Tanya Helfand practices family law with family
Published in 2018 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 19, 2018
When Tanya Helfand enrolled in law school at Pace University in White Plains in 1989, she was already relatively close to one of her peers: her mother, Jacqueline Pivawer, who, after a 26-year career in the New York City Housing Authority, decided to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.
But they didn’t share notes. Or classes. In fact, they didn’t even see each other.
“She went to law school at night,” Helfand says. “She worked all day in Manhattan, managing 2,000 apartments at a time, then she went at night to do this because she was so passionate about becoming a lawyer. I just went like a normal kid during the day.”
They’re sharing a lot more these days. Helfand is the founder and principal of Helfand & Associates, a family law firm in Whippany. That’s “family law” both ways: as in the practice area and composition of the firm. After stints as a Newark prosecutor and as a personal injury attorney, Pivawer joined the firm 19 years ago when Helfand was pregnant and in need of another lawyer.
“I’m the boss. But it’s my mother,” says Helfand. “We’re very blessed in that we have a pretty excellent relationship. It’s good to have a family member. … She’s very invested. Sometimes I tell her to stop talking about cases.”
If the firm has a credo, it’s “Be Practical.”
“People come in feeling very out of control and in a salad spinner, as I call it,” Helfand says. “We’re pretty good at making the complex stuff simple and giving people honest and caring direction about how the case should proceed. We’re not about fighting for the sake of fighting, but getting to the bottom line fast.”
Pivawer chimes in: “I had a lot of experience in litigation and Tanya does, too. You have to know how to litigate; you have to know the steps; you have to know how to prepare a case. Otherwise, you can be as kind as you want—you’re going to be ineffective.”
Helfand makes sure everyone at the firm handles what they’re best at. For Pivawer, that means, in part, writing appeals and handling Division of Child Protection and Permanency cases, which include orders for the termination of parental rights and foster care matters. “As the judge said in Sussex County a couple of weeks ago: ‘It’s God’s work,’” says Helfand.
Her own area of expertise is approaching family law cases with a business mindset. “When it comes to calculating numbers, looking at tax returns, figuring out if there’s hidden money,” Helfand says, “that’s my skill set.”
In 2013, Helfand represented Rachel Canning, the teenager who famously sued her parents for child support. While the case attracted worldwide media attention—“We had every news channel in the parking lot,” she says. “We had to get security for that one”—to Helfand, it was just another case. “Frankly, it really wasn’t that interesting,” she says. “That kind of stuff is what we do every day.” (Canning eventually dropped the suit).
Whether she’s working on an everyday case or something out of the ordinary, Helfand applies one of Pivawer’s chief life lessons.
“She has this funny saying: ‘Grit your teeth,’” Helfand says. “She’s still busting her chops every day to be here. Not everybody does that. She taught me a level of toughness and endurance, and how to give 110 percent.”
During those hectic law school days, Helfand and Pivawer might only see each other for lunch on Sunday. What do they do outside of the office nowadays? “We go to the Short Hills Mall, duh,” Helfand says, laughing. “What else do mothers and daughters do?”
Helfand and Pivawer have some impressive company in the mother-daughter duo game:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jane Ginsburg Jane might not be as notorious as her SCOTUS mom, but the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law at Columbia was elected to the British Academy, a pretty big deal for an American scholar.
Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate; her daughter Mary Shelley was a novelist, short story writer, dramatist and essayist. Both were women ahead of their time.
Marie Curie and Irene Joilet-Curie What happens when you put two Curies in a lab working with radioactivity? No, not Spiderwomen—try a Nobel prize apiece instead.