Published in 2023 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on December 12, 2022
When Linda Ravdin thinks about her family law work—particularly in pre- and post-marital agreements—it’s not lost on her that, a few decades ago, she’d have to find a different job.
“Courts wouldn’t approve such agreements unless you died,” the Pasternak & Fidis lawyer says. “People just didn’t get divorced. Our model of the prenuptial agreement comes from England’s common law. The idea was, ‘If you’re going to marry into the Downton Abbey family, we’re going to carve out a piece of land for a widower.’ It was only in the ‘70s, in Posner, that a Florida court said premarital agreements were enforceable at divorce.”
Around then, in 1974, Ravdin had just earned her J.D. Initially, law hadn’t felt like a possibility, thanks to something else people didn’t do: send their daughters to law school.
“Schools really started to make a concerted effort to attract more women. Affirmative action helped,” says Ravdin, who puts her George Washington University Law School class at 25 percent women. “More women kept coming.”
Including Marni B. Schwartz of Weinberg & Schwartz, American University class of ’88, and solo attorney Darcy Shoop, George Mason University class of ’92.
Today, the three number among Maryland’s most well-known family law attorneys, with a combined 112 years of experience. If you surveyed the state’s family law landscape today, you’d see the fingerprints of each lawyer: Ravdin helped lay the groundwork for pre- and postnuptial agreements; Shoop was a pioneer of collaborative law; and Schwartz emphasized a focus on putting children first.
“If we were to continue down the path of how things got done in the ‘old days,’ children would have suffered, and continued to for years after a divorce,” Schwartz says. “That realization changed everything about how I practiced.”
Yet none of them originally sought family law. It was criminal or nothing.
“I knew two things,” Ravdin says. “I was going to be a criminal lawyer, and I was going to work for myself.”
Shoop, who ate up true crime books; and Schwartz, who spent most of her law school credit hours at the state attorney’s office and public defender’s office, echo the sentiment. All three also echo variations of this phrase: I just fell into family law.
“The excitement of criminal law is litigation, but the tactical intrigue of litigation and complex negotiation, combined with helping families and children, is why I eventually was drawn to family law,” says Schwartz. “And I think that’s why you see so many smart women lawyers in the field.”
Finding a Path
Schwartz watched with curious eyes as her father worked his way up the New York State United Teachers and United University Professions union ranks while she was growing up. “He was a college professor, but he became a chief union negotiator,” she says. “Observing what my father did, I found the law, negotiation, and the interplay of multiple interested parties intriguing.”
Like Schwartz, Ravdin was attracted to the law thanks, in part, to her father. “I was around 12 when [President John F.] Kennedy was elected, and there were so many political conversations that I felt old enough to engage in,” Ravdin says. “My dad and I had spirited debates while my mother puttered around the kitchen saying, ‘Linda would make a good lawyer. Too bad girls can’t go to law school.’”
Shoop didn’t find the law until 31, after years as an actress in musical theater. Once she realized the stage wasn’t her ultimate path, she explored another interest. “I loved books about serial killers,” she says. “I liked the hunt for them, the innerworkings of the FBI. But what appealed to me most was always the court scenes. I thought, ‘Now that’s something.’”
Falling into Family Law
“All I wanted to do was be a prosecutor,” says Shoop, who interned at the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. “I loved the work. It was so exciting.”
That train of thought was stopped when she was offered a job with Stein Sperling, where, to her surprise, she didn’t connect with the criminal cases the partners offered. The connection to family law, however, was magnetic. “You just have these relationships,” Shoop says. “You’re hearing about peoples’ lives, their kids … it’s a very personal draw, and most clients are so appreciative. I thought, ‘I’m making an actual difference.’”
Ravdin’s path to family law was more protracted. As a third-year law student, she worked as an investigator with the D.C. Public Defender Service. “I got paid $2.50 an hour and I had to buy my own gas. My assignments were to visit crime scenes, take pictures, knock on doors, and try to get people to sign off on my narrative,” she says. “There was no part of D.C. that I did not visit—places that a 25-year-old girl shouldn’t go alone. I was often invited into homes, which was extraordinary considering I was representing the defense and some of these people were victims.”
