One couple wanted their prenuptial agreement to spell out control of the TV remote; another pair insisted on joint custody of a flower vase in their divorce settlement. Then there was the estranged husband accused of stealing the left shoe from each of his wife’s approximately 150 pairs and sending them to an anonymous address in Europe.
It’s all part of the daily fare for a family law attorney.
“We do all the kinds of law the other guys specialize in,” says Portland’s Jody Stahancyk of Stahancyk, Kent, Johnson & Hook, “but we do it with an overlay of tears.”
Family law includes business law, family and financial planning, and real estate; not to mention social work, psychology—and even criminal law. Knowing how to evaluate the worth of a business is as important as knowing about tax law. Good family lawyers have to be trial lawyers; and, because the vast majority of divorces never get to court, they had better be good at settlements.
Lawyers who practice family law seem to be attracted to its unpredictable nature.
“I love the mental aspect of solving problems in creative ways. Divorce can create a diverse set of problems, and then you try to weave a settlement or solution,” says Stahancyk’s partner, Joel Kent.
“Family law lawyers,” says Portland attorney Gary Zimmer of Zimmer & Bunch, “haven’t always been given the same respect as other lawyers.” Zimmer worked in a firm that handled civil litigation and family law, expecting to end up practicing the more “respectable” former. “When I compared what I was doing—like, say, evaluating a business whose worth was in six figures—to my buddies’ cases, litigating slip-and-falls at [businesses like] Fred Meyer, I realized what I was doing had way more going for it. I decided I’d rather deal with people than insurance adjusters.”
And for Zimmer and other family law attorneys, business is booming. Divorce is more common in American life than ever before. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce in the first 15 years.
As Americans’ customs and ideas about marriage change, a family law attorney must deal with such sticky and heretofore unexplored issues as same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships and cutting-edge issues such as how to divide fertilized eggs stored away for future implantation.
Family law may be a growth industry, but for the attorneys interviewed, the attraction is more than job security. Laura Rackner personifies a major reason lawyers are drawn to the field: the opportunity to help people. Rackner, a principal at Gearing, Rackner & Engel, has an undergraduate degree in sociology. She interned in the Marion County prosecutor’s office, where she spent a couple of years handling juvenile cases as well as child abuse and neglect cases. This work—and a stint in the Oregon attorney general’s office handling family law cases—pointed her toward a private practice in that arena.
Noting that people are at their most vulnerable during the personal upheaval of divorce, Rackner says, “Those of us who do the best at this kind of work have to be well-rounded in finding sociological and psychological resources for people.”
Winning in family law cases does not always mean getting custody of the children or the largest dollar amount, Zimmer says. “When the court’s goal is to do what’s fair, there’s not a lot of winners; there’s just results. That’s difficult to explain to clients sometimes when they’re hurting and vengeful.”
But in Oregon, divorce is “no-fault,” so one partner’s misbehavior is irrelevant in court, except if it relates to a parent’s ability to care for a child. “Your spouse can be having an affair with your best friend from first grade, and be mentally and physically abusive to you, and that’s never going to be admissible in court,” explains attorney Albert Menashe with Gevurtz Menashe, president-elect of the Oregon State Bar.
So revenge is out, at least in the courtroom. Here’s what Stahancyk tells clients: “Winning is getting a fair share, getting it done and then living life to the fullest.”
Stahancyk’s favorite example of someone who did just that is Carol Gardner, a 52-year-old client who became depressed during a contentious and expensive divorce. Stahancyk told her, “Get a therapist, or get a dog.” Gardner chose an English bulldog she named Zelda. The dog was so helpful during Gardner’s darkest days, she turned Zelda into a hugely successful line of inspirational Hallmark cards, books, jewelry, stuffed animals and other retail products called Zelda Wisdom. She’s been celebrated on Oprah and given wide exposure in the world of self-help.
Not all reactions to divorce are quite so positive. Kent, who practices in the cowboy country of Central Oregon, has encountered situations an urban lawyer might not be familiar with—such as the rustling of matrimonial assets when an estranged wife came in the middle of the night and trucked off 400 head of livestock.
Divorce clients usually come to an attorney with much trepidation, and Zimmer likes being in a position to allay those fears with solid information. “It’s great to hear a client say after a meeting, ‘I feel better.’ I know it’s helping when I can say, ‘Go home, take care of your kids and let me worry about your divorce.’ ”
And it’s the kids who need the most care.
“Children are the roadkill of divorce,” Stahancyk says bluntly. Settling the issues involving children is among the most emotional and acrimonious and, therefore, the saddest. Helping the kids is the most satisfying part of family law for many attorneys. Courts sometimes appoint family lawyers to represent the children’s interests in divorces. Or parents may be mentally ill, drug addicted, incarcerated or otherwise out of the picture.
For an increasing number of couples, their pets are their “kids.” Though the law doesn’t give pets the same stature as children, much time is spent parsing out the custody of dogs and cats. Stahancyk has had to set up visitation schedules for four-legged “children.” Kent had a case in which doggie shrinks were brought in to testify about the anxiety a pair of dogs might suffer if they were separated.
Divorce cases can be more than unpredictable; they can be downright bizarre.
Stahancyk tells of a woman who came to her for a divorce but had doubts that she could get one. The woman explained, “I don’t know if the sex-change operation had been completed by the time we married.” When further questioned, the client admitted she’d married a woman, unbeknownst to the clerk who issued the marriage license and the minister who performed the ceremony, because the “groom” had been taking hormones and had a beard. Further complicating matters was the fact that her “husband,” who had gone from Michelle to Michael, considered himself gay and was now in love with a man named Patrick. But he didn’t want a divorce.
Stahancyk, incredulous, said to the wife, “And now you’re going to tell me you’re pregnant!” The woman exclaimed, “How did you know?” Call it lawyerly instinct. Because they were never [technically] married, the couple ended up doing a declaratory action—that is, they declared they were not married, then divided their assets. Stahancyk never found out the identity of the father of the woman’s child. “I was afraid to ask,” she says.
Clients may not always be sterling citizens, but they may still be good parents.
Kent, for example, once had a client previously convicted of selling drugs. The man erroneously thought it would help his case if he could prove his wife was having an affair, so he set up a video camera in a bedroom closet. But the couple reconciled, and the man put the tape in his safe without viewing it. Five years later, the wife filed for divorce and called police, claiming her husband was dealing drugs again. The cops searched his house, found no drugs, but got the videotape, which showed his wife having sex with a male whom one officer recognized as being underage at the time of the taping. The police arrested Kent’s client for possessing child pornography.
Recalls Kent: “I told my client, ‘It’s over. You’ve got child porn, you’re a convicted drug dealer, and you expect to get custody?’ The man said, ‘Joel, you’ve got to trust me on this.’ ” And sure enough, the young man on the video said the woman had given him alcohol to seduce him. In the end, the charge against the husband was dropped—and he got custody.
In another case, Kent tells of an opposing attorney who tried to restrain Kent’s client from using the marital assets. It turned out Kent’s client was running a porn site and videotaping pornographic activity on the couple’s furniture, in their bathroom and even while wearing the wife’s clothes. The attorney filed a restraining order to prevent Kent’s client from using their property that way, and Kent had to defend his client’s actions, saying it might be offensive, but it was the way his client made his living. The judge agreed.
Though their job has its gritty side, the attorneys agree there is much satisfaction in taking a client from their emotional nadir to, as Kent describes it, “a place where they’re happy, satisfied and renewed.” Stahancyk agrees. “I love that people all seem to get better. If they have hope and they’re real, they make up for mistakes and move on. We get to watch that happen.”