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Divorce and Family Court Decorum in Rhode Island - Simple Tips for Represented Litigants

Ri_divorce_judgeBy:  Christopher A. Pearsall, RI Divorce and Family Court Lawyer*
a.k.a.  The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠

I realized 10 years ago that not everyone could afford a lawyer to represent them in court. Sure, there were some organizations that provided volunteer lawyers or lawyers who would take on a Pro Bono case in Rhode Island.  The trouble was that they were quickly saturated with people who wanted a free lawyer for their case.  Yet there wasn't a service that I could find that offered help to individuals so they could represent themselves properly in their own divorces.  So in 2006 I became the Rhode Island Divorce Coach to do just that less than the cost of typical representation.

Recently I was reminded of a few lessons I give people in courtroom decorum.  As lawyers I suppose we treat these things as commonplace or perhaps even common sense.  They aren't common sense to everyone though.  Sometimes, they aren't followed by long time practicing attorneys. 

I've always thought stories are the best teachers so let me give you an example.  Keep in mind that  " . . . " means that someone was trying to continue talking.

The Divorce of Todd McFadden vs. Sarah Jacobsen

Todd McFadden and his wife Sarah Jacobsen were getting divorced.  Todd was the filing party ("Plaintiff").  Sarah was the party served with the initial Rhode Island divorce complaint ("Defendant").  Todd's lawyer filed a Motion for Temporary Orders.  Sarah's lawyer objected to that motion..  Here is how the dialogue went in the courtroom.

JUDGE:  So we're here on Plaintiff's Motion for Temporary Orders, correct counsel?

Todd's Lawyer:  Yes, your Honor.

JUDGE:  Okay counsel, I'll hear from you first.  Then I'll hear from Defendant's counsel.

Todd's Lawyer:  Your honor we are moving for Orders allowing only the Plaintiff to be the one to bring the two minor children to their soccer practices and games.

JUDGE:  Reasoning counsel?

Todd's Lawyer:  The Defendant mother already has a boyfriend only 4 weeks into this divorce.  She has been exposing these minor children to this boyfriend.  She and the boyfriend pick up and drop off the children to their soccer practices and games.  It's our position and hopefully the court's that to prevent confusion or irreparable damage to the children at this delicate time in this family's life that it's in the best interests of the children that the Plaintiff be the one who drops off and/or picks up the children.

JUDGE:  Okay, defendant's counsel may I hear your objection.

Sarah's Lawyer:  Thank you.  My client's objection is that she has always brought the children to their soccer practices and games and to change their routine would be detrimental to the children's routine during the divorce.

JUDGE:  But counsel I'm sure you understand that exposing the minor children to her boyfriend before this case is finished is poor judgment and could damage the children and . . .

Sarah:  He's not my boyfriend. He . . .

Todd:  Judge, he is too her boyfriend!  C'mon Sarah, I've had an investigator following you since before I filed for divorce.

JUDGE:  Counsel, kindly get your client's under control.  They should be aware how we do things in a court of law.

Both Lawyers:  Yes, Judge.

[Each lawyer whispers to their client.]

Judge:  So, we have mom who's always been bringing the children to soccer practices and games routinely but now she's bringing them with an alleged boyfriend who supposedly the Plaintiff can verify with a private detective who has been following them. So I'd . . .

Sarah's Lawyer:  Judge we don't think he's been having her followed at all and . . .

Judge: [Facial Expression at Sarah's lawyer) As I was saying, I'm be inclined to want to keep mom bringing the children for consistency since she's always done it [Todd whispers to his lawyer] yet because of this boyfriend issue . . .

Todd:  What?  But she hasn't....

Todd's Lawyer:  [Putting his hand on Todd's shoulder to silence him.] But judge mom hasn't been routinely . . .

Judge:  [To Todd's Lawyer]: Counsel, was I speaking?  I believe I was and ....

Todd's Lawyer:  Yes Judge, but...

Judge:  That's enough.  I've heard you both.  Plaintiff's Motion is denied.  I'm ordering that the Defendant mother shall continue to bring the minor children to and from their soccer practices and games but she is prohibited from bringing any unrelated person of the opposite sex with her on pickups and drop offs.

