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Corporate lawyer's involvement in Harold Hamm divorce trial: not so unusual

A thorough and informative story on the Hamm divorce trial in Oklahoma raises questions about the degree of involvement of a lawyer for Continental Resources, of which Mr. Hamm is the founder, CEO and major shareholder. But I can't see any one thing in the story that is unique or wrong; it is just the size of the company and the personal fortune at stake that make it a story.

It is very common for employers and their in-house counsel to get concerned about their information coming out in a divorce trial, or other things that could affect the employer or fellow employees. Here in the Washington area, that is true of federal agencies as well as private employers. And it applies to many middle-class litigants, not just CEOs. In-house counsel generally try to do this by working with the parties and their lawyers, but I have seen them formally intervene and appear in the courtroom.

As for where the lawyer sat in the courtroom and his role in arguments and in informal conversation, that is a matter of local custom and usage and nothing in the story sounds particularly unusual. Just like the court-appointed lawyers or "guardians ad litem" for children, whom I deal with routinely in my cases, he had to find a place to sit in a courtroom designed for a two-sided case. Nearly everywhere you choose to sit or stand is freighted with meaning. Would it look better, or worse, to sit at one side's counsel table? The bailiff's chair? The judge's bench? The witness stand? Family law cases don't have juries except in a couple states, so the jury box often is used for overflow seating.

Judges rightly resent the implication that they are so weak-willed that they would be influenced or "intimidated" by anyone, especially a lawyer, no matter how accomplished or well-heeled.

The reporters got several commentators to speculate about the lawyer's involvement posing a conflict with other shareholders' interests, but all the comments are just that: speculation. Or, as we say in law school at exam time, "issue-spotting". Flagging problems that could come up in theory and in practice, but which might not be actual problems. To some extent, that is a lawyer's job. But because it is so highly prized in our law school exams, we often forget that it is not our main job, but only the first step in what clients and society need us to do.

Special Report: In oil baron's divorce, company lawyer plays star role


Postscript: On Nov. 10 the court issued its ruling. It awarded Mrs. Hamm $999.5 million out of a fortune of over $14 billion. It sounds like the disparity is mostly because his ownership of his company, which he held before marriage, appreciated "400-fold", but more from market conditions and the work of other executives and employees, and only partly from his own efforts during the marriage. 


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