She also took criminal cases as a court-appointed defense lawyer for nearly a decade. “I was doing my best work, and other bums weren’t, and [they were] getting paid the same. I wasn’t willing to bring my A-game and get paid for my C-game, so I quit,” says Ravdin. “The problem became: What now?”
She recalls a colleague at the courthouse asking, “‘Do you handle divorces? Because I wouldn’t touch one with a 10-foot pole,’” Ravdin says. “I always said, ‘Yes,’ because I was hungry. Then I decided I liked it.”
When Schwartz started interviewing for jobs, meanwhile, she looked for any opportunity to be in court working criminal cases.
“Always my first question was: ‘Do you go to court?’” she says. “Hyatt Legal Services promised I’d be in court weekly, and I ended up in court almost daily. This was a national flat-fee legal clinic for lower- and middle-class people, and it was a wonderful training ground. My boss did not like the emotional components of family law, so he gave those types of cases to me.”
Connecting with Clients
While the three lawyers each came to family law in different ways, they agree on the one thing that has kept them there: a personal connection with clients.
“I liked that people came to me in crisis, in the worst moments of their life, and by the time we were finished with the process their life has somewhat reconfigured better than before,” says Schwartz, who was invited to join Jolie Weinberg’s solo practice. “It feels deeply personal. I like people—I’m a fixer—so that was meaningful to me.”
Shoop agrees, but notes that it was those invested emotions that taught her an early lesson.
“My clients’ cases really became my causes,” Shoop says. “You buy into everything. I remember I was on the phone with this much more experienced lawyer, and I was really fighting, and he said, ‘My, aren’t you tenacious.’ I panicked: Is that good? Is that bad? I decided it was both. Yes, I was fighting for my client, but like a rabid dog. That taught me to step back and listen to the other side; don’t just jump off the cliff with your client. I was a better advocate from that point on—more analytical, more objective.”
Ravdin, too, learned to manage the drama.
“I had a skewed idea of who someone should be based on what you see—like Kramer vs. Kramer,” she says. “Like there’s this great drama in every case and people are at each other’s throats, you have to go to court, go to trial, be aggressive. But you come to realize the vast majority of cases settle, and that most people getting divorced are capable of being reasonably respectful. Once I realized it was about being in a room, rolling up your sleeves, and hammering out a negotiation or settlement, I was able to grow those skills and focus on peaceful resolutions.”
Innovating, Innovating, Innovating
All three eventually faced a choice: either continue along their current paths, or forge new ones.
Ravdin’s “endless” hunger to learn first paid off in the mid-’80s, when congress passed laws that allowed for division of military, federal civil service, and private sector pensions at divorce. “All of a sudden, division of pension at divorce was a big, fat, hugely important piece of family law,” she says. “I realized, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to learn all of this stuff.’ At the time, I was working at my own firm in D.C., and was a lot closer to military divorce cases and handled [many]. While I don’t do it much anymore, the idea of latching on to something new and forcing myself to do it has served me well.”
A few years later, a Bureau of National Affairs editor asked her if she’d write a treatise on pre- and post-marital agreements. “I had done a few cases in the area, but then this book thing came up and I thought, ‘If not me, it’ll be one of my competitors,” she says. “So I learned it and I wrote it.’”
That knowledge paid off in 2004, when she wrote an article about same-sex premarital agreements after then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s short-lived decree that the city would issue same-sex marriage licenses. “I got a call from a Virginia lawyer, and he says, ‘Linda! All these crazy people are hopping on planes to get married only to come home to states that don’t recognize it. We have to get people together to protect and advise them.’”
Ravdin offered up a conference room, and her colleague invited a consortium of D.C. metro attorneys. “I had been dealing with every issue of family law you could think of,” she says, “but I had given hardly any thought at all to how they applied to same-sex couples, because they were not my clients.”
Questions the lawyers considered were: How do you form this contract given the parameters? How do we make sure it’s valid? What do we call it? “This was an in-real-time issue for the LGBT community, and we all got together as a group to say, ‘We have to do something,’” she adds.
