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‘If We Divorce, I Get Elena’

Why Elena Karabatos is the family lawyer for 95% of the human race

Photo by Adam Lerner

Published in 2023 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By Natalie Pompilio on September 25, 2023


On a Monday earlier this year, three of the partners at the Garden City matrimonial law firm Schlissel Ostrow Karabatos kept getting text messages from other Nassau County attorneys: Where are you? What are you doing? Will you be here soon?

They were confused. Where were they? At the office, working, as usual.

All but one of them, it turned out. Senior partner Elena Karabatos was at an event hosted by the Nassau County Bar Association, an organization she once led, where she was being honored for advancing the group’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, expanding its community outreach by offering pro bono clinics and educational workshops, and creating and co-funding a pre-law scholarship program awarded to local college students from underrepresented backgrounds.

It was a pretty big deal, partner Joseph DeMarco notes. And she hadn’t mentioned it at the office.

“Elena is definitely not great about boasting about her accomplishments,” DeMarco says.

It’s the same during the interview. That award? Just something they give to former NCBA leaders, she says. The NCBA Karabatos Pre-Law Society? “Just call it the Pre-Law Society,” she says.

Then she talks about what really matters to her. “My job as an attorney is to actively listen to what my client is saying, understand their situation and to give them a voice—to advocate for them and to help them achieve their goals,” she says. “A divorce can be like a death—there is grief involved—and to be able to watch people go through the stages, the progression, and then see them come out on the other side … is an incredible gift.”

“She’s passionate about what she does,” DeMarco says. “One of her greatest strengths is being able to resolve super complicated cases—handling not just the case itself, but all the personalities involved. She’s the person I want working with me when I’ve got a difficult adversary or high tension between parties.”

Bryan Skarlatos, Karabatos’ husband of 34 years and self-designated No. 1 fan, credits her success to a true love of people and their stories, a desire to serve and make life easier for all, and an emotional intelligence level that is “off the charts.”

“She gets her energy from being with people,” says Skarlatos, a partner with Manhattan’s Kostelanetz LLP. “She has real empathy and can understand where people are coming from. Clients appreciate that. They feel understood and know she has their back.”

“It’s easy to escalate but hard to de-escalate,” says Andrew Schepard, a professor and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at Hofstra Law School. “It’s easy to get dragged down into the emotional lives of clients, who are often good people going through the worst time in their lives. If you’re an angry bitter person, I’m not sure she’s your lawyer. But for 95% of the human race, she’ll make a bad situation tolerable and that’s a big accomplishment.”

Schepard says Karabatos’ empathy sets her apart. “The matrimonial legal system would be better if everyone had her gifts,” he says. “It’s like what Atticus Finch told Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Elena lives that.”

The direct quote from Harper Lee’s classic is this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And as Karabatos grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the 1960s and ’70s, she got her own parental lesson in Atticus-like empathy.

Karabatos and her brother at their house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on Greek Easter Sunday. Several years later, she would get a lesson in Atticus-like empathy from her mother.

As one of the younger kids in the neighborhood, she was sometimes picked on, and she remembers her mother telling her the following: “‘Elena, it’s not all about you. Don’t worry about it. They’re so concerned with their own issues, they’re not even focused on you,’” Karabatos says. “That was a real life lesson. ‘Eh, don’t worry about it. Move on, move forward. So what, they said that to you? They had a bad day.’”

Karabatos’ parents were of Greek descent, and the home they shared with Elena and her older brother John was often filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a little loud, a little chaotic, and just right for Karabatos. Both English and Greek were spoken. Kids of all ages ran around together, riding bikes, playing slap ball in the alley, knowing it was time to go home when the streetlights came on.

Karabatos’ parents were passionate about education. Neither had attended college—Dad ran a business making police badges while Mom managed the household when she wasn’t helping at the shop—and they pushed their children to learn and experience as much as they could.

“There was no world too big for their kids. They were very much, ‘Go out there and do it,’” Karabatos remembers. “Education was everything to them: ‘Go to a good college, have a career, and make something of yourself. Don’t rely on anybody. Be independent.’”

Karabatos attended private school in Brooklyn Heights, about five miles and many worlds away. From age 12 until she left for college, Karabatos’ daily commutes included an eight-block walk uphill from her home to the subway, then a 35-to-45-minute ride on what was then called the RR train.

“I was watching people, always listening,” she says. “I saw people from all walks of life in terms of wealth and education on the subway, and I learned how to fit in and just be with all of these different people. I learned how to navigate difficult situations.”

At Tufts University in Boston, Karabatos majored in drama and political science. The former is the one that most sticks with her today.

“To be a drama major, you had to do everything. You took history, writing courses, how to communicate classes, directing, shop, developing all of these incredible skills,” Karabatos says. “One of the things I still think about is how to block a scene. I love people-watching. When I walk into a room, I try to figure out who is going to sit where and who is going to try to take the power depending on where they sit.”