Todd's Lawyer:  But . . .

Judge:  Yes.

Todd's Lawyer:  Judge please note my exception to your decision for the record.

Judge:  So noted.

You would be amazed how big some things that seem so small can be so big.  Hopefully you were able to identify the three (3) big lessons in courtroom etiquette that can be learned from this simple little exchange.  After you look at them, see if you can figure out which things made the biggest difference.

1.  Let Counsel Speak for You:  If you've hired a lawyer, then you've hired him or her for a reason.  Lawyers are hired for their expertise in a particular area of law including the manner in which the court should be addressed.  In this case it was divorce and the family court system.  So let the lawyer do what you hired him or her to do.  When you have a lawyer a client who jumps in and speaks directly to the judge without being asked to do so directly by the judge or their lawyer is considered being rude and shows a lack of respect for the court. Whatever your good intentions may be, keep your mouth shut until your lawyer or the judge ask you to address the court, otherwise you are most likely going to hurt your case.  If you look back in the dialogue above, you will see that both Todd and Sarah addressed the judge directly and the judge actually scolded their attorneys and told them to get their client's under control.  They both hurt their cases by not having their attorneys address what needed to be said instead of speaking out of turn without the court's permission.

2.  Don't Speak to the Other Party: Unless the court has requested that there be direct discussion between the two parties while in a court hearing, don't do it!  , then do not directly talk to the other party.  If you were going to directly talk to the other party in the first instance you should not be in court at all and you should have been able to resolve the matter without even being in court.  Once again, this is considered rude and disrespectful to the court, especially when you have hired a lawyer who is responsible for presenting your case to the court.  In this case look at the testimony.  Todd directly addressed Sarah and while the tone isn't evident the wording leads us to believe that he was using a condescending tone.  Todd hurt his case with the judge here and started sending his own motion on a downward spiral.

3.  Don't Interrupt the Judge: When the judge is talking, even if what the judge is saying seems wrong, you do not interrupt the judge.  That is not only rude but it is one of the biggest offenses to a judge and with good reason.  You are before the court asking for something.  If the judge is speaking and you interrupt, then you have now offended the very person that you are asking to give you some relief.  If you were going to ask someone for a short term loan and before you gave them the loan you did something that was a slap in the face to the person, you just decreased the chances of getting that loan by more than 50%.  The same is true for court.  It is a place of respect.  You disrespect the person running your hearing in that court and it's just like a slap in the fact.  Here, after Sarah interrupted the judge, Todd continued the interruption.  Why is that significant?  Because Todd should have had enough time and common sense to mentally process that Sarah had done something wrong that he should not do, namely interrupt the judge.  Yet he not only continued the interruption of the judge, making it longer and wasting the court's time but he also interrupted Sarah and spoke directly to her, neither of which he should have done.  Todd compounded the problem.  If Todd had looked at the judge he might well have caught a cue from the judge's facial expressions or mannerisms that he/she was not happy about it.

Which way to do you think the judge would have ruled if Todd had interrupted the judge and spoke directly to Sarah?  If he had asked his attorney to address the issue and the attorney had done so correctly, what to you thing the result would have been then?

Can you see that the judge seemed to be going in Todd's direction until he and the lawyer opened their mouths in a disrespectful manner to the court?

Do you think Todd's lawyer could have salvaged this motion and won it?

When you are represented by a lawyer in a Rhode Island divorce case or otherwise, take your cues from the lawyer.  It is all too easy to let your emotions get the better of you and make grievous mistakes in etiquette that end up losing you a motion or your entire case.

In my professional opinion, this motion was not lost in this case based on the law, facts or evidence. Todd's motion was lost in this court hearing solely due to disrespect of the court and the presiding judge.

 *Note:  Any resemblance to any real persons or situations currently before the court is merely coincidental and/or accidental.



Rhode Island's Notice of Automatic Orders in Divorces and Family Law Cases... E-Filing causes timing issue.

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 6.15.03 PMBy:  Christopher A. Pearsall, Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer

When you file for divorce in Rhode Island, the Notice of Automatic Orders becomes effective the moment the plaintiff (i.e. the filing party) signs the complaint for divorce.  In most circumstances, this Order's provisions becomes effective for the defendant (i.e. the party being served with divorce papers) once he or she is served with the divorce documents.

