By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Gery Petrof
Within a few months, the wife informed McGrae that the abuse had resumed.
“I asked her, ‘What could I have said six months ago that would have convinced you to testify?’” McGrae, now a partner at Newton & McGrae, says. “She said, ‘Nothing. I needed to get to this point on my own.’”
McGrae has since learned the threat of serious violence increases dramatically when a woman leaves an abusive relationship. “I have learned to trust my clients to know when it is the right time to leave. For some, it’s only when staying becomes as dangerous as leaving.”
Although McGrae says countless similar stories are disheartening, they have not hardened her heart. They have strengthened her resolve to help women at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives — when their marriages are unraveling. Not every woman going through a separation, divorce or custody battle is a victim of abuse. But when that is the case, McGrae draws on years as a prosecutor — along with experience working in women’s shelters, answering calls at a rape-crisis hotline, and serving as a legal advocate through a domestic violence shelter — to guide them through the emotional process.
Last year McGrae and Mark Newton launched the state’s only family law and mediation practice dedicated solely to women. McGrae, who had thought she would be a prosecutor “forever,” grew interested in family law when domestic abuse victims began asking if she could handle their divorces. Because family law was not her specialty then, she sought Newton’s guidance. Eventually, the two decided to partner professionally.
So why specialize in representing female clients?
“Men and women are different, and it felt controversial to say that for awhile,” McGrae says. “The feminist movement started with, ‘Men and women are equal,’ and it’s true, but that is only part of the story. The movement has evolved to recognize that, yes, we’re equal, but we’re different with different styles and different needs. Our law firm is specialized to the style and needs of women going through different aspects of the legal system.”
Women seeking counsel run the gamut from those married just six months to those who have celebrated their golden anniversaries. Some are financially secure while others delayed or postponed careers to raise children. Some are concerned about preparing for retirement, especially if their husbands were the primary breadwinners. But all wealth and savings accrued during the marriage — regardless of which spouse earned it — is marital income that must be divided.
“At its very core, divorce is a math problem,” McGrae says. “We’re dividing assets, which should not be that difficult. We have software that can tell us how things should happen. The problem is it takes awhile to separate emotion from the equation.”
It is difficult to split assets until both spouses work through their feelings around the divorce and accept their new reality, she adds. “In our culture, women are more open to dealing with the emotional side of divorce while men are often conditioned to focus on the business of divorce. We believe you can’t do one without the other.”
Financial worries are stressful if a woman requires support during the divorce process. After filing for divorce, it can take up to eight weeks to get a hearing before a judge or magistrate. McGrae guides women through the system and positions them for a brighter future. “Nobody gets married wanting to get divorced,” she says. “People are stuck and we can help with the unstuck. Ultimately, I believe it will be a happy ending. I get excited for where they’re destined to go.”
Getting clients there may entail counseling them on estate planning, tax issues, and bankruptcy. There is a growing awareness of divorce’s effect on children, so many couples are making more of an effort to discuss their children’s needs. Still, McGrae says, there are some “really, really ugly custody battles when the focus gets taken off the best interests of the children.”
“Until I did this work, I didn’t fully appreciate how difficult a process (divorce) is,” says McGrae, who is married and has a 16-year-old son. “Divorce is the end of a dream and the end of an era. It’s always hard.”
For more information: newtonandmcgrae.com