Ravdin learned a lot, and has continued to work in the space. “A lot of what I’m known for and good at today is really a function of paying attention to what was happening when I got started,” she says.
Shoop, too, needed to push into other areas. At one point, she says, she felt “like a talking briefcase. Like a machine. I was at a crossroads.”
Then she discovered “Search for the Sacred,” an article about “divine professions” and how they existed to help people in crisis. “The author noted how the law had taken a detour from its noble cause,” says Shoop. “It became about making money, and not helping people. And I realized I didn’t want the footprint I left to be a briefcase marching to court. I started reading about this new thing called collaborative law, and put my flag in the sand: I did not want to litigate anymore.”
In the early 2000s, she found Pauline Tesler’s book Collaborative Law, and read it in a day. “Everything about it said, ‘This is the sacred role of the lawyer,’” Shoop says. “I needed people to know that this other thing—where you work with the other side in a more healing way for your clients—actually exists.”
She asked a Stein Sperling partner if the firm would consider such a practice, and was told yes. So she brought in heavy hitters like Stu Webb, the Minneapolis lawyer credited with creating the model in 1990. “We organized a training for lawyers, financial consultants, mental health professionals,” says Shoop. “To my knowledge, it was the first such training event in the area.”
The training proved so successful that Shoop founded a practice group shortly after, and had her first client within a month. “We did, almost, a road show, going around to different bar associations,” she says. “By 2005, after an explosion of interest and growth, it started in earnest among other lawyers, and it’s continued to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined—to the point that it’s now codified. I had nothing to do with that, but it makes me incredibly proud.”
Like Shoop, a perspective change led Schwartz to child-centered advocacy.
“It became very empowering to me to protect children; it became increasingly clear that an escalation of conflict proved to be unhealthy for children, particularly when it came to their ability to form healthy adult relationships,” she says. “Separation and divorce is not unhealthy. It’s certainly not perfect, but the damaging factor is conflict. Handling cases in an adversarial manner—having parents say horrible things about each other in court—nobody wins. But it was the children that lost big time, because their parents no longer have the ability to co-parent effectively. This started to eat at me.”
So Schwartz started working with the National Family Resiliency Center, a nonprofit dedicated to counseling and providing educational resources to help families cope with separation and divorce. She spoke at seminars on co-parenting, and would send clients to NFRC for counseling. “My business partner Jolie and I agreed: We need to take bold and demonstrative steps to transform the practice of family law in a manner that would protect children.”
For Schwartz and Weinberg, that meant telling their clients, “It’s financially and emotionally healthier for you and your children to settle the case now.”
“In the old days, everyone barreled straight away to the courthouse for contentious litigation. This was both the way things had always been done, but also a time-intensive and expensive process,” Schwartz continues. “The idea of a lasting, intact civil relationship between co-parents came second. The most important thing I feel that I’ve ever done as a lawyer in family law is put Maryland children first with the use of non-litigated forms of alternative dispute resolution.”
When you’ve been in practice as long as these three, you hear a thing or two that makes you shake your head. “Like that divorce has to be a complete disaster—it’ll suck up all your kids’ college money, ruin your life, and look like what you see on TV,” says Shoop.
Or, adds Schwartz, that family law is “easy.”
“I think it’s probably the most difficult area to practice,” she says. “Not only are you dealing with people in an emotionally heightened state of crisis, but the issues are varied and complex. The assets can be a 401(k) savings account or 15 closely held businesses. Those stakes are made even higher when you factor in the future health and emotional well-being of children.”
Maybe the biggest head-shaker, if you ask Ravdin, is the idea that she and her colleagues have to be told to behave.
“We mostly all like each other. We socialize together,” she says. “We respect each other’s work, and like what we do for a living. We break bread. We settle a case, then we chit-chat. It’s a nice way to live your life.”
She does remember, however, a judge who didn’t get the memo.
“When the trial was over, the judge called us up and said, ‘Now, I know this has been a hard-fought case, but I want you to shake hands,’” Ravdin says. “We just looked at each other sideways and shook hands while holding back laughter. We don’t need to be told in this town, in this bar, to shake hands.”
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