The 'Good Divorce' Lawyer
Miles N. Beermann, with Beermann Pritikin Mirabelli Swerdlove, teaches splitting spouses how to be in the same room together
Published in 2013 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 4, 2013
Updated on March 12, 2013
Q: What was it like growing up in Chicago?
A: There’s no place like Chicago. I grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field, and so I’m a lifelong Cubs fan. I lived in a neighborhood that’s called Lakeview, and it’s just a marvelous area. But now I’ve been living in the suburbs for many, many years. I work downtown.
Q: Early influences?
A: My mother and my father were big influences on me. My dad was a probate lawyer, and I grew up in a house where there was a lot of lawyer talk. My mother was a secretary when she was younger. And my grandfather—my mother’s father—was in the legal system. He wasn’t a lawyer, but my grandfather was a chief investigator of the public administrator’s office in Cook County for about 45 years, and so he knew all the judges and he knew all the lawyers.
My dad, who was born and raised in Milwaukee … met my mother in a resort area in Wisconsin. My dad became a probate lawyer because of my grandfather, and he had a 9-to-5 practice. It was a much different practice in those days. The courts were closed in the summertime because there was no air conditioning, and you really couldn’t get much done, so we had my dad for most of the summer, and we spent those summers in Michigan. I still spend my summers in Michigan.
Q: Sounds like law is a family tradition.
A: The Beermann family is loaded with lawyers. I think there are nine or 10 lawyers in our family.
My dad was a lawyer; my brother and I are lawyers. My two older children are lawyers, my nephew’s a lawyer, my daughter-in-law’s a lawyer, and one of my close cousins is a lawyer. And another cousin who isn’t in Illinois is a lawyer.
Q: Did you start out in family law?
A: No. I’ve been a trial lawyer my whole life. I started doing appeals for divorce lawyers when I was about 15 years into the practice, and I became a very active appellate lawyer. Then there was a case [in which] I represented the ex-wife of Saul Bellow. I got a lot of notoriety out of that case. … I couldn’t get out of my own way after that. I started getting calls from people to handle divorce cases, so that’s what started the family law thing. During that appellate period, I ended up handling a quasi-family law case in the U.S. Supreme Court, so all of those things added up to the continuation of a career as a family law lawyer.
Q: What do you like about this field of law?
A: I think you make a mark on people. You’re helping people with some really basic emotional problems. You’re ensuring their financial security; you’re handling cases involving the custody of their children. It’s very rewarding because it’s not just money. It’s the basic family issues that people face. And of course, the divorce rate has gotten much higher since I’ve been a lawyer, so it’s never boring, I’ll tell you that. There is high drama, but you learn how to roll with that. And if you learn to take it in stride so it doesn’t bother you personally, I think you and your clients are way better off for that.
Q: How do you get to that point?
A: I just learned how to put their problems into perspective. I had a saying with a lot of the clients when they would deal with the minutia: Keep your eye on the prize. The prize is getting the case over with—and my hallmark, I think, if you can call it that, is trying to persuade people to have what I call “a good divorce.” Because people with children have to realize that, when the divorce is over, and they are no longer man and wife, they’ve still got to deal with each other. They’ve got children and there’s going to be things with the children. Good things, bad things, happy things, sad things—and they have to learn how to be in the same room. Some of them can’t do it, but most of them can. I’m very proud to say that I’ve taught a lot of clients how to deal with that.
Q: Were you always with your current firm?
A: I started somewhere else for about a month or two. I was holding down two jobs at the time, or maybe three jobs. I worked in the morning for this law firm, and then in the afternoon I was a vendor at the local racetrack. I was licensed in May of 1958, and in July of 1958, we opened up this firm [then called Beermann, Gitlitz, Stavins & Swerdlove] … now in its 55th year of existence.
Q: Tell me about the constitutional law case Trimble v. Gordon.
A: [It] involved a young man from Chicago who was shot to death in a poor neighborhood. He had one asset to his name: an automobile that was worth about $2,500. He had a child that was born out of wedlock. At that time, Illinois had a statute in the Probate Act that prohibited children born out of wedlock from inheriting from their fathers who died without a will.
