When it comes to high conflict custody litigation, there are times when the court may appoint an amicus attorney to represent the children.
Katie Lewis is a dedicated and experienced, board-certified family law attorney in north Texas who’s often recognized by her peers for the outstanding work that she does in our community.
- What is an Amicus attorney?
- What do you do in your role as an Amicus?
- When you meet with the children, do you ask them about their experience during this litigation?
- How old are the kids you’re typically appointed to represent?
- What do teenagers tell you about their experiences during their parents’ divorce?
- What is the difference between an Amicus attorney and a guardian ad litem?
- If you’re representing the children, then is it your job to do what they tell you to do?
- Are you doing the same work as a custody evaluator?
- Who pays for an Amicus Attorney?
- How can you avoid alienating one or the other parent?
- What factors do you consider as the amicus attorney when you are looking at the best interest of the children?
- In what ways do parents mess up their relationship with the amicus attorney?
- What led you to family law?
- What important tools do you encourage parents to use these days?
What is an Amicus attorney?
An Amicus attorney is appointed at the court’s discretion to aid in making decisions on custody and conservatorship type issues, rights, and duties. Basically, the Amicus attorney role is referred to as the third arm of the court and it is not necessary in every case.
What do you do in your role as an Amicus attorney?
As an Amicus, I meet first with the parents. I listen to them talk about their children, and I ask each of them to give me a list of anyone who they think is relevant and important to their family. Then, I talk to those people, and finally, I meet with the children and get to know them.
It’s a really rewarding assignment because, usually, when you’re working in family law and representing clients you never meet the kids. So, it’s rewarding, but it’s also hard because you have these little faces and their personalities and you’re helping do what’s in their best interest.
When you meet the children, do you ask them about their experience has been in this litigation?
No, I meet them at each parent’s house to get a lay of the land. I want it to be comfortable for them because I’m a stranger. They’re going through the hardest time that they’ve known so far in their life because their parents are getting divorced or fighting over custody. I want that first interaction to be in a warm, welcoming type of situation.
So, I’m just getting to know them. Sometimes the child therapists are involved to help them through the divorce, and I’m definitely going to meet those therapists and find out how things are going and ask about the progress that the’s being made and issues that are presenting themselves.
How old are the kids you’re typically appointed to represent?
There’s not a set age. I’ve represented kids as young as two. The majority is preteen and teen children who are old enough to talk about what’s going on in their lives and express their concerns and desires.
What do teenagers tell you about their experiences during their parents’ divorce?
Usually, the Amicus is appointed in cases where there is conflict. How do the teenagers relay their experiences to you?
When you’re dealing with teenagers—and any parent of teenagers will tell you this—teens are all about “me, myself, and I.” They want to make sure that their social life is not being disturbed in any way whatsoever. Sometimes the parents are screwing that up, and are making their kids’ lives, their world, a little nastier or more complicated than it should be. So, when I meet with teenagers, they tell me about what’s important to them: their friends, their extracurricular activities, and they just want to make sure things remain in their normal state.
Do you sometimes find yourself in the role of a parenting coach or a mediator when you’re working with the parents?
Sometimes. They’re presenting issues to me, and they’re usually co-parenting issues. I want to help them learn how to co-parent because co-parenting is what’s going to help these kids and keep the kids out of the conflict.
But sometimes you need to get other experts involved. I’m not enough. There are also mental health professionals, therapists, parenting coaches, parenting facilitators, etc.
What is the difference between an amicus attorney and a guardian ad litem?
As an amicus attorney, I don’t have an attorney-client relationship with the child like an ad litem would, and I don’t have a fiduciary responsibility. What I’m doing is talking to the kids, to other witnesses, and to the therapists, and then I’m giving a recommendation to the court. That recommendation is not given behind closed doors. I’m participating in all hearings and then taking on witnesses and doing cross and direct examinations, putting together evidence, and then giving a recommendation to the court on what should happen.
So, if people were to attend a courtroom where an amicus attorney has been appointed, they wouldn’t necessarily know the difference because the amicus attorney is doing the same things that the other attorneys are.
Exactly. The only difference is I’m sitting at a table by myself. I don’t have a client sitting with me.
If you’re representing the children, is it your job to do what the children tell you to do?
That’s a really good question. Here’s an example I give to parents:
Sometimes, a teenager might say, “Hey, I really want to live primarily with my mom.” I’ll encourage them to tell me about it, and kids are smart. They’ll say, “Oh, well mom makes dinner every night, and she does this and that, and I just feel calmer.” However, when I investigate a situation, I might find out that the mom is serving alcohol to this child and their friends. That’s not what’s best for that child.
