11/14/2011 12:40 EST | Updated 01/13/2012 05:12 EST

What Kind of Divorce Client Are You?


Brahm Siegel is a Toronto family law and divorce lawyer, mediator and arbitrator. He will answer your questions on all aspects of family law. Write to him at

Magnet Holders and Dust Collectors

Even though I've had over a thousand clients so far in my career, they are all easily divided into two groups: magnet holders and dust collectors.

Magnet holders are clients who take their newly signed separation agreement and put it on their fridge with a huge magnet. They refer to it daily, like their own personal constitution or Bible, and when the other parent does something which falls afoul of even the most minor of terms, they send an email and seek some kind of corrective behaviour. When the email does not result in the desired change, they call their former lawyer and a few days later a letter is received threatening to take the case back to court at much expense and cost.

Dust collectors are the opposite. These clients put their newly signed agreements in a drawer and let them collect -- you guessed it -- dust. When things change or new issues crop up which no one thought of in the negotiations, they do not threaten to re-open the case or rush to the lawyer's office seeking advice. They speak to the other parent, try to work with them and spend their time and energy on resolving the problem.

You will not be surprised to hear me advocate for dust collectors. Research shows, time and again, that children of divorce do better if their parents focus on being dust collectors than magnet holders. It matters not a whit whether the children come from rich or poor families, their cultural background or what part of the city or country they live. The single biggest predictor of how well children do post-divorce is the level of conflict between the parents.

The interesting thing is this. When I explain the two kinds of "personalities" to clients and warn them about the pitfalls of being a magnet holder, guess what I hear?

"Oh, don't worry about that, Brahm. I'm the dust collector in the family. My ex, however, she's the magnet holder".

So, either I've been the luckiest divorce lawyer in the country all these years or else there's a discrepancy between how clients perceive their own actions and how their former partners perceive them.

What sort of issues crop up that can help you determine whether you're really a dust collector or magnet holder?

  • Pick-Up and Return Times: How do react when your former spouse returns the children 10 minutes late? How about 40 minutes? Do you slough it off, ask for the children to be returned early next time or do you ask for the next visit to be forfeited?
  • Switching Weekends: How well do you respond when your former spouse announces he'd like to switch weekends because his girlfriend's mother's brother is getting remarried and they'd like your children to be in the wedding party -- on your weekend? Do you agree to make the dresses or tell him "over my dead body"?
  • Introducing New Partners: Even though your separation agreement states that neither of you will introduce the children to a new partner for six months, you bump into your own children with your former spouse and his new beau (arm and arm) at the mall -- a week after the agreement is signed. Do you all sit down for a friendly latte or do you duck into Abercrombie and Fitch pretending not to notice them?

If you find yourself falling short on these examples, you're not alone. It's not just clients who can be divided up into these categories: we lawyers can too. So, when you're choosing yours, try to find one known for helping clients resolve disputes, not foster them. If you have a good lawyer, she will work with you and help you determine which issues are truly worth fighting about and which are better left -- you guessed it -- in the drawer.

Collecting dust.

Have a question about family law? Ask Brahm at