So what is the Notice of Automatic Orders?  It is a document printed signed by the Chief Judge of the family court that is included in your Rhode Island divorce documents. More significantly, it is a Rhode Island law.

If you would like to see what it looks like as of the writing of this article you can download it here -> RI_Notice_of_Automatic_Orders

As of the writing of this posting, it is Rhode Island General Laws §15-5-14.1.   The plaintiff is must be aware of and abide by the provisions of the Notice of Automatic Orders at the time he or she signs the Complaint for Divorce.  The defendant is expected to be aware of (and must abide by) the provisions of the Notice of Automatic Orders at the time he or she is served with the document along with the complaint for divorce and the other service documents.

It is extremely important to note that this Notice of Automatic Orders used to be a document that was prepared and included in the filing party's divorce packet.  When it was done in this way it was easy for a plaintiff to be aware of the document.  The plaintiff either had to put it in the packet himself or herself or if the plaintiff hired a lawyer then the lawyer would go over the document with the person at the time the divorce complaint was signed. 

Today documents are e-filed by lawyers and the court creates both the Summons and Notice of Automatic Orders.  If you or your lawyer don't keep this in mind, this new timing issue could cause a problem.

An example illustrates this best.

Daniel is representing himself (i.e. "PRO SE") in his own divorce.  He prepares all of the documents himself including the Complaint for Divorce which he signs before a notary public at a local bank.  He files his divorce complaint and the other supporting documents that constitute his divorce packet with the court.  Two days later Daniel goes to the bank and empties out his joint bank account that he holds with his spouse.  At this point Daniel doesn't have the service packet documents which include the Notice of Automatic Orders that the court now prepares for you.

Daniel calls the court a day later and finds that the service packet of documents to be served on his spouse is ready. Daniel picks it up and has it served on his spouse by a local constable.

Daniel's spouse hires a lawyer and immediately re receives a Motion to Adjudge him in Willful Contempt of the Notice of Automatic Orders because Daniel violated the very first provision which prohibits moving or removing assets and went into effect the moment he signed his divorce complaint before a notary.

Daniel thinks it's easy.  He goes to court and tells the judge that he didn't know about the provision in the Notice of Automatic Orders so how could he abide by them.  He argues that they weren't even prepared by the court until after he had already removed the monies.

The judge is not impressed.  The judge orders Daniel to give his spouse 60% of the money he took out and to pay his spouse's lawyer fees and costs of $750 for having to file the motion and appear at court to argue it and pay his spouse for whatever time may have been lost from work.

Daniel is furious.  He continues to argue that he doesn't think it's fair that he is held to the requirements of a document that he couldn't have known about because it wasn't created yet by the court at the time when he acted.

The judge's response was simple,

"Perhaps you should have hired a lawyer who knows our divorce laws.  The Rhode Island Automatic Orders are in our state's domestic relations laws, our RI Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure, our E-filing Guidelines and the Family Court's Administrative Orders.  Ignorance of our laws is never a defense nor an excuse.  So do not blame the court.  If you are looking for someone to blame here sir, then I suggest you look in a mirror."

Being a good divorce and family law in lawyer in Rhode Island has become more challenging in today's age of technology and everchanging rules.  The RI Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure have been rewritten and revised several times over.  Formal procedures sometimes differ from what the rules indicate and even as an experienced Rhode Island family lawyer it often becomes a challenge.

When you hire a lawyer, make sure that you are shown the Notice of Automatic Orders and that you read them thoroughly before you sign your complaint for divorce under oath.  Don't let any lawyer let you skip it.  A good lawyer will take the time to go over the law that you are held to.  If a lawyer wants you to skip the Notice of Automatic Orders or just tells you to trust him or her and sign on the dotted line, rethink the lawyer you chose. Every good lawyer should take the time to keep you informed for your protection as a client.

Affordability Doesn't Come Cheap When Trying to Find a Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer!

