YOUR LEGAL WRITES: The Agony and the Ex-tasy

CHARLESTON -- One of the worst marriages in pop culture had to have been the merger of J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing (human versions of oil and water).

For years, "Dallas" fans tuned in each week to watch the manipulative tycoon verbally harass his bourbon and branch-soaked wife, who endured each insult out of love of family money and corporate power. Adding a shot of meanness to a splash of humor, ole J.R. was rather opinionated about the sanctity of marriage.

"A conscience is like a boat or a car -- if you need one, rent it," he advised others with a trademark grin.

Despite Hollywood's imaginary invasion of Dallas, grounds for divorce are very real and very profitable for law firms. From irreconcilable differences to adultery, cruel treatment, habitual drunkenness or drug use, and permanent insanity to willful desertion, family law has become the latest marketing explosion.

Three-step divorces are advertised online, with do-it-yourself kits selling for $750. Divorce certificates can be filed in less than one hour, some Web sites claim, if the ending of a marriage is uncontested. A no-fault divorce can be settled for $28.95, with paperwork outlining child custody, support and visitation arrangements.

If the idea of dissolving one's marriage with the click of a mouse isn't a preferred method of conducting family business, then retaining an all-female law firm in Chicago might be an option.

To market their divorce law services, the firm purchased billboard space throughout the city, targeting their "Life is Short: Get a Divorce" campaign to all husbands and wives in marital misery.

Aside from an attention-grabbing headline, the artwork depicted lacy bras and washboard stomach muscles, suggesting more than affairs of the heart.

If the goal was to turn heads in a competitive legal environment, then this particular firm achieved it, in addition to scorching, negative feedback from bar associations across the country. While the provocative advertisement has been replaced with more "suitable" material, the law firm's name continues to remain in circulation.

However, a few firms feel a respectful tone is required at all times when dealing with family separations. The Cincinnati Academy of Collaborative Professionals was formed in 1997 to help remove the hostility and aggression that usually infests divorce cases.

According to Web site content, the collaborative practice is different from mediation in that no neutral, third party manages the process. Instead, their unique model provides the public with more family-focused divorces, spearheaded by a group of "like-minded attorneys" who claim to make a difference in people's lives by navigating everyone through emotional dynamics.

In 2006, the Cincinnati Collaborative Family Lawyers' group expanded to include mental health professionals and fiscal specialists. The group became multi-disciplinary in an effort to recognize that divorce is often multi-dimensional, the narrative states.

Collaborative attorneys declare that their approach to divorce law encourages mutual respect, addresses the concerns of each party, utilizes a problem-solving approach, emphasizes children's needs, provides open communication, prepares men and women for new lives, and prevents going to court. A collaborative law team consists of two attorneys with specific training in the given situation, a family relations expert, a child specialist, and a financial advisor.

Couples can choose to hire other consultants on an as-needed basis, such as real estate professionals and appraisers. The goal is to work it out, not fight it out, which seems to be unheard of in today's entertainment world.

Supermodel Christie Brinkley used the media as her weapon when she divorced Peter Cook. Cameras outside the courthouse helped her cause, and reporters in the courtroom caught every word during the anger-filled trial. The estranged wife of New York Yankee slugger, Alex Rodriguez recently filed divorce papers and blamed the end of their marriage on his affairs with numerous women over the course of several years.

In this particular case, "MVP" has taken on new meaning, as the "Most Valuable Prenup" may protect the third baseman's $25 million annual salary.

Even though other marketing strategies exist, family law appears to be driven by referrals. New clients are attracted by the favorable outcomes of others' settlements, which can only be promoted through effective storytelling. Family misfortune has always been a legal jackpot -- a natural fallback if lawyers can't tap into the lucrative oil and gas industry.

Take it from the twice divorced J.R. Ewing.

"I never forget those who do me a favor," he said, "and I never forget those who don't!"

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a writing and editing agency based in Charleston.

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