If you were in the role of the ad litem, you would be working at the direction of the children; they would be your actual clients. But when you’re working the role of the amicus attorney, it’s really about the best interest of the children, which is a much bigger topic.
Correct. What I think is so great about the amicus role is I get to “deep-dive” into these families, and I get to observe and learn more things than any judge on any case will ever get to. I think that really helps the case move along and promotes settlement as well.
That’s another big role of the amicus attorney—to help promote settlement and try to keep things out of a courtroom and to find solutions for the family.
Are you doing the same work as a custody evaluator?
Another kind of role often involved in high conflict litigation is a custody evaluation. Does your work overlap with the custody evaluator?
I’m not performing psychological evaluations or anything like that. I’m talking to witnesses, and sometimes in a custody evaluation, the custody evaluator will speak to the children. It’s at their discretion. If a custody evaluator is involved, I provide them with updates and give them information to aid them in their evaluation.
Who pays for an amicus attorney?
You’re another attorney appointed to the case, which can be expensive.
You’re right. It is another attorney at an hourly rate that you’re paying for this litigation. One of the things the court considers when deciding whether to appoint an amicus is whether these parties can afford it.
How can you avoid alienating one or the other parent?
I can imagine that when you’re working with families, there are times when you find that one parent is providing a better home environment for the children. I would imagine having to take sides can be a difficult situation.
Absolutely. Sometimes you end up being aligned with one side, and that can feel alienating to the other parent. I always try to make sure that the other parent doesn’t feel alienated, and I give them tools and direction, and guidance on what they need to do to improve the parenting and the co-parenting relationship.
What factors do you consider as the amicus attorney when you are looking at the best interest of the children?
The “best interest of the children” is such vital terminology but it’s nebulous, and there’s a lot of discretion involved.
I think the biggest factor to consider is the parents’ relationship with each other and how much either parent is involved in bringing the children into the litigation. Secondly, what’s going on behind the scenes? Because these children do tell on their parents, and they don’t like it when one parent badmouths the other parent. If I had to pick, those would be the two biggest things I look at. It’s always moving and making sure that there’s progress being made in the right direction.
Those are two really important factors—the co-parenting relationship and protecting your children from the litigation.
In what ways do parents mess up their relationship with the amicus attorney?
For me, it’s when they do not communicate and avoid my calls in the beginning of the relationship. I give a very detailed analysis of what my work is going to entail and what I need them to do to help me get my job done. Sometimes parents follow that, and sometimes parents blow it off.
How did you get involved in this work and what led you to family law?
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a lawyer. My parents got divorced, and the process started when I was nine and didn’t finish until I was 12. That’s not normal; it was a very litigious and nasty divorce. I didn’t have an amicus attorney, and I could have really benefited from having an adult out there to listen to me and my little brother about what we were experiencing. I also think it could have helped my parents. That motivated me to get into family law, and I’ve been practicing for almost 17 years. Having experience in family law and getting board-certified opened the door for the amicus attorney work, and I do a couple of cases per year.
It’s rewarding, but it’s so challenging. You get to know these kids personally, and it’s so different than just representing people in divorce or custody actions. My motivation, and I think my purpose in life, is to help people going through these difficult situations get to the other side better. It’s rewarding to see the children and their parents’ lives improve once they start to use the tools.
What important tools do you encourage parents to use these days?
You know, we need a driver’s license to operate a car, but we don’t need a license to become a parent, so I think all parents should be constantly working on that role and educating themselves on things that they can do better.
Something that I give—even to my regular clients—is co-parenting tools. I send books to them to help them with the co-parenting relationship. Most courts require parents to take a co-parenting online class, and I think that’s beneficial. It seems like common sense, but so many people don’t do what they’re supposed to be doing. I think it’s about constantly educating yourself and trying to improve as a person.
We find a lot of parents are so unprepared when they enter a high conflict situation. People’s natural reaction is not always the best, but if they’re open to education and they’re open to learning more about how they can show up in a better way for their children, they can really make a difference in the lives of their kids.
Absolutely. There are so many books out there. There are podcasts. There are classes. There’s also information on how to communicate with someone who’s being hostile toward you and the best tools to use to limit the hostility in your communications.
We did an interview with Bill Eddy a while back on helping high conflict co-parents. He’s so insightful and has so many great tools for helping people.
He does. His is one of the books that I send to my clients—the one that came out in the fall of 2020 that deals with online communications. In my opinion, the written word is not a good way to communicate. His book provides guidance on how to discuss a difficult issue that you need to keep a record of, in a non-hostile way.
And when we’re doing things in a non-hostile way, we can actually open the door to finding a solution.
I’m so impressed with the work that you’re doing with families. It takes a lot of courage to be an amicus and to step into these dynamics, but it’s so important for kids to have a voice and to be heard in that process. So, thank you!