Picture of Attorney Christopher Pearsall
Atty Chris Pearsall

Authored By:  Christopher Pearsall, RI Divorce Attorney
a.k.a.  " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "

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Publisher on Google+

There is a huge PRO SE movement going forward in the Rhode island Family Courts.  The court schedules have people representing themselves in their own cases every day.  Beside each listing for those people it says "PRO SE."  The listings used to be few and far between on the Rhode Island divorce and family court calendars but today they are everywhere.

I started wondering why this newer "PRO SE" movement had grown so large when your legal rights relating to your family law matters are so very important such that even one mistake can cause irreparable harm. 

So months ago I began listening to people more intently at court, in my office, and in public commentaries in print and online.  For my result I focused on three (3) questions that might help understand this PRO SE trend on the family court calendars.


1)  Is it that all divorce lawyers are viewed as being too expensive? 

2)  Is it that people simply don't have the money to hire a divorce lawyer in any capacity? 

3)  Or could it be that the Rhode Island family court is making divorces easier and people don't see the perils of representing themselves?

The answer related not to one or two of the questions but to all three (3).

The vast majority of people I listened to and considered related mostly to Rhode Island divorces but still I kept my ears open about comments by people talking about lawyers, their consultations with other lawyers, editorials and other materials.  I found that the vast majority of people in the middle class viewed lawyers as being drastically overpaid, expensive and not worth the monies they would be paid and so they would rather go PRO SE and save themselves expensive attorney's fees.

A good many people also believed that representation in a divorce or family law matter was the only option available to them and therefore concluded that since they simply didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to represent them to protect their rights that they were forced to go forward PRO SE and represent themselves.

Lastly, there were quite a few people who didn't want to spend any money on getting divorced and heard through a friend or relative that not only was the court giving out the questions that they should be prepared to answer at the hearing but that the judge's were, in fact, leading them through the divorce and therefore a lawyer was unnecessary.

The reasoning used by most of the people who were part of my private study was interesting but flawed for two reasons. 

First, people need to understand that representation is not the only form of legal assistance available in the Rhode Island legal community.  Coaching in divorce and other areas of law has been around for years.  This is legal assistance that lawyers provide to clients on an "as desired basis" or "as affordable basis" to clients who cannot afford full-service "in court" representation but who must represent themselves due to the cost but still need to know their rights and the proper procedure for asserting those rights. 

The challenge of finding one of these "Coaching" attorneys is that many of them still focus on full-service in-court representations and they do not openly promote their "coaching services" which brings in a small amount of income and a greater level of liability exposure for what they are paid.  As you can imagine then, this is not the focus of many practitioners and this option is often only revealed when a prospective client discloses that he or she cannot afford the full-service representation.  Yet coaching has become a substantial way to exercise your constitutional right to represent yourself, save a considerable amount of money compared to full representation and yet still have access to an experienced lawyer to learn about your legal rights as well as the procedure you can use to press those rights before the court.

Yet coaching and it's affordability doesn't come cheap.  It's price?  It can take substantial time and effort to find an attorney who offers coaching in the area of law that you need assistance with (family law or otherwise) and therefore if you want the affordability it comes at a sacrifice of your time and effort to find such an attorney.

Second, people need to understand that the questions provided by the court in the divorce papers are merely general questions that can relate to many divorces.  They were not created necessarily to help the public but to help the judges by providing a guide that PRO SE people could follow, regardless of whether it was right or not for your divorce.  However, that particular determination is yours to make because you are acting as your own lawyer and the protector of your own rights when you are PRO SE.  The judges may even ask you the questions on that sample sheet.  Litigants look at this as kindly helping them through the process just as they should be going through it.  This presumption is dead wrong.  The judge asks you questions that the judge knows apply to most divorces because the judge needs to make findings of fact and a decision affecting the parties' rights at the end of the hearing.  Without specific content the judge can't make the required findings of fact and the decisions in the case.  The judge's job is to give you your day in court and to clear his or her docket properly and legally of the cases on it.  It is your job to protect your own rights.  The sample questions you are given DO NOT protect your legal rights.  If the judge asks you the sample questions or other questions during the divorce proceeding, this is not designed to protect your legal rights.

It is YOUR JOB and ONLY YOUR JOB to know your rights and to protect them during any divorce or family law proceeding in the Rhode Island Courts.  So, if you represent yourself, PRO SE, and you miss something, forget something, mis-state something, or misunderstand something then you should understand that you should not expect that you should or even can sue the State of Rhode Island or the Judge who presided over your proceeding.

