Attorney Barbara Smith
Attorney Barbara Smith

Until death do us part. Though a familiar phrase, its concept is one not adhered to in Judaism.  In fact, if there is irreconcilable dissention between marital partners, Jews are allowed to dissolve the relationship rather than stay in a loveless marriage.

Even with this affirmation, divorce is never an easy solution. At best, spouses may remain cordial; at worst — well, much has been publicized about how painful the process can be.

Barbara Smith is one lawyer, however, who has built a practice seeking to ease this difficult undertaking. A graduate of Michigan State University and Cooley Law School with more than 30 years of professional experience, including serving as a district court magistrate and administrative law judge, she opened her own law office in Bloomfield Hills about 10 years ago and has been named a top lawyer in both family law/alternative dispute resolution and in mediation.

“I started my own practice and found that in addition to being a lawyer, I’m also a business owner,” Smith said. “I wanted to focus on mediation — primarily in the area of family law. Mediation is a skill set. The skill comes in how to mediate a resolution.”

Mediation is the process that comes at the end of a divorce, Smith said. Each party has an attorney, and as the last step before trial, the attorneys will choose a mediator or the court will appoint one from an approved list, of which Smith is a part. The attorneys and clients are in two rooms, and she goes back and forth between them until an agreement is reached.

Certain basic things must be determined in Michigan during divorce: One, if there are minor children, custody and support must be taken care of; and the marital estate must be divided. When after one or several sessions these issues are resolved, the resolution is presented in a judgment of divorce.

“What I decided to do, which I believe is unique, is mediate cases without attorneys. I have represented and continue to represent people in divorce and know what that process is. It’s adversarial, it can be very ugly and can leave a lot of wreckage in its wake. It’s a horrible, expensive and emotionally costly process.

“I understood there could be another way to do this. It’s important to note that I don’t represent either party, and I don’t advise them. I guide them through the process.

“Each case is different, but I walk the couple through one step at a time, and we slowly resolve every issue. If there are disputes, I help them work through them and, over time, we are able to reach an agreement, one that they have put together.”

With the guidance of a mediator, Smith noted, the parties craft a divorce in the same manner they crafted their marriage.

“It can be more amicable, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some difficult moments,” she said. “I don’t allow anything to get out of hand. My experience as a judge and mediator allows me to control most situations so everyone is comfortable.

“Because I don’t actually advise the parties, I strongly recommend they take the agreed-upon resolution to their attorneys for advisement. If the lawyer notices something that needs to be fine-tuned, he or she comes back to me and we work it out.”

In handling divorce through mediation without lawyers, Smith pointed out, her clients can save thousands of dollars.

“I really think this is the right way to get divorced,” she asserted. “I feel like I really helped people get through this in the most civil, mindful way possible. But it’s not right for every case. I do handle divorces and, in many cases, the people need to go through the ‘fight.’  Yet in many instances, mediation is the best policy for everyone involved.”

Smith, who grew up attending Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, is now a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, where in the late 1990s she was a member of the congregation’s board of directors. For several years, Smith was involved in Moies Chetim (“wheat fund”), hosting fundraising events for the distribution of food and holiday necessities for those in need at Passover. She also served on the board of the American Jewish Committee.

In Smith’s view, the most important thing in divorce where there are children are the children. Money issues can always be fixed, she said, but if mistakes are made with children, “you don’t get a second chance to fix them. Adults’ behavior during divorce can have lasting impacts on children, and unacceptable behavior can do irreparable harm. How you act with your kids during divorce is of paramount importance.

“It’s possible to get divorced without animosity, without turning a former spouse into an enemy,” she said. “With mediation, whether dealing with attorneys or not, I try to be a sane voice in a turbulent environment.”

By Judy Greenwald | Contributing Writer

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