A negotiation class at Brooklyn Law School felt equally transformative. “Negotiating felt natural,” she says. “The professor said, ‘Elena, you’re really about getting to yes. You’re not afraid to give a little to get what you want.’”

She was in law school when she met her future husband at an event for law students and lawyers at the still-missed Palladium. “She smiled at me,” says Skarlatos, who was already a practicing attorney. As she was preparing to leave, he rushed up to her with a matchbook and a pen and asked for her number. “She said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ And I said, ‘If you knew me, you’d say yes.’” After one date, they were exclusive. The couple married in 1989 and are parents to twins Nikolas, a computer security engineer, and Sofia, an attorney, both 31.

Karabatos was a law student when she met practicing attorney Skarlatos at a legal event at the Palladium. After one date, they were exclusive.

“Elena really knows how to approach relationships, including her own,” Skarlatos says. “She’s learned the importance of flexibility, of patience, and she’s taught me a lot over the years. She’s made me a much better person and lawyer.”

When Karabatos graduated law school in 1986, sexism in the profession was not subtle. In court in the early ’90s, “massively pregnant” with her kids, she says, she asked a judge if she could sit down. He replied, “Ma’am, if you’re not up to trying this case, don’t be here.” She remained on her feet and won her argument.

At the time, New York granted divorces based on fault-based criteria such as adultery or cruel and inhuman treatment, and some of the court filings were quite graphic. Karabatos knew some older male attorneys hoped the salacious accounts would make her uncomfortable. They tried to intimidate her by talking louder and puffing themselves up in court.

“It went back to what my mother said: It’s not about me,” she says, noting the profession has come a long way since. “I didn’t try to prove myself. When you do that, you’re giving away your power. My job is to get the job done, not to prove to the other attorney that I’m the smartest person in the room.”

She continues, “Some people look for the fight, but then you’re totally derailed and totally distracted and what are you doing for your client? Not much. You’re wasting legal fees.”

When Marina Peredo first sought a divorce, she met with five male attorneys, “all big names, all recommended,” who all told her the same thing: Her husband had a claim to her medical license as a marital asset and she would need to support him.

So Peredo stayed married for another five years—until after a near car accident, when she wondered if she would have been better off dead. It was a wake-up call. She thought: “Even if I have to give up everything and start from scratch, I’ll do it.”

Karabatos won her over immediately. “No one else took the time to get the whole story,” Peredo says. “Elena asked questions and listened. No one else did that.”

The divorce, after years of pain, was relatively painless. Peredo’s husband didn’t have a claim to the future earnings associated with or value of her medical license. “Oh, and I got money back on my retainer,” Peredo says. “Elena said, ‘You didn’t need as much time, so here’s money back.’ That’s who she is.”

When Joe Farrell and his wife split, he knew he wanted an attorney who wasn’t easily intimidated. He chose Karabatos. “She’s tough, but some people who are tough don’t know how to turn it off and be human,” he says. “Elena is human all the time.”

Karabatos urged Farrell to stay focused. “She always treated my ex with respect, and I think that’s part of why [my ex-wife] and I have an unbelievable relationship now,” he says. “I do believe if I’d gone scorched earth, there would have been no coming back.”

Karabatos jokes about why she’s popular at dinner parties: “Everybody wants my advice: ‘Elena, why do people get divorced? Elena, how do people stay married?’”

Skarlatos is not joking when he says Karabatos is popular everywhere. “At weddings, someone will say, ‘I want to toast my matrimonial lawyer. Elena, will you please stand up?’ … We’ll be sitting, having drinks with friends, and someone will say, ‘Just to be clear, if we divorce, I get Elena.’ And they’re not kidding. Everyone loves Elena. She should be selling stuff on QVC.”

The practice of marital law is changing—for the better, Karabatos says. Clients have more access to information, a better understanding of the costs, and are often open to alternative dispute resolutions.

“Some people just view themselves as litigators,” she says. “I litigate, I negotiate, I mediate. I do what’s right for each situation. The important thing to remember about divorcing couples is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If you have all of those tools at hand, you can pick what works best for a couple instead of pushing them in one direction or the other. The goal is to help them transition in the least damaging and most cost-effective way possible, especially when children are involved.”

Karabatos says she’s doesn’t judge her clients. “Divorce involves real pain and it’s personal to the person and the marriage and what happened there,” she says. “I listen openly and actively. I view myself as helping someone navigate a very difficult time in their life in a productive way.”

And when tensions gets high? “I remind people to take a breath or have a glass of water,” she says. “If you’re in a heated moment, stop and do something else. Step outside and take a moment. That’s how you calm down.”

Her best marital advice: “Don’t set your spouse up for failure,” she says. “If your partner isn’t good at cooking, then maybe you do the cooking. If they’re great in other ways, you accept that. And of course, there’s always takeout.”

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