need to become tech-savvy if they are not using communication technologies already. But I am not throwing shade or pointing fingers at anyone… heck, two years ago, it was revealed that the SCOTUS judges are not that technologically sophisticated. But technological competence is really a skill set that needs to be developed and can be through simple use of the devices and websites. (And if you don’t know how to work a device, give it to a toddler. Seriously, my 2-year old daughter can work my iPhone. And that kind-of terrifies me.)

Lawyers also need to learn how to capture digital evidence, optimize it for presentation in either a printout or a digital projection in front of jurors, or they need to hire people that have these skills (Lawyers, I’d like you to meet graphic designers. Graphic designers, I’d like you to meet lawyers).

Other than the fact that jurors are visual learners, why is using a photograph, or audio recording, or video, so powerful? Because it is hard evidence. It is not someone telling you something; the lawyer is not just telling the jurors, “This is how I think you should rule,” and arguing their side. The lawyer is presenting an audio recording on top of this “I-think-you-should-rule-this-way” method, which allows the jurors to better make up their own minds.

For example, audio recordings have not only the spoken words, but the speed at which the words are said, the tone/volume/pitch, etc. that are communication signals to better convey the true intention of the speaker.

Photos and videos are so powerful at present… Just look at the reactions that happen when they are posted online. The numerous postings of police/public confrontations, like posting a video online, has led to serious offline actions.

So back to the juror, a member of the general public…they will be empowered to draw their own conclusions at trial based on what they see or hear when they see a photograph, when they hear a recording, or when they see and hear content presented in a video. Wouldn’t that make their decision much stronger?

That’s the intersection of law and technology that excites me. Because it is about communication. And I teach about one very powerful type of communication.

Frustrations when Entering the 3d Printing Market

It has taken me a while to jump into the 3d printing process, although I’m doing so with both feet. However, I am a bit amazed at the frustrations that I’ve encountered thus far:

1. MakerGeeks sent me the wrong 3d printer. Twice! Although they claimed it was an unusual error- it happened to me. TWICE. I wanted to support a smaller company but eventually just bought the Flashforge Creator Pro off of Amazon. Shipping was wicked fast (a few days) although the price was slightly higher. Sorry MakerGeeks, but I’m not endorsing you to others.

3d printer

The Flashforge Creator Pro 3d printer.

2. Setting up the Flashforge Creator Pro has been challenging. The Creator Pro is a much cheaper 3d printer than its more well-known competitor, Makerbot’s Replicator 2. But after reading this incredibly helpful Amazon customer review, I decided that the Creator Pro was the way to go. (Plus, the university I work at was having problems with their 3 Makerbots’ extruder heads…something that seems to be quite common, based upon what I’ve read online.)

One of the major advantages to Makerbot is the customer service and large user base. Flashforge does not have as large a customer base, and when I unpacked the printer (which was truly packed well, as many have commented upon), there was no instruction manual. Call me old fashion, but I’d like to have a printout of this.

So I had to go online and do some searching to find forums, videos, posts, etc. to help me along. There were many, and I will post the ones I found most helpful at a later date. But this was definitely something that has slowed my 3d printing process down.

3. One of the advantages of the Creator Pro is that I, supposedly, can purchase and use any filaments. In contrast, with Makerbots, if you don’t use their proprietory filament (which is, naturally, higher priced), you void their printer’s warranty. So I’ve been searching for all of the delicious filaments I could find. I wanted to start with the basic plastic (ABS and PLA- see my Dictionary page for definitions of these), so I, again, went with MakerGeeks because they extrude their own filament. Problem #2, or shall I say, #3, with them.

The filament spool from MakerGeeks is sized wrong for my Flashforge Creator Pro  printer.

The filament spool from MakerGeeks is sized wrong for my Flashforge Creator Pro printer.

The filament spool I received from MakerGeeks does not fit the Flashforge Creator Pro’s filament spool holder! UGH!!!! The photo I posted of it shows the filament spool holder that I jammed into the spool, which was not a smart thing to do on my part because the spool is supposed to move freely. (Like a spool of thread on a sewing machine does… and no, I did not take home ec in high school. I took shop class. Does this surprise anyone?)

