Marvin Solomiany is a family law attorney with a fascinating family history
“I don’t want you guys carrying an umbrella for a living.”
Marvin Solomiany heard that often when he was growing up. His father was a salesman who once sold umbrellas to gas stations in Puerto Rico to earn a living, and he wanted his four boys to carry briefcases, not merchandise. He got his wish: two are immigration attorneys, one is a corporate law attorney. And then there’s Marvin, who, for the last 10 years, has been managing partner at the family law firm Kessler & Solomiany.
Start from scratch is practically the family motto. “One of the biggest thrills I’ve got is being able to say nothing was given to me,” Solomiany says.
To understand the man, you need to understand the family. Start with his great-grandfather, who left Poland in 1930 amid terrible economic conditions. He headed to Cuba alone, not knowing a single word of Spanish; as soon as he could, he sent for his wife and five daughters. Solomiany remembers one of those daughters, his grandmother, recounting how she told her own parents, “Instead of a wedding, give me the money so I can do something with it.” That something was to open a store, which she owned until Castro came to power and the family had to start all over again in Puerto Rico in 1960. Solomiany and his brothers were born and raised there before heading off to universities in the United States.
As a first-year student at Emory’s law school, Solomiany clerked at what was then The Law Offices of Randall M. Kessler, which consisted entirely of Randy Kessler, Barry Schwarz and a paralegal. The law firm’s address—still the same after all these years—wasn’t exactly glamorous in the pre-Olympics cityscape, either. “I drove into downtown for the first time in my life, got lost, and thought, ‘Wow, this is really run down,’” Solomiany says.
And Kessler didn’t even have a position to offer. “Randy said, ‘Well, you can be a clerk and file stuff and pick up my shoes.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it!’”
“We made it clear that it was only for the summer,” Kessler remembers. “By the end of the summer I told him we hoped he would plan on staying with us throughout law school and after. He made a great first and lasting impression.”
True to his word, Kessler offered Solomiany a job just before he passed the bar in 1998. One of his first tasks: taking a hammer and knocking a hole in an old credenza so he would have room for a desk.
Family law turned out to be a perfect fit. “I knew I liked speaking in public and I didn’t want to be a criminal defense attorney,” Solomiany says. “And I knew that divorce attorneys were in court all the time.”
He and Kessler prove that opposites not only attract, they can succeed. Kessler enjoys publicizing the practice; Solomiany loves tackling the business issues involved in managing the firm—which he’s done since 2003. He refers to it as a “real-life MBA.”
Before he knew it, he was managing partner. “We never sat down and had a conversation. I sort of took on the role by default. … I couldn’t do what [Kessler] does in terms of marketing.”
The firm has gone from three attorneys to 12, and from 1,500 square feet to two floors in the refurbished Centennial Tower—with a bird’s-eye view of Centennial Olympic Park, the new Falcons stadium, Midtown, Turner Field and the airport. Kessler is a former chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Georgia; Solomiany is its current chair.
In many ways, family law is a unique practice area. Not a lot of people are going to have friends who require, say, a mergers and acquisitions transaction. “But everyone knows someone who’s going through a divorce or a child custody dispute or wants a prenuptial agreement. It’s still personal.”
And because it’s personal, it’s emotional. Solomiany gets that, and makes a point to respond to emails, texts and phone calls at all hours—even if it’s just to say, “Got it, we’re on it.” Sometimes all they need to hear is, “It’s not the end of the world.”
That’s his personality, anyway: hands on, 24/7. One of Solomiany’s first cases involved a client who wanted joint custody of his child. Solomiany told him it was a long shot, but the case went to trial and the judge awarded joint custody. He remembers the judge saying, “You guys asked for this. I’ve never done this before—don’t prove me wrong.” Ten years later, Solomiany ran into the judge and made it a point to let him know that the child, and the divorced parents, did just fine. “A lot of times, judges make decisions but they don’t know how it turns out,” he says. “They only know the cases that don’t turn out well, because they come back to court.”
A growing willingness to accept joint custody is one of the changes Solomiany has seen in family law—although he says that courts still lag in accepting it as the default position. “I think the conception is that there has to be a primary caretaker,” says the attorney, who’s been married for 19 years. “But I have two kids, and even though I work full time, my relationship with my kids and my involvement is significantly different than my dad’s was. I saw him maybe 10 minutes a day. I think the courts are still [behind in understanding] that just because you are not the primary caretaker doesn’t mean you haven’t been just as involved in your kids’ lives.”
A more recent change, at odds with the rest of the legal profession, is a trend toward litigating cases. Even with ADR and mediation, Solomiany says, “It’s much harder to settle a case today than it was 10 years ago.” He attributes this to delays in temporary hearings; “Monday-morning quarterbacking” from friends; the rise of expert witnesses; and unrealistic expectations. “People are likely to believe that they can do better in court,” Solomiany says. And not just his rich, famous clients, either. “The cases where there are somewhat limited means to keep the standard of living—those are the very difficult cases, the ones that are hard to settle,” he says.
A change in the appeals process is likely to drag cases out even longer. Years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court began a pilot project that granted discretionary appeals in family law cases. “Before that, there wasn’t a whole lot of case law in family court,” Solomiany says. “Now we’re getting a whole lot of law. And in 2017, the Court of Appeals is going to take over divorce cases. So the good thing is, we’re going to have more appellate case law that will give guidance to trial courts. The bad news is, I suspect a lot of people are going to be appealing their cases.”
Solomiany prides himself on being absolutely honest with his clients—especially the high-profile kind. “I’m not going to be a yes person,” he says. “I know they’re the CEO or the athlete or entertainer, and they’ve got people who are just nodding their heads to everything they tell them. That’s not going to be our relationship, because I’m not doing my job if I just become a yes person.”
In return, he demands that clients be absolutely honest with him. It doesn’t always happen. He asked one client “15 different times” whether he had an affair. The client insisted he had not. During his deposition, the truth came out. Solomiany shakes his head. “The worst thing you can do is lie,” he says. “Our whole judicial system is based on telling the truth.”
In another case, he represented a client who wanted custody of his children, and Solomiany didn’t think he had a very good shot because his wife was a stay-at-home mom who raised the kids. But she lied about an affair and was caught. “I’ll never forget the judge saying, ‘Ma’am, you lied about the affair. Now I can’t believe anything you told me. So I’m going to give him custody.’”
Clients may be embarrassed to admit affairs, but Solomiany always tells them, “The reality is, no matter how bad it is ... judges and attorneys, we’ve heard it all. Just come clean.”
Though the law can be a 24/7 enterprise, that’s not stopping Solomiany and his brothers from planning to take their parents on a trip to Cuba.
“We want to see what they left behind,” he says. “I really need to see it.” It’s part of family history that, until now, has been out of reach. He tells a story about his brother recently running into someone in the immigration office who recognized his name and said, “My parents used to shop at your family’s store in Cuba!”
“That was like coming full circle,” Solomiany says.
He supports the normalization of relations with Cuba but worries that tourists will go to Cuba now instead of Puerto Rico. “The beaches are just as nice,” he says. “It’s going to have a big impact.” And he notes the economic situation in Puerto Rico is already a disaster, with professional people moving away because they can’t make ends meet. “It was never an option for me to stay there,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to raise my family there. But it’s a good place to visit.”
Now he’s trying to pass on the family lessons to his kids. “I tell my kids what [my parents] told me: Nothing is given,” Solomiany says. “You have to work and earn what you want. ... I tell them, ‘You’re living a good life, but nothing is easy.’ Hopefully they understand it. We’ll see if I do a good job.”
Photo by: Stan Kaady