Tenacity Times Ten

The unstoppable Suzanne Griffiths

Published in 2009 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2009

Dr. Phil's unmistakable voice booms behind the opening music of his show, this particular episode called "Anatomy of a Divorce." The audience is pumped for the good, the bad and the ugly in this public unraveling of a Colorado couple's divorce proceedings.

But the audience is not prepared for the dramatic turn of events orchestrated by the husband's lawyer, Suzanne Griffiths, of Gutterman Griffiths Family Law. Griffiths, who's sitting in the front row, has done her homework. She's discovered damning evidence against the doe-eyed wife. This woman, who wants the house, the kids, maintenance and most of the personal property, is suddenly revealed, through tape recordings, not as a weak victim, but someone who screams unspeakable things in front of her children.

Ultimately, Griffiths gets her client equal time with the kids, no maintenance and a buy-out of his share of the house. "He got what he wanted," says Griffiths, who adds that all of the children's issues were discreetly handled off camera.

For Griffiths, already a Colorado superstar attorney, this Dr. Phil appearance bought national fame, in unusual ways—like with Tupperware aficionados. "One of the pettier aspects the show focused on was the dividing of the Tupperware," says Griffiths. "The wife was insistent that she get her fair share of it." Months after the show, Griffiths was sitting in an airport in Florida when a Tupperware saleswoman came up to her and said, "You were the lawyer on the Dr. Phil show, right? You have no idea what that show has done as a marketing tool for Tupperware."

"It's just so funny what different people took away from that episode," says Griffiths.

 

Born in 1955 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Griffiths was the youngest of three children in a family that enjoyed a comfortable life. Her father was an accountant; her mother a stay-at-home mom whose dream had been to be an opera singer. Both were college educated, though her mom dropped out to get married and raise a family. "My folks had a very happy marriage," she says, "but my mom was frustrated that she didn't have a career." She used to say to Griffiths, "Go out and get a career and don't ever be dependent on a man for money."

These words stuck with the precocious youngster, who, in the fourth grade, decided she wanted to become a lawyer. Why law? "I loved public speaking and debate," she says. "It seemed like a good fit for my skills."

At 18, she moved to Cape Town to attend the University of Cape Town where she got her B.A. and her LL.B. (the equivalent of a J.D.). Knowing that finding work after law school would be difficult (women were not treated on par with men at that time), she took out a public service scholarship that funded her education but required a year of work for every year of funding. "It practically guaranteed me a job," she says, adding that she worked in the magistrate's court and the clerk of the court's office during vacations and got great on-the-job training. After law school, she got jobs in the juvenile court and the motor vehicle court. Little did she know how her growing expertise in motor vehicles would impact her future career as a family attorney.

 

While working in the courts, she was hired away by a lawyer whose firm had a contract to represent any bus driver in the area on any charges brought against them. Griffiths handled many of their cases, only to discover that bus drivers in Cape Town also have a high divorce rate—possibly due to the long hours or the time spent chatting up female riders. ("Apparently, their wives didn't like that," she says with a smile.) She started representing the drivers in their divorce cases, and as her reputation grew, she was eventually lured to a big firm to head its divorce division. At around 26, she took a case that not only taught her lessons that have impacted her career, but also sent her reputation as a family attorney soaring to the top.

"I was called to be the 13th attorney on a case where there were 30 separate agreements when I took over," she says. The husband was having an affair and simply wanted to be free of all family obligations. He'd made numerous generous offers, but the wife, who became Griffiths' client, turned every offer down.

Too young and naive to recognize signs of a psychological problem in the wife, Griffiths tried every technique to get her client to settle, but to no avail. To complicate matters, the young lawyer was up against the late Abe Swersky, a legendary South African lawyer who was some 30 years her senior. (And who had no qualms about publically insulting Griffiths relative inexperience. "He called me a twit," she says.)

As the case dragged on, Griffiths watched Swersky's style: he was structured, didn't waste time, knew the rules and surrounded himself with great paralegals. She also came to realize that her client's emotional issues required a courtroom, not a settlement room. She put on her best case and got the woman a large financial settlement that included the house and, after six months, full custody of the kids.

The outcome was both victorious and heartbreaking. Two weeks after the decision, the woman had a complete nervous breakdown and the husband, who'd gotten the freedom he wanted, was given sole custody of the kids without a home to raise them in. But after that case, Griffiths became known as the cool-headed, thick-skinned lawyer who took on Abe Swersky.

 

By the early 1990s, Griffiths, her husband, Peter (whom she'd met in law school), and their three young children were living comfortably in Cape Town. Not only was she one of the most respected divorce attorneys in South Africa, but the family lived in a beautiful home on several acres with breathtaking views.