If you want a cheaper or more affordable divorce and you feel up to representing yourself, then by all means you have the constitutional right to do so but you should most assuredly get some coaching from an experienced family law practitioner who offers coaching and can inform you about your rights, the procedures, etc...  Naturally your level of protection and safety in the proceeding relates to the amount of coaching and advice you are willing to engage the attorney for, but it is better than thinking that you know as much as a lawyer who has been doing this for many years and has read the law, or than thinking that the court is already protecting you so you don't need a lawyer at all. 

If you don't know your legal rights in a divorce and how to protect them, you might as well not have them.

In a Complaint or Complaint or Counterclaim for Divorce in RI what do I ask for?

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Atty Chris Pearsall

Authored By:  Christopher Pearsall, RI Divorce Attorney
a.k.a.  " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "

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So you are going to file a complaint or counterclaim for divorce in RI, what do you ask for, right?

If you look at the Rhode Island Family Court's standard Complaint for Divorce form there is a "WHEREFORE CLAUSE."  This is where it states that you are asking the court to grant you an absolute divorce and ...   Of course space is left after this clause to allow you to type in whatever it is that you are asking the court for.

The main question people have regarding this clause is "What do I ask for?"  Ultimately, you can ask for things specifically like this and list all the things that you want:

"and . . . the 1989 Chrysler Lebaron SE, half of our dvd video collection, half of all the furniture including the bedroom set, the bank account in my name, my 401k, my coin collection, etc..."

Or, you could ask for things generally in this manner:

"and . . . a fair distribution of the assets and debts from the marriage, appropriate orders regarding health insurance coverage and out-of-pocket expenses, denial of alimony to my spouse, and the resumption of my maiden or former name of "Smith" and whatever else the court finds is fair and just.

Now a few of the questions you might be asking yourself are:

1.  Should I ask for things the specific way or the general way?

2.  Is there any difference between asking the specific way or the general way?

3.  If there is a difference, what is the difference?

4.  If I do things the specific way, what happens if I forget something?

5.  Are there any benefits to doing it the general manner?

6.  Do these examples include everything I should ask for?

These are excellent questions to be sure and they aren't the only questions you would want to ask or have answered.

Since this is a general article and is not about any one couple or case, the answers will vary depending upon the couple.

Should you use the general or specific manner to ask the court for relief?  Well, it all depends upon the circumstances, your style and what you trying to accomplish.  Even divorce lawyers differ regarding the answer to this and several of the other questions.

Obviously there is a difference between using the specific and general manner of telling the court what you want.  One clearly tells the court and the opposing spouse what you want while the other one simply tells the court that you want to do it's job under the law and divide things "equitably" as it is required to by law when asked to.  

Good long-term lawyers who care about their divorce clients would most likely say that the more pertinent questions a person should ask are, "How many differences are there between the specific and general manner?  And what significance does each difference make?  These questions, however, depend substantially on the couple involved and the dynamic of their divorce, including how well they are getting along, whether they have children, how old the children are, and other significant factors that a good lawyer weighs carefully with each case.  Therefore, exact answers to these questions aren't really possible in this article.

Does it matter if you are using the specific manner and you miss something?  The answer is this "it might!"  Does it seem as though I am evading answering the question?  Though it might look that way, I'm not.  The fact is that answers to each question are case specific and depends upon the facts of the case, what it is that might have been missed, and even whether the judge assigned to the case believes in following the letter of the law or believes in following a path of using his or her discretion regarding such matters.

In conclusion, I can answer one question with certainty and clarity.  These examples do not even come close to including everything that might be included in a person's request for relief in a divorce.   In fact, several requests that are common and may be necessary have not been included.

Do you know what those things are?

If you don't, then I will have achieved the point of my article.

Let me explain.  Right now I guesstimate that about 75% of people are filing their own divorces in the RI Providence County Family Court alone.  Yet here we are asking about just one single paragraph on the standard court form for the Complaint for Divorce and/or the closely eqivalent request for relief in a Counterclaim for Divorce.

