Barbara Moser's Big Picture
The San Francisco attorney puts her psychology creds to work in her family law practice
Published in 2019 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 3, 2019
Updated on April 24, 2020
An attorney was racing to the elevator at the San Francisco Superior Court when he spotted Barbara Moser, a founding partner at Kaye Moser Hierbaum Ford, and came to an abrupt stop. Early in her career, Moser had out-strategized him on a child custody case, and he had refused to ride in an elevator with her ever since. He spun around and waited for the next one.
The irony: Moser’s winning “strategy” had been to treat the attorney and his client with unrelenting kindness. It paid off; the ex-husband had agreed to let Moser’s client move to another state with their children.
“I often tell clients if you dial it down, you’ll get a better outcome,” she says.
Linda Colfax, a former family law judge who now sits on San Francisco’s Superior Court, says Moser’s skill and even-handedness were apparent in the dozen or so cases in which she appeared before her. “In family law, some lawyers are more comfortable in negotiation/mediation and some are more comfortable in trying cases,” Colfax says. “She felt comfortable in both worlds, and negotiated both worlds well.”
Because of her reasonableness, Moser generally gets along well with her colleagues. “She always came both prepared to go to the mat, but also with a spirit of trying to negotiate a disposition that was in the best interest of her client and the kids,” Colfax says. “She had a way of dealing with opposing counsel that came from a spirit of resolution and preparation.”
Moser says that’s the best way to handle emotionally fraught divorce cases: “We try to get the best outcome with the least conflict. Most of the people at my firm have a psychology background, and we can really see the big picture.”
Moser herself has that background.
Before becoming a lawyer, Moser spent five years as a clinical social worker, a field she entered after seeing her single mother struggle with her older brother. He was considered mentally ill, though in retrospect she believes he had a learning disability. “Today, he’d be totally fine, but he was born in the ’50s, and there was no roadmap for what parents should do,” she says.
Her own career roadmap was full of bumps. Moser met her future husband, David, while both were students at Berkeley in the late ’70s. At the time, he wanted to be a park ranger, an idea that did not sit well with her. “I was a Jewish American Princess, and didn’t see myself being married to a park ranger,” she says. Instead, he became an environmental lawyer. Meanwhile, she earned a B.A. in psychology at Berkeley and a master’s in social work at San Francisco State University in 1980, but took a job as a waitress when she couldn’t find work in her field. “As a waitress, I made more than I would have as a social worker,” she says.
The two moved to Washington state when he got a job there in 1985, but it worked out for her, too: She found work coordinating a program for deaf infants and their parents at the University of Washington. As much as she enjoyed and took pride in the work, she was increasingly irked when she went to parties and people’s eyes glazed over when she said she was a social worker. Plus there was the pay. Even though she was publishing articles in professional journals and holding jobs that deeply affected people’s lives, she was making only a tenth of what her husband made as a beginning lawyer. “If something happened to us,” she says, “I would literally be living in a trailer.”
She debated finishing her Ph.D. (she just needed the dissertation) or changing careers. She went with the latter. “I grew up thinking I wasn’t smart enough to go to law school,” she says. “When I got to Berkeley, I realized I was around a lot of smart people, but it didn’t translate into ‘I must be smart because I am getting better grades than these people.’ This is common for women—it’s called the imposter syndrome.”
She describes her first year in law school as “an Outward Bound experience” because it was a situation she had never encountered. Unlike her academic experience in social work, tests were anonymous—meaning her ability to schmooze teachers and TAs, which she previously thought was her secret to success, didn’t matter. Nevertheless, she received high test scores, which instilled a new self-confidence, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of San Francisco in 1990.
Moser opted for family law because, as with social work, she wanted to continue making a difference at a personal level. “You are working with people at a time of unbelievable crisis,” she says. “As a lawyer, I could have a little power and prestige, and do something in my quest to be a helper.”
She was determined to work at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, no longer in business, but then the largest San Francisco firm with a family practice. “I basically stalked the partner who was in charge of family law until I got a job,” she says.
