There's a stereotype of divorce lawyers, that they're sharks, combative, with one eye on the bank balance of their clients' ex-spouses and the other on the private eye's latest hidden-camera shots.
It makes Marcia Barnes come as kind of a shock. She's small, kindly, whatever the opposite of flashy is. She comes across more like the special education teacher she once was than a woman who makes much of her living amidst the acrimony of splitting couples.
It's the teacher in her that sets her apart from many family law attorneys, said Barnes, a partner in the firm Mitchell, Blackstock, Barnes, Wagoner, Ivers and Sneddon. She can recognize when a child's behavior is just a typical growing-up issue rather than a product of the stress of divorce. She's comfortable talking to children. And she knows how to teach a lesson - a skill she's put to good use as an attorney. She wrote a manual called "Arkansas Divorce Simplified," and has made a couple of educational videos.
The first, "He Loves Me, Not," came out of an interview with an eighth-grade girl about her work with domestic violence victims. It's aimed at girls and women from the seventh grade to age 30, Barnes said, and has won several national awards. It's since been shown on AETN.
Her most recent video, "The Parent Wars," educates divorcing parents on how to make the process as easy as possible for their children. She decided to make it after seeing too many parents ignoring their children's interest in favor of their own need to punish their spouse, and not understanding when they don't get what they want.
"Judges are ordering people to watch it," she said. "People have an idea 'If I just go to court and tell the judge, he'll see it my way.' The reality is the judge will interpret the statute as fairly as possible for both sides."
The concept of fairness is one Barnes, an attorney since 1983, said she tries to emphasize to her clients. That means prodding some clients to push for their share, Barnes said.
"I often have clients who emotionally just want to walk away with nothing - male and female," she said. "I always have them imagine themselves a year from now. How would they feel if they just walked away or accepted a settlement?"
For other clients, fairness means trying to get them to understand that divorce is "not a punitive matter, it's a business matter."
"It can be frustrating if you've got a client who wants more than they're entitled to under the law," she said. "If you've got a client who wants their pound of flesh - those are the hardest to deal with."
Barnes, a native of Stuttgart, graduated from the University of Arkansas with degrees in elementary and special education. She taught for five years, but then after just a few years to go to law school at UALR.
"[Teaching] was just not fulfilling enough to me as a long-term career," she said.
At the time, Barnes said, she wanted to focus on representing public school teachers.
She still does some of that - her firm represents the Arkansas Education Association - but she's done more family law for about the last 15 years, she said.
That doesn't just mean divorce cases. The umbrella of family law covers couples who have never married, guardianship cases and domestic abuse issues.
Barnes said her favorite cases now involve complex property division - not fights over books and wine collections, but figuring out the most beneficial property disposition for a client based on tax laws and other factors.
"I used to enjoy custody cases," she said. "That's more wearing than fighting over a glass - you can't hurt the glass."
But she's had her share of livelier cases over the years, including two that involved kidnappings (she represented the kidnapper - an abused wife - in one and the kidnapper's ex-spouse in the other).
She also won a civil assault and battery jury trial last year for a teacher in Northwest Arkansas who'd had technically consensual sex with her principal on school grounds. The woman had been sexually abused as a child.
"Because of her abuse experiences, for her if an authority figure told her to do it she had to do it," Barnes said.
Barnes herself is married with children, and she joked that her success as a divorce attorney hasn't helped keep her own husband in line.
"He said I have seen so many spouses out there that are just awful, he'll always come out looking good."
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