Objective Empathy

Family law attorney Gemma Allen of Ladden & Allen on creative applications of the law, overcoming sexism and why it’s riskier for clients to dance on tables nowadays

Published in 2016 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Ross Pfund on January 4, 2016


Q: You were inspired to go into family law by a heartfelt plea from a friend of your mother’s. What’s the story behind that?

A: I was doing chancery work—special remedies like injunctions. I was a new lawyer. My mother’s best friend was getting a divorce. So she called my mother, and of course my mother called me. You know the way it goes. And I said, “Well, I’d be glad to meet with her and I’ll talk to her, but I don’t do divorce work.” So she’s like, “Well, it’s my best friend. Please, please.” So of course I did.

The woman was charming, just absolutely lovely in every way. I said to her, “I’ll get you some referrals. I’ll stay in the background.” I explained what I do believe, which is divorce is certainly a niche practice, and if you don’t do it day in and day out, there are things that you can’t find in black-letter law that you need to know about the practice. And I was aware of the fact that I didn’t know those things. I can study the law, I can recite the law, but there’s a lot more to a divorce and family law than what’s written down.

So I explained all of that and sent her off to see some people. Then she came back and said, “You know what, I just would rather have someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing that I completely trust than someone that may be more experienced, but I don’t necessarily trust their experience to be working in my best interest.”

I said, “OK.” No more Thanksgiving dinners at home for me unless I did. It forced me to focus on a different level. I did talk to a couple people that I had tried to refer the case to, who were very kind to me and gave me some insights on how the practice works and what to be aware of. But it still didn’t make me polished.

The long and the short of it is I did very well, for a number of reasons. She was a lovely woman. It was an affluent case. The husband was not out to eradicate her or eviscerate her. So those are good cases. They stayed friends. She would tell everyone, “Look what my lawyer did for me.” And that’s how I had a divorce practice. Because then all of a sudden one became two, and two became six.


Q: So your practice area found you. But what first got you interested in the law as a career?

A: I grew up with everyone telling me, “You should be a lawyer.” I’m going to take from that that I was a little bit argumentative. I think I am obsessed with justice. Also, for a woman, I saw some flexibility. I watched my older sisters who were both super smart, super competent, try to figure out how to have careers and have children.

All of that attracted me to it, but it was mostly about justice. Of course, in family law, the courts do the best they can and I really commend them. But it’s such a balancing act. It’s very hard in a busy court system dealing with families to deliver pure justice, and I just admire the courts for trying. I admire what we do accomplish.


Q: You went to law school at Michigan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Do you remember how many women were in your law school class?

A: I’m going to say nine, and that might be an exaggeration. But what happened next was I immediately moved to Florida. My then-husband’s family had some real estate holdings in Florida. I got married in September of my third year in law school, and I was expecting by the end of my third year in law school.

So we moved to Florida. I was studying for the bar and expecting another child. I was contacted by the University of Michigan and they said they were interested in interviewing me for dean of admissions for women. I literally said, “Is it a part-time job?”

But you know how quickly it turned? It was amazing. You went from being a very visible minority, or invisible minority as the case may be, to, by the time of that call, I think it was already 25 percent women. It was very heartening. But I remember telling people, and that became my cocktail party joke, that it must be a part-time job. Because how long does it take to find qualified candidates for so few spots?


Q: Do you have any stories of facing sexism as a young attorney?

A: When we first moved to Florida, I wanted to do estate planning. I encountered some inappropriate reactions in terms of my being a woman, ranging from inappropriate romantic interest to inappropriate secretarial assignments. It would veer widely.


Q: From one extreme to the other.

A: My first job in Chicago was working for my brother-in-law, who had an important firm that was very good to me in terms of flexible hours and work schedule for my young children. But I do remember that as a young associate—I had skipped some school, so I was extremely young—I remember going to a meeting on a very high-profile case, one of those cases where there were probably 15 lawyers in a room. I literally was the only woman at the table and literally at least three out of the 15 lawyers asked me to get them coffee.


Q: How did you handle that?

A: You just go between your natural inclination, which is outrage, and your other natural inclination, which is they don’t know really what they’re saying and that you should be non-confrontational. I was just very polite and said, “I’m actually a lawyer as well.” Then they’re like, “Oh!” and then turned around and looked for some other woman to go get them coffee.


Q: How long until things started to change?

A: I think doing family law helped because I do think this division was very receptive to women. The divorce division is very respectful toward people who do their homework, and I found it less difficult almost as soon as I started doing family law.