Thankfully, I have two filaments and their original holders that Flashforge sent me when I purchased the Creator Pro. But man, oh man, this is yet another bump in the road.

With these problems behind me, I am now set to 3d print this weekend. My kids (2 and 5 years old) have been nagging me to print things for them. Isn’t that wonderful? They have accepted this microwave-sized, new technological device as normal already.

Wish me luck!

Rural living means slower Internet connection speeds

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 20% of the population lives in rural areas. While that does not seem like a lot in terms of percentages, it’s about 59 million people.

I am one of those 59 million people.

Rural home

While this may be an example of an extreme rural homestead, 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural environments.

I am writing this post because I am also a person who does not have a fast Internet connection speed at home because of where I live.

So what does this mean?


Yes, I did mean to shout that because all to often, many people forget that what works well in an urban, or even suburban environment is impossible to do in a rural location.

In the case of cloud-based software, we probably can’t do it because we don’t have a fast connection. Personally, I’m avoiding upgrading my Adobe Photoshop 6 (and that’s 6, not CS 6) to anything that is a newer version because they are cloud-based.

I want the software that I have to install on my computer.

I do NOT want the software or services that make me connect to the Internet to use them.

Speaking of connecting to the Internet…


Either we can’t get fast Internet connections or we can’t afford the ones that may be offered to us because they are so high-priced. If we rural folk have smart phones (and we do), why can’t we just use our smart phones to connect to the Internet or tether our computers to our phones and use this as a way to connect to the Internet?

Well we can, but now we are using our precious data minutes so we avoid anything that will cause us to go over our monthly limits.

So contrary to what is being advertised on TV by the cellular carriers, we are probably not watching TV on our phones. And this is assuming that we are even able to watch a video without the circle-of-death loading experience that assaults use when we try to even load the videos.

How long do you stay on a page when this happens?

How long do you stay on a page when this happens?

But isn’t the U.S. one of the top countries where we citizens have high speed Internet access? No. Shocking to some, but no.

Not only does the U.S. not have the fastest Internet connection speeds, but we also do not have the most people using high speed internet (on this link, look at the excel spreadsheets you can download under “Time Series by Country”).

Answer #3:


In 2010, Finland law made it a legal right to have high speed internet for it’s entire populate. That was just amazing, I thought. And then I read that Finland had a population of 5.2 million and is about the size of Michigan (with our upper and lower peninsulas, of course).

Compare that to the U.S. and realize the facts are that:

1. The U.S. is physically large in size

2. 57 million of us live in rural locations

3. And of those that live in rural locations, many of us do not have high speed Internet access.

So please, when you read about all of the news of cloud-based this, or video that, or even the Internet of Things, understand that we rural inhabitants are excited by these developments, but they may just not be possible for us to use.

And now I must end this post because that animated gif I included above has enraged me fully.

Lawyers, put DOWN the PowerPoint!

I have taught undergraduates design for about 15 years, and one of my tools is creating and using PowerPoint slides. I am not alone in doing this, of course. Most professors create and use PowerPoint in their classes. It is old news- something students expect and if you do not provide them with your PowerPoint slides, they will ask you for them.

So when I attended last month’s ABA TECHSHOW, my jaw dropped when I heard lawyer presenters gush about how great it is to use PowerPoint in the courtroom setting. The general takeaway was that jurors were really impressed and moved after seeing PowerPoint slides.

I thought, “Stop. Just stop,” although I did not say a thing about this to anyone at the show because, well, I am not a lawyer.

But I did tell my students about it. And they just laughed. Hard.

As an academic, I overuse PowerPoint. I admit it. But it seems like so does the rest of those who teach.

(Lawyers, please listen to this next part.)


Many jurors will not like seeing that the trial lawyers are using PowerPoint.

What happens when I turb on my computer at the front of the class and connect my PowerPoint slides to the projector is… the students’ eyes glaze over. And that is with the students who have their heads up! Others simply put their heads down and start tapping away on their phones.

Now I do believe being a juror is a different experience than being a student, but my point is this…

… If you have a juror who is in college, or went to college within the last 15 years, they have been forced to overdose on viewing PowerPoint.

I believe that one surefire way to disgust a juror who has a college education is to power up your PowerPoint.