This ONE paragraph that makes a HUGE difference in your divorce whether you file the Complaint for Divorce or a Counterclaim for Divorce.  It has to do with what you want to ask the court to award in the divorce.

Now if 75% of people filing in Providence County's family court are doing this on their own and they don't know all the answers to the questions in this short article then I'd be willing to bet that unless they are lawyers that 74% of them are GETTING THIS IMPORTANT PART WRONG!

Why is this significant?  Here's the kicker!  If you go through your own divorce without the help and coaching of an attorney and you missed something in this crucial paragraph, then some people are going to make errors that are going to be permanent that even the best divorce attorney in Rhode Island is never going to be able to undo!

Whether you are in an uncontested or contested divorce, the risks are still there!  If you don't see the need for either a divorce lawyer or some divorce coaching from a Rhode Island lawyer by this short article, then my very best to you and good luck.  

There's a reason I only practice divorce and family law in our state. The complexities and significance of what needs to be done and considered in a divorce are enough to take up more than one lifetime.  I felt that was enough... and after more than a dozen years doing this.. I know I was right.





A Call to RI Divorce Lawyers to Push Uncontested Divorces to Help People!

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Atty Chris Pearsall

Authored By:  Christopher Pearsall, RI Divorce Attorney
a.k.a.  " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "

Publisher and Author on Google+

When I started the development of the RI Divorce Coaching program other attorneys said it wouldn't work. No one was behind me except my wife. 

Primarily, attorney colleagues consistently told me they would not participate in the program because they wouldn't make enough money promoting the program. 

 Secondarily, my fellow Rhode Island attorneys said it would not be effective because people in Rhode Island would not be receptive to the fact they they could actually understand the process and take themselves through Rhode Island's Uncontested Divorce/Nominal Hearing process to the Final Judgment because they were too ingrained in traditional legal representation.

Well, after 5 1/2 years of coaching the program speaks for itself.  While I had projected and even hoped for an 85% success rate of the program over the 4 year period, I have been amazed to find that upon reaching a milestone of 4 years of continuous coaching for laypeople of Uncontested Divorce Coaching, the plan itself and my coaching clients have achieved a 99.9% success rate.

No, that is not a misquote.  99.9% of those who engage in all aspects of the program have achieved their Final Judgment of Divorce with minor adjustments in only 2 instances with countless successes, each of which were handled with ease by the client after the appropriate coaching.

Rhode Island attorneys I'm asking you to give me a call.  Pro Se filings for Divorces are on the rise but these people need guidance. I have created a detailed explanatory program that is helpful to people who can't afford the cost of representation.  It's more affordable and works in stages.  Sure, it's not the big money you might like.  Yet if you spend your time helping more people in coaching aspects of your practice the money adds up and believe it or not your liability is reduced.

If your law practice is slower and you need to supplement your law practice income stream, I welcome you to contact me.  This concept is growing and already two attorneys in other states have not only picked up on it but they have expanded it into other areas of practice.  People call me directly seeking my coaching services and most of my coaching clients who aren't excessively busy are more than happy to provide me with a great testimonial for my legal services and particularly the coaching services.  

to lawyers to bring it to the public to improve their practices and help people with their uncontested divorces.  While for some attorneys it is not the most profitable service compared to representation.  

RI Divorce Coaching is a valuable service to afford us as attorneys the opportunity to assist people in their uncontested divorces when th.  Payment is at the time of the service and coaching clients are informed about how to go about presenting their own rights and claims in court in an amicable manner.

I will be releasing a complete program together with the structure of my program for a fee similar to a franchise.  I have followed this structure and improved it for over 5 years with the input and construtive criticism of my uncontested divorce coaching clients and though continuing to develop it is a way to expand your practice using a new and effective system for attorneys to market themselves from a new prospective.

I welcome lawyers or coaching clients interested in learning more about how client's can handle their own uncontested Rhode Island divorce cases as if they were their own attorneys.

Whether you are interested in purchasing the program as an attorney to offer it to clients, or a client who needs the help from this program to save the money because of limited financial resources, feel free to call me at (401) 632-6976 for an attorney's briefing on the program or to get a client's first affordable Coaching & Advice Session to get a real solid grasp on what to expect from the RI Family Court System as it relates to your circumstances.