While she loved the work, she was less excited about working at a big firm. In 1993, she had her first son, Joshua, and 16 months later her second, Jeremy. She was still expected to bill 2,000 hours a year. The stress got so extreme that she started going out on job interviews—while eight months pregnant.
“In retrospect, that was nutso,” she says. “I am sure people thought I was crazy, but when I get on a path, people don’t try to stop me.”
When she returned to work after her son was born, she realized she needed to be her own boss to have work-life balance. So she started her own firm with colleague Susan Kaye.
“We had two offices, two computers, and a secretarial station with no secretary,” Moser says. “It was such a risk and so scary.” She and Kaye made a deal that Kaye would work more hours, and make more money, so Moser could spend time with her family. “I wanted to have my family and have it all,” she says. “And I kind of did.”
Clients flocked to them from the start. Moser says they could have been “greedy” and kept five or six more attorneys working. However, they preferred to maintain a small office, which has no billable hour requirements for its six attorneys. “Susan and I shared a vision that, as long as we are all making pretty good money, it’s all good,” she says. “Everyone has some kind of work-life balance.”
Moser lectures statewide for women’s and financial groups and UC’s CEB program, on topics including how to have a fiscally sound marriage. She has served on the University of San Francisco School of Law Board of Governors, and once provided an expert interpretation of California family law in an Israeli court. Off the clock, Moser mentors young law students, particularly women, reviewing their résumés, helping them find jobs, and hiring students as interns and law clerks.
She says her calling card is the “big-picture” strategy. “I will give clients very specific marching orders—such as in a contentious custody matter—that they immediately stop all work travel and step up time they spend with their children.” She advised one dad to rearrange his schedule to show up at 5 a.m. at his wife’s house to care for his children on “her days,” when she left for work. The mom wanted to move out of state with the young children. “These early mornings were obviously difficult to pull off, but it was a successful strategy in blocking the move and maintaining his close relationship with his children,” Moser says. “I can see the big picture at the beginning of a case; and, while the legal issues are important, strategy is equal to or even more important in family law cases.”
Cooperation counts. “Women generally want to be friends when it’s done, and men don’t think that way,” Moser says. “I told one client to ramp it down and tell his wife, ‘I want to be friends when we’re done so we can go to our children’s weddings.’ The entire case changed, and they settled. That seems like simple advice, but it’s also legal strategy.”
The second pillar of her success, she says, is brutal honesty: “We won’t tell you what you want to hear to reel you in as a client.”
Madelyn Kahn, a San Francisco OB-GYN, can attest. Kahn delivered Moser’s two children—and Moser handled her two divorces. “She got the better of the trade,” Kahn jokes. The first divorce was contentious. Kahn was the primary breadwinner and didn’t realize the cost of California’s community property laws.
“Barbara was black-and-white with me, and told me I’d pay a lot,” Kahn says. “That was a lot better than a lawyer who tells you, ‘We’ll see how it goes’ to get your business, and then you still end up paying in the end and are surprised by it.”
For Kahn’s next marriage, Moser wrote a pre-nup, and the eventual dissolution was simple and financially painless. Since then, Kahn has referred to Moser about 10 patients a year.
“In this area of law, you are already in a fragile state; you need someone to tell you everything will be all right, but [who] doesn’t beat around the bush,” Kahn says.
“She practices the law the way I practice medicine: She’s a compassionate caregiver. If you have a tumor, you want a doctor to be straight with you but give you a plan for dealing with the problem, and tell you everything is going to be OK.”
3 Tips for Successful Schmoozing
Barbara Moser says she never tires of talking to people: “I genuinely love hearing what they have to say.” She rarely exits a plane ride without handing out at least one business card. These are her three best tips for making connections.
- Always ask people about themselves: Where do you live, what do you do, do you have kids, where do/did they go to school, how did you get from A to B, what brought you to California, etc.
- Try to make a personal connection with them.
- Try to disclose something about yourself, so there is reciprocity and genuine interest.