Still, political instability rumbled beneath the surface, and Griffiths and her husband feared for their kids' futures as the crime rate in South Africa escalated. A vacation to Colorado cemented the family's destiny when Griffiths discovered the Colorado Supreme Court would accept her credentials if she passed the Colorado Bar. Seeking the help of an immigration lawyer, she was advised to apply in the "extraordinary ability" category.

"This is reserved for the best and brightest in a given field, providing the U.S. needs those particular talents," she says. "And all I could think was, ‘Why would they need another divorce attorney?'" But her reputation in South Africa was officially certified extraordinary and she and her family immigrated to Denver in 1994. "We went from having a luxurious lifestyle to having everything we owned in 11 suitcases," she says.

Once settled, Griffiths found a job with Steve Harhai, a respected Denver divorce attorney. One of her early and more complex cases happened two years after she started practicing in Colorado. Her client, a woman married 10 years, filed for divorce against her husband, an extremely successful financial adviser. Months earlier, he'd convinced her to sign a postnup so he could protect his assets. Desperate to save her marriage, she agreed, only to later discover that he had bought a condo with his girlfriend four days after she signed.

"This was my chance to learn the art of searching for information," Griffiths says, "and I uncovered a web of hidden assets, proving the postnup was done fraudulently." The wife got good maintenance, attorney's fees and the victory of having the postnup declared unenforceable. The husband, furious at Griffiths, did not pay her fees, as the court ordered. She slapped him with contempt charges; he spent 30 days in jail. Ironically, he went on to refer several clients to her.

And that's Griffiths' strength. She is always prepared, puts her client before her own ego, and surrounds herself with the best team of players to ensure that every aspect of a case is understood.

"She's a superb lawyer," says Amy Therese Loper, of Loper & Virnich, who's been her opposing counsel in many cases. "She only works with people who'll work as hard as she does. Her paralegal generates documents quickly and when business issues are too complex, she calls in a partner whose expertise cuts right to the central issues."

Ann Gushurst, former opposing counsel and now a partner, agrees. "She understands the power of team cooperation and she's a great captain." Griffiths also has wonderful client control. "She will not let someone advance a position that's just crazy," says Gushurst, "no matter how much the client thinks his wealth can buy him out of a situation." And she's not afraid to strongly suggest that her clients get psychological help since messy divorces often involve issues like emotional disorders. "I tell these clients that if they don't seek help," Griffiths says, "they'll be back in my office for their next divorce because they haven't resolved the underlying issues. "

All of her hard work has paid off in terms of reputation. "I had a tough case that, for personal reasons, I didn't want to litigate," says Gushurst. "The opposing counsel, one of the best divorce attorneys around, simply would not sign any agreement I sent his way." Finally, Gushurst, in exasperation, said, "Look, sign this or I'm turning the case over to an attorney who will litigate." Opposing counsel asked who that might be. "Suzanne Griffiths," Gushurst shot back. The next morning, a signed document was on her desk.

 

Married to her law school sweetheart for 30 years, Griffiths takes pride in her long—and happy—relationship. What's her secret? "Really," she says, almost matter-of-factly, "there are certain keys to making a marriage last: a strong friendship, a high level of commitment, a high level of constraint. And sacrifice—being willing to put someone else's needs above yours for the sake of the relationship."

She says she and her husband do disagree but they "set things straight" before they go to bed. "I have a high need for peace in my immediate environment," she says.

Part of what gives her peace is her three children, all of whom live in Denver. Her oldest is studying law at the University of Colorado at Boulder, her middle child is studying medicine at CU's Health Sciences Center and her youngest is studying hotel, restaurant and tourism management at the University of Denver.

"They are my greatest contribution," she says proudly.

For a woman who works 24/7, it wouldn't seem like Griffiths would have any free time. Even she has to think for a minute when asked what she likes to do. "I love to go on vacation," she says, noting that she and her husband have traveled on the QE II, the Queen Mary and the Queen Victoria. She also loves to read, particularly nonfiction. "I'm fascinated by astrology because it provides another way to analyze the players in a case," she says. Her favorite: the out-of-print Jeane Dixon's Yesterday, Today and Forever.

She may also be an author herself one day. In 2000, a client told her, "You have so much marital advice, you should write a book." She refused to entertain the thought until recently when a ghostwriter approached her. Today, a proposal for the book sits in her office, waiting to be sent to agents in New York. "It's a book everyone should read before they get married," she says. "Too many couples make the decision to tie the knot when they're still in the honeymoon phase of the courtship. You don't think clearly then. You don't see the warning signs."

Should the book sell (and, knowing her determination, it will), it could well be a bestseller. If it does, you can bet there'll be another appearance with Dr. Phil.

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