Bertus Preller, was recently interviewed in connection with his book “Everyone’s Guide to Divorce and Separation” published by Random House Struik (Zebra Press – 2013). So that you can get to know Bertus better, we have included excerpts from that interview.
How long have you been involved in law?
I was admitted as an attorney in 1989 and have almost 25 years’ experience of the law.
Where are you practicing at the moment?
I work at Abrahams and Gross Attorneys in Cape Town , but also consult on a weekly basis in Sandton Johannesburg. I basically attend to Family Law cases across the country and have pending cases in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria.
What are some examples of the types of cases that you handle?
I represent people in divorce, both in local and international divorce cases, care and contact (custody) disputes, access (visitation) / parental disputes, parenting plans, unmarried father’s rights, paternity cases, grandparents’ rights, step-parent and non-parent care and contact cases, international child abduction (Hague Convention) cases, relocation disputes, division of property, spousal maintenance and child maintenance matters, domestic violence and protection orders, child abuse cases, enforcement actions (where a person is seeking to enforce a court order), same-sex cases, cohabitation agreements, antenuptial agreements, family law mediation and collaborative divorce law, and other family law related matters. It also includes Mediation. In addition to being a litigator, I have also acted as a Mediator for many years.
Did you always want to be an attorney?
Ever since I can remember, I have always loved the idea of fighting for people who need help and helping the underdog. It was my goal, since being at high school in Grey College, to become an attorney.
How stressful is your work?
Being a family law attorney can be stressful. Our entire legal system is based on adversity and on two sides negotiating, or fighting in court, to achieve a resolution to their disputes. These negotiations, court appearances, and dealing with clients, judges and other attorneys are not exactly pleasant all the time. These relations require one to be tough, emotionally detached and sometimes even heartless. It is not fun, not glamorous and sometimes it does get ugly. The stress has a lot to do with the fact that almost everything you do is urgent and can have serious financial implications if you mess up in court, there are going to be major implications for your client. Having said this, I love to make a difference in people’s lives, especially where children are involved.
How do you spend your day/week?
My job duties include appearing in court on behalf of clients, drafting legal documents, communicating by letter and email, conducting consultations, performing legal research, reviewing financial documents, interviewing clients, talking to attorneys, and working with psychologists, and other experts. My day is varied, with no two days being exactly alike. The largest percentage of my work-week consists of writing letters and emails, talking on the telephone, reviewing emails and correspondence, consulting with clients, drafting pleadings, reviewing financial records, and preparing for court hearings – not the kind of stuff you see on TV shows or in the movies.
Do you have celebrity clients?
Due to the nature of my work I am not able to disclose the identities of my clients, but yes, I have clients who appeared on Survivor Africa, Master Chef South Africa, actors, actresses, politicians, television personalities and some high net worth individuals.
Do you have a “profile” of the ideal family law attorney?
In my opinion, there is no such thing as an “ideal” family law attorney. Each person has his/her own unique strengths. In appointing an attorney, I would look for someone with honesty and integrity, someone with a good work ethic, who is persuasive and communicates well, both verbally and in writing, someone who is empathetic, with excellent people-skills and a passion for helping others and practicing family law.
What is your approach to handling cases?
I believe that it is the duty of an attorney to work with his/her client as part of a team approach. Too many attorneys have a “give me the ball and I’ll run with it” philosophy, and they fail to communicate with the client during the course of the case. I take a completely different approach. After all, it is the client’s case. My job, is to communicate with my client, help determine the proper objectives, formulate a game-plan, and work hard to make sure that the client’s needs are effectively met. I understand that my client is going through what is probably the most difficult and stressful time in her/his life and need someone who will look for logical, peaceful solutions but will also be willing to aggressively fight for his/her rights if that becomes at all necessary.
Does dealing with other people’s failed relationships make you feel cynical about love at all?
I believe in marriage. It would be naive to think that dealing with divorce and separation (and all the trauma and distress that goes with it) on a daily basis, will not make one sceptical about marriage to a certain extent. I think the problem does not lie in the institution of marriage or that relationships that end in divorce were never meant to be. It is my view that the reason for many problems that we experience in relationships stems from the fact that people are fickle and that our circumstances and life experiences change and shape us every day. A healthy relationship is an evolving relationship and each partner should learn and grow through the relationship, and often through the conflicts. Marriage can be described as a series of peaks and troughs and as long as the peaks outweigh the troughs then you will be okay.
What have bad divorces taught you about what goes into a happy marriage?
There is not one universal key that unlocks the door to a happy and healthy marriage or relationship. There is a saying that a relationship is not a place where you go to take, it is a place where you go to give. Marriage for many of us will undoubtedly be the biggest financial and personal transaction of your entire life. You need to look at your partner and realize that you are not going to change him or her. Ask yourself this: “Does my partner have the basic qualities that matter to me, characteristics that are not going to change over time?” Remember that it is not all about the wedding cake, the wedding ceremony, the wedding gifts or the wedding dress. It takes a lot of work and effort to make it work. Lack of communication tops the list of the reasons for divorce. There is the cliché that women want men to know what they want and what they are thinking without ever having to tell them, but the reality is that couples need to talk and express their feelings and fears to their spouse. It is when spouses only start thinking about their own wants and needs and no longer function as a “team”, that things start to fall apart. Unfortunately in many instances our ability to learn about relationships shuts down at the point when the marriage begins to get tough and just because couples develop disagreements, I am sure that many marriages could have been saved if the couples persevered just a little more. Conflict should be seen as an inevitable part of relationships. One of the secrets to a good marriage is to find your equal partner, not a partner who is going to dominate or control you or who you can dominate or control. Any relationship for it to work must be based on mutual respect, common purpose and of course trust. When a couple start to lose one of those ingredients, the wheels come off.
Is it possible to recover after a divorce?
Most individuals blame their ex-spouses. I think that if you can step back and say, “This is what I have done wrong and this is what I will change”, you have something powerful to teach others who go through the same issues. In many divorces, the problems that caused the divorce have existed in the relationship long before the marriage and were either not acknowledged or were ignored in the hope that marriage might heal the problems. But that is not what happens in life. Nobody can make you feel better about yourself. Someone wise once said that it takes two wholes to make a marriage, not two halves.