My brother-in-law’s firm had some business that was lobbying, which was a good lesson on how to toughen up, and stay focused on the issues, and never let anyone stop you when you’re advocating for a position.


Q: What skills do you need to be successful in family law?

A: Let me count the ways. I think you need to be objective and empathetic almost simultaneously, and it’s not easy because you have to know the law and know how the law would be applied. Be creative; don’t be limited by the law because in family law, every case is fact specific. You have room to be creative. You can fit cases into precedent and you can strategize and creatively apply the law.

But that doesn’t mean you get to always deliver good news to your client, and sometimes getting them to understand the law is as much a part of your job as it is persuading the judge about your view of the law. So you’re persuading on two sides. [You need] empathy in dealing with the client and trying not to ever get blasé, because everybody’s case is their only case.


Q: How do you manage those strong emotions?

A: Do I? [Laughs] I mostly try to talk to people the way I’d want to be talked to. But if they’re not talking respectfully to me, I will say, “You know what, I can’t do this right now. I think you need to take a deep breath or walk around the block and we’ll talk about it further.” There are moments when people are just literally in such pain, and I try to be respectful of that, but also require them to be equally respectful of me. They’re paying me for my advice. They’re paying me for the expertise. So they may not like it, but they do have to listen and at least process it.

In terms of my own life, I say to my husband sometimes, “Give me half an hour to watch an old Seinfeld or some other sitcom.” You know what I mean? I have to decompress. I really do. He understands that.


Q: How has the practice changed over the years?

A: I think it’s gotten better. There’s something I call old-style practitioners and something I call new-style practitioners. The old-style practitioners are not necessarily defined by age. It’s the take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth style. I think there are fewer and fewer people choosing that road.


Q: And new-style practitioners do the opposite?

A: I credit judges Timothy Evans, Moshe Jacobius and Grace Dickler. I credit a lot of people who are practitioners themselves who say, “There’s got to be a better way.” Maybe people always tried to be conscientious, but they used to come across much more harshly.

Part of it just might be my experience and the fact that, as I’m older, people know they’re not going to get away with too much, so maybe they’re nicer to me than they used to be. But I think all boats have risen.


Q: How does social media complicate things?

A: Oh, I love it. It complicates it in so many ways. People have no idea of the tracks they’ve left in terms of who they are, the evidence trails they’ve left, the texts, the Facebook images, the LinkedIn images, if they were on Match.com, if they now go on Match.com while they’re separated, the things that are pictured that belie what they’re now trying to say in a courtroom. It has complicated it mightily. We literally give lectures to people on the use of social media, even if they’re happily married and even if they’re just in college. This stuff lasts forever.

We still say to people, “Social media is like writing a letter. It is not like making a phone call.” But I think the younger people just think, because it’s so much a part of their lives, a text or an email to them is a phone call. But it’s a phone call that doesn’t disappear.


Q: It’s there forever.

A: It also serves our purposes in some cases for evidence for all kinds of reasons. It offers some objectivity to the court sometimes on what’s really going on behind closed doors. So I’m not one that’s anti-[social media]. I just want a red flag around it—careful, careful, careful.


Q: Does it surprise you that people aren’t aware of how it all works?

A: I’m not surprised. One thing I love about this practice is that you are in touch with what’s happening, boots on the ground, in every age group all the time. So I see the things that are going on with Snapchat. I see Instagram. I understand how you feel like your phone is just an extension of your arm, and I understand how you can forget how much you’re revealing until you’re in litigation. People forget everything that’s sensible, don’t they?

It’s just that, in the old days, if you forgot to be sensible and you were dancing on a table, it wasn’t memorialized.


Q: Can’t do that anymore.

A: Now you’re getting tagged in photos that you don’t even remember being in. But I guess I’m not surprised that when you live in such a visual world that you forget that it’s not [private]. It’s there forever, and even Snapchat, between you and me, I don’t think entirely disappears.


Q: You’re the co-author of a book called The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving In, or Moving On! What’s your top piece of advice?

A: Have the honest, transparent, difficult discussion about money. My co-authors would say you always need a prenup. I’m one who says many, many times a prenup can literally save a marriage because it forces you to have that honest, transparent discussion.

Money is the last taboo, not sex. People talk about who they’ve dated, where they traveled with them, what they did, what they liked, what they didn’t like, much more freely than they ever talk about money. People are almost affronted sometimes if money is brought up in a dating relationship. Yet, in the end, it will divide you more likely than will issues about your personal relationship, or your sex life, or whatever.

I see many, many marriages that could’ve been saved if they’d had discussions about what money meant to them, how they were going to spend it, what their priorities were.


This interview was edited and condensed.

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