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Divorce and Family Law
Business and Real Estate
Personal Injury and Accidents
Robert S. Duxstad
Daniel P. Bestul
Lance A. McNaughton

Engineering Better Outcomes For Families

Posted: 2.18.2016  |  Author: 


I’m the kind of person who will read anything – books and newspapers, cereal boxes, even junk mail – and I’m always on the hunt for new material. When my software developer son told me he was picking up a lot of good ideas from a 20 year old book, I thought I’d give it a try. It turns out that To Engineer is Human, by Professor Henry Petroski, has lessons that go well beyond the structural failures that are the focus of the book.


Petroski argues that discovery and invention come through trial and error, and that errors are an essential part of the process. Getting it right the first time (whatever “it” is) leads to more tinkering and experimentation, trying to get it done faster or more cheaply, often resulting in failure. At the same time, getting it wrong the first time forces the engineer to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done to fix it. Through training and experience, a wise engineer recognizes the patterns that produced failures in the past, and develops plans and designs to see those failures aren’t repeated.


Petroski contends principles that are universally accepted as true today are the product of trial and error testing over hundreds, or even thousands, of years. When an engineer takes on a project, he or she begins by getting a clear understanding of what problem or goal is being addressed, and then applies these proven principles to the task at hand.

Lawyers operate much the same way. My first job is to make sure I have a clear understanding of my client’s goals and objectives. No two families are identical, and so I take a lot of time and ask a lot of questions to help me understand where we are headed. Next, I work to get a clear picture of the resources that are available to pursue those goals and objectives.

For example, I want to know if my client’s goals will require that cash is available when the case is concluded, for things like paying debts or buying a house or car. If that is the case, I try to “design” a resolution that produces that result. Ideally, this plan won’t rely on assets like retirement accounts or long-term investment accounts, since liquidating these can come at a high long-term cost.


Along the same lines, I help parents identify the goals they have for their children and the sort of childhood they would like them to have. D&B has an extensive client library, including many books, videos, and pamphlets to help design a parenting plan. These resources are available to our clients, and provide valuable information for effective parenting for children of all ages, from birth through the teen years. Other resources can help parents of adult children handle their involvement in the family law process in a constructive way.


As Petroski points out, engineers learn from experience, and they use that experience to make things better. Lawyers are constantly learning too. While every Wisconsin lawyer is required to participate in continuing professional education, in a typical year, I spend twice as many hours in these courses as the Wisconsin Supreme Court requires, and often participate as a faculty member for these trainings as well. In addition, through my participation in organizations like the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, and Family Law Section of the State Bar of Wisconsin, I have access to some of the most current information on what has proven successful for families, and where things have come up short.


Petroski recognizes that computers can be a powerful tool when used properly, but he is concerned that they are not a substitute for accumulated human wisdom: “And as more complex structures are designed because it is believed that the computer can do what man cannot, then there is indeed an increased likelihood that structures will fail, for the further we stray from experience the less likely we are to think of all the right questions.”


Here, too, Petroski’s ideas are applicable to family law. Some groups have pushed for standard or default arrangements for child custody and placement, for example, arguing that this would insulate children from parental conflict and recognize the importance of both parents in the life of a child. It is my belief that most children should have both parents deeply involved in their lives. However, there are also cases where limits on the involvement of a parent are necessary, and imposing a one-size-fits-all rule ignores the most vital question: what’s best for this child?


I believe each child deserves a well-designed parenting plan that incorporates sound, proven principles, and serves the needs of each unique family. My job is to help engineer it.


Dan Bestul is a Wisconsin divorce and family law attorney practicing primarily in Green and Lafayette Counties. He can be reached by e-mail at bestul@duxstadlaw.com.



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