Last Christmas Eve, I got a voicemail from my son Shamus asking if I knew of a divorce lawyer named Mr. Barnhart. He was calling from New Orleans, where he lives. Since he's not married, his voicemail took me by surprise.
He said Public Radio International in New Orleans had broadcast an essay by a woman named Susan who spoke of a Mr. Barnhart in Grand Rapids. Evidently, Barnhart handled the dissolution of Susan's parents' marriage in 1987. The essayist spoke of the effect the divorce had on her.
My son said the report was interesting, and he was right. For starters, Bruce A. Barnhart has resided in the office next to me for the last 15 years.
The PRI essay can be found at thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/433/transcript. As I found the link and hit play, I wondered whether I would hear of my partner navigating a nasty divorce, outwitting a contentious adversary and seizing more than a fair share for his client. Perhaps he had snarled like the "pit bull" divorce combatants often want when ending relationships with the former man or woman of their dreams.
After all, time spent in courtrooms has provided me with access to stories of ugly split-ups, the breakup of families, and battles over everything from child custody to which spouse should be "awarded" possession of old snow tires.
And I cannot forget the grin on the face of a lawyer who once boasted of "presiding over the dissolution of the American family, one divorce at a time."
The radio essay surprised me. Susan said she grew up in Grand Rapids until she was 13, when she moved to Colorado with her mother after her parents divorced, an event that both hurt and obsessed her. She said she was no longer a member of the perfect family of four. Rather, she and her sister had become "two latchkey kids with a single parent, and we'd been relocated to a tract house."
As Susan put it, "my parents' divorce was the biggest thing in my life. I dwelled on it to the point of obsession — to the point of melodrama. As far as I was concerned, it was the most important fact about me."
She also reported that, at her mother's home in Colorado, she once stumbled across a file labeled "Divorce." After some initial hesitation, the young woman reviewed her mom's divorce papers closely. She later said that going through the folder "always brought a rush of different feelings." They included fear that she would learn her parents had done bad things or were bad people. She noted that even the smallest thing moved her, like seeing her parents' handwritten initials on legal documents.
What caught my eye was when Susan noted, "My mother was represented by a lawyer named Bruce Barnhart. To him these agreements were probably just divorce Mad Libs. He'd sit at his big desk, with my mother across from him, and fill in the blanks."
However, Susan also learned the “mysterious” Mr. Barnhart — whom she initially described as "just a lawyer in Grand Rapids Michigan" — was more than an ice-cold scrivener. He may have painstakingly filled in the blanks, but there was also a day when he authored a note that stopped the young woman cold.
Even though a final hearing to formalize the divorce was days away, Barnhart had written to Susan's mother: "This will confirm our telephone conference. I have adjourned the hearing date from January 30, 1987, to February 27, 1987. I wish you well in your efforts to resolve your marital difficulties."
Mr. Barnhart's note meant a lot to Susan. Its 32 spare words meant, at one point, her parents had tried one final time to save their marriage and that a lawyer had tried to help them stay together instead of pulling them apart.
I recently asked Bruce Barnhart about the PRI essay. He had heard it a couple of years ago when it was originally broadcast. Bruce, a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, an organization that includes only 1,678 members among roughly 1.4 million attorneys nationwide, offered: "I never made speeches to clients, but I always thought that trying to keep couples together was sort of a moral duty that I had."
My partner said he had handled hundreds of divorces, but, for all of those who might think it takes a good lawyer to end a good or bad marriage, Bruce said he often suggested counseling to keep couples together. He remembered once asking a potential client to go home and make a list of all of the reasons she had married her husband, followed by a list of the reasons she wanted to divorce him. The woman later called and said, "I see what you are getting at," before determining to continue her marriage.
I returned my son's phone call late on Christmas morning, when even people in New Orleans were awake. I told him about Bruce Barnhart and said he was a good man and a very good lawyer during his roughly 45 years of family law practice. I said Bruce remains a good man in retirement.
I also offered that Bruce wasn't a guy who took joy in the dissolution of any "family unit." On most days, he was every bit as willing to hold a couple together as he was to pull them apart.
Many marriages are as temporary as the promises, plans and vows couples make to each other. Lasting commitments can be hard to hold on to. There is only so much that even a lawyer can do.
Bill Rohn is a trial partner and former Trial Practice Group chairman in the law firm of Varnum LLP. He focuses his litigation practice on commercial, construction, employment and product liability matters. He can be reached at email@example.com.