Divorcing Fact From Fiction Local Lawyers Say 'Civil Wars' Is Fun To Watch, But Exaggerated

December 04, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Baltimore attorney Tom Ries was misidentified in a story and photo caption in yesterday's Today section.

The Sun regrets the errors.

On the new TV series "Civil Wars," a day in the life of a divorce lawyer may go something like this: One client wants a divorce because her husband thinks he's Elvis; another client develops a "Fatal Attraction" to her attorney and shows up in his apartment in her underwear; one investigator infiltrates an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting to get dirt on the other side; and one lawyer -- exhibiting perhaps the only rational response to all this -- flips out from years of dealing with nothing but the deconstruction of married life.

In the real life of Baltimore divorce attorney Ted Ries, well, Elvis is still dead and a more typical day involves scheduling a hearing at 9:30 a.m. instead of earlier because he has to take his daughter to nursery school.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"This is what divorce attorneys really do," he said with a laugh. "Probably 90 percent of a family law attorney's time is spent away from the courthouse. I spend half my day on the phone."

But then, who would watch a show about that?

And "Civil Wars," the new ABC series created by Steven Bochco (of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" fame), probably wouldn't garner quite the critical acclaim that it has without his special brand of sad-funny, poignant-grotesque story lines.

Local divorce lawyers said their lives don't necessarily imitate the art of "Civil Wars," which stars Mariel Hemingway and Peter Onorati and airs to night at 10 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13). But, they added, the show is generally entertaining despite, or, perhaps, because of that. Either way, it has become quite the chatter among lawyers -- especially those who specialize in family law and previously only had the slick trickster Arnie Becker of "L.A. Law" presenting their case to the jury of the viewing public.

"I love it!" Lisa Mervis, an Owings Mills divorce attorney, said of "Civil Wars." "All the other lawyers I've talked to besides divorce lawyers think it's kind of boring. I guess it's an identification thing."

While the show's plots are an exaggeration of reality -- Ms. Mervis hasn't seen Elvis in the courtroom either -- they contain grains of truth, she said.

"I always say, divorce is worse than death," said Ms. Mervis. "These people want their pound of flesh. These kinds of cases can drive lawyers crazy. I know of an attorney who freaked out over a case and killed his client's child's cat. I know of a woman who had her husband arrested at home so their child could see it."

"It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the clients," deadpanned Bruce Kaufman, a Baltimore divorce attorney who practices with Mr. Ries. "The clients are very needy. They're always pulling and tugging. You become a substitute spouse. There's a lot of hand-holding. It's like that movie, 'What About Bob?' It's the same thing.

"They fight over dogs, over spoons, a rocking chair. You know when it gets to that, they're not fighting over the object. They're fighting over something else," Mr. Kaufman said. They fight over photos. I'll take the photos down to the corner store, get them copied and bring them back -- and then they'll say, 'Which ones are the originals?' "

"It's not about property. It's about emotions," agreed Richard Jacobs, a Baltimore divorce attorney who finds the show entertaining. "[The show] is certainly an exaggeration of what goes on. But some strange things do go on.

"There are about 10 of us in town who specialize in domestic relations, and there have been husbands who get hold of our numbers and interview all of us so the wife can't use any of us."

Mr. Jacobs said the squabbling over property is among the most realistic aspects of the show.

"I have my K mart story. I sometimes have people fighting over canopeners or food processors," he said. "I tell them we can go down to K mart and buy it for cheaper than my hourly rate."

But he and other attorneys said that while "Civil Wars" focuses on courtroom battling and winning at all costs, the trend in divorce proceedings today is quite the opposite.

"The whole trend of today is away from this going to war, this costly litigation," Mr. Jacobs said. "In law school, you were always taught to be an advocate for your client. But today's thinking is, even among the lawyers who are known as 'bombers' because they come out shooting, you can't afford to do that. Nobody wins. There are alternate ways of resolving things."

Mediation and settling without going to court are the preferable modes today because many people are seeing that an all-out, fight-dirty battle doesn't do anybody any good, even the supposed "winner," the lawyers said.

"When you're dealing with the dissolution of a family," Mr. Kaufman said, "the idea of 'winning' or 'losing' is repugnant."

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