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Are Lawyers Really Like Laura Dern's Character In "Marriage Story?"

Posted by Elizabeth Steen | Jan 15, 2020 | 0 Comments

Ever since this terrifying movie came out, everyone wants to know how realistic the Laura Dern character of a divorce lawyer really was. Short answer: Incredibly realistic.

The plot follows the story of Scarlett Johannsen and Adam Driver, who are divorcing after an affair. Scarlett wants to live in California with her family. Adam wants to stay in New York where his career and friends are. There's no middle ground. The two talk about being amicable, but as soon as Scarlett hires a lawyer, played by Laura Dern, they're sucked into a situation where they spend almost all of a $120,000 MacArthur Genius Grant on their divorce.

The movie shows you exactly how lawyers get you to spend your money, even when you think, wrongly, that you're in charge.

First, Laura Dern tells her client that there is no compromise. She flatters Scarlett and makes it feel like the situation is life or death. Scarlett is given ONE option and told to dig in, with a few insults aimed at Adam, to justify the harsh position. Then Laura Dern finds all the negative information she can about Adam and calls him to threaten to take away his son completely (legally very rare) so that he will also hire a lawyer and fight. Then she weaponizes everything Scarlett has told her against Adam in their mediation.

The mediation was obviously never intended to end with a deal. Laura Dern starts the mediation with a “take it or leave it” offer that she knows Adam will turn down. You can practically see her spending the money she's going to get in her head as Adam struggles to understand that he can either give up everything or keep fighting.

Now, thanks to the lawyer's tricks, Adam is also dug in and unwilling to compromise. Adam's lawyer, who was hired to compromise and settle, points out that if Scarlett won't give up anything, then someone is going to have to, and the fight will be expensive and not worth it. Adam fires the nice lawyer and hires another version of Laura Dern.

This still gets him nowhere. Laura Dern and her counterpart trade insults about Adam and Scarlett until both of them are crying. The judge doesn't care. The two don't realize they've been set up and continue to pay the lawyers because they don't know how else to get out of the mess they're in.

Eventually everything settles down as time passes. Adam accepts the first deal that he spend $100,000 fighting about. Laura Dern still tries to get him to keep fighting. She asks for something more than he's offered, which was a total capitulation, right before he signs the papers because she “Didn't want him to be able to say he won.” Adam gives up and signs anyway.

That series of manipulations is EXACTLY how lawyers spend your money not doing what you want. Lawyers can push you to fight even when you think you're only doing what's right. Every step of the way, the lawyer try to pick an even bigger fight. Because fighting = legal fees.

The only way to win that game is to not play. If both parents can sit down and try to brainstorm options for their new life, then no one has to lose. You may not end with everything you want, but you also won't spend $100,000.

About the Author

Elizabeth Steen

Elizabeth Steen is licensed in Washington State as well as Washington D.C. After work, Elizabeth enjoys making her West Seattle renowned flan recipe with her daughter, which she’s willing to share with favorite clients. She also enjoys hiking, yoga and chasing her family’s fantasy football league title every fall.


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