I represented the mother of the father who died; and the Legal Assistance Foundation, which is a poverty law firm, represented the child and the child’s mother. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s where I got involved. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision that was authored by Justice Powell, declared that the Illinois statute was unconstitutional, and Justice Rehnquist, who later became the chief judge, wrote the dissent.
Q: How did you get involved with this case?
A: The lawyer that was representing that mother was not a lawyer equipped to do that work. I was riding on the train with him one morning, totally by coincidence, and he told me about the case. I said, “How would you like to get out of it?” He said he would because he didn’t know what he was doing. I was at the height of my appellate career at that time, and I said to him, “Well, you’re out.” He said, “But there’s no money.” I said, “I’d pay you to get into the case,” and so that was my one journey to the U.S. Supreme Court. I wrote all the briefs, and I argued.
Q: What was that like?
A: Quite an experience. It’s very hard to come down from it. I argued that case on December 7, 1976, and it was decided in April of ’77. It was a case decided under the Equal Protection Clause. When you’re standing and you’re doing the arguing, you’re in the middle of the lectern, and if you extend your hand and the chief judge extends his hand, you’ll be able to shake hands. That’s how close you are. Warren Burger was the chief judge, and I will tell you that I had a real colloquy up and back with Thurgood Marshall. The toughest questions I was asked were asked by John Paul Stevens, who was an Illinois lawyer like I was.
Q: What has changed over the years in family law?
A: In Illinois in 1977, the whole law changed. Up until that time, there was no such thing as marital and non-marital property. And now in Illinois, and in most states that follow the uniform laws, all property acquired during the marriage is presumed to be marital, regardless of how title is held. So that if the husband, or the wife for that matter—one of the parties—started a business during the marriage, that business is marital property. That’s the absolute biggest change. Anybody that tells you it isn’t doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Q: What is the highlight of your career?
A: There are three highlights. From a purely professional lawyering standpoint, the Supreme Court case is the highlight. From a … I don’t even know how you would say this … maybe I’d call it a personal standpoint, I received an award, in 2002, from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the Illinois chapter. It’s called the Samuel Berger. Samuel Berger was a friend of mine who I was in politics with at one time. He was a rabbi and a judge, and he died young. I was the chairman of a committee that was asked to create an award or do something as a result of Judge Berger’s death. So I did that with the help of a couple of other people. The Illinois chapter of the American Academy created that award, and I think I was about the fourth or fifth person to win it. So that was a very, very special time in my life. The third highlight would be some of the very high-profile, well-known celebrities or their wives that I’ve represented. It’s been sort of a kick, you know. Maybe the one I’ve had the most fun with, and who I’m still involved with to an extent on a personal basis, is Bill Murray.
Q: Did you represent him or his wife?
A: I represented Bill, and you know, for all intents and purposes, that case is over, and it’s been over for a while. But I still have a relationship with Bill that has nothing to do with the case. As a matter of fact, we were together—he’s a big Cub fan … at opening day at Wrigley Field this year.
Q: Have you represented a lot of celebrities?
A: I was Michael Jordan’s lawyer when he got divorced. It was a very, very private, quiet thing. The celebrities, for the most part—the ones that I’ve been involved with, with one exception—are extremely private. The one exception was Mr. T. He walked in the office and all the girls here were swooning over him. He had all his gold chains on and everything.
I [also] represented Frank Thomas … the famous White Sox ball player who’s going to be in the Hall of Fame pretty soon. Frank was just a dear guy. I represented William Daley’s … wife. I represented Brian Urlacher’s wife. And, of course, Bellow’s wife. A lot of interesting people you meet along the way.
Q: What do you like most and least about your job?
A: What I like least is [when] lawyers’ egos get in the way, and the lawyer … is out to prove something about himself. As I told you before, I really try to make the divorce what I call “a good divorce,” and there’s a lot of lawyers that don’t do that.
What I like the most is helping people get over these traumas. I guess the thing I like the best about the whole thing, about the whole ball of wax—forget about the Michael Jordans, forget about the Sam Berger award, forget about Trimble v. Gordon—I taught school [at DePaul University College of Law] for almost 20 years, and the biggest gratification I’ve gotten is seeing my students do well. As a matter of fact, the night I got the Berger Award, there were five or six of my students in the ballroom, and I made them all stand up. I said, “Give them a round of applause, because they got the best of me.” I really feel that way.