Keeping Divorce Civil

Lynn Fontaine Newsome makes partings more peaceful

Published in 2011 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2011

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

Lynn Fontaine Newsome put herself through college and law school working at a hospital, gathering information from people in pain: both those being admitted and their worried loved ones.

“I really saw many people in distress, which has always stayed with me,” Newsome says. “It was very moving at times.” She learned how reassuring a calm, competent manner could be to someone hurt or frightened.

Those lessons have served her well throughout her career as a lawyer, including the last 12 years as a partner at Donahue, Hagan, Klein, Newsome, O’Donnell & Weisberg, a boutique family law firm in Morristown. She is widely regarded as one of the best family law attorneys in New Jersey. As a past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, she is also known for being a role model and mentor to young lawyers, especially women juggling work, life and family—“the balance thing,” as she calls it.

 

Blue-collar beginnings

Newsome, 55, grew up in a blue-collar Irish-American neighborhood in Orange. Both at home with her parents and sister, and at family gatherings with dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins, the talk is what she remembers: news, history, literature, jokes. “It was an Irish family,” she says, “so there was always some sort of banter happening at every family dinner.” From an early age, she was encouraged to offer her opinions.

Her grandmothers raised children on their own. Both told her stories of working, including in factories, to make ends meet during the Depression. Newsome’s father was an industrial products salesman, and during summers Newsome and her younger sister, Claire, drove all over New Jersey with him. Their mother was employed at the hospital where Newsome would later work. “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t work,” Newsome says. “That was hard-wired into me.”

In Catholic elementary and then high school, Newsome was the good girl who always raised her hand to clap the erasers. She was drawn to politics at an early age, working as a volunteer and staffer on campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s for national and local Democratic candidates. But she never saw herself running for office. She saw herself as someone behind the scenes—and thought doors might open more easily for a lawyer.

After being the only woman in her undergrad pre-law classes at Seton Hall University, she was pleasantly surprised to find that half her law school classmates at Seton Hall were women. She readily acknowledges the debt to women law students of the 1960s and early ’70s. “We weren’t the trailblazing group,” she reflects. “We were what I call the implementers.”

After graduating from law school in 1981, she clerked for a year for Superior Court Judge George Helfrich in family court, where she met Katharine Hayden, a widely respected former assistant U.S. attorney who often appeared before Helfrich. When Newsome’s clerkship ended in 1982, she joined Hayden in private practice and they worked together for 15 years, first at a firm in Chatham, and later at a firm in Morristown, where both were partners.

When Newsome announced that she was expecting her first child in 1986, Hayden said, “Do whatever you need to do to make it work.” It was unusual back then for a woman to come back to work right away, Newsome says. She was in court the day before she went into labor, took off the day she gave birth, and was back on the phone for a few quick calls to clients from her hospital room the day after her son Daniel was born. She did the same thing a couple of years later when Brian came along.

With each baby, she stayed home for a few weeks but worked nights and weekends. An administrative aide dropped off paperwork in the evening, then picked up Newsome’s dictation and notes the following morning. “I never handed off any cases,” Newsome says. Daniel, now 24, works in the restaurant industry and is an aspiring actor, and Brian, 21, is a junior and captain of the soccer team at Curry College in Milton, Mass.

In 1991, Hayden became a superior court judge and Newsome went to another firm; in 1999, she moved to her current Morristown firm—Donahue, Hagan, Klein, Newsome, O’Donnell & Weisberg—for the chance to come in as a named partner. “She keeps her clients’ confidences,” Hayden says of her former law partner. At times, Hayden adds, some lawyers will laugh among themselves at their clients’ troubles or missteps, but Newsome only reveals confidences about her clients or cases when it is necessary to her representation of them. “You’ve got to lay out your whole life when you’re a client in a family court matter,” Hayden says. “Lynn never treats that lightly.”

Newsome is not one of those lawyers offering a fill-in-the-blanks template geared toward quick settlements. “Every family is different, every case is different, every individual is different,” she says. When clients first come to see her, she often feels echoes of her long-ago job in the hospital. “People are scared,” she says. “Their whole lives are rattled, whether they want the divorce or not.”

Before she allows a client to engage her, she is bluntly realistic about the case. “You’re not going to get everything you want” is one of the most common things she says in that initial consultation. If the would-be client wants a lawyer who will paint a rosier picture, he or she finds a different lawyer.

Newsome sees each case as a collaboration between lawyer and client. “Not to get weird about it,” she says, “but their burden is now my burden.” She offers information, options and advice—and helps clients determine what they really want or need. Her goal is for clients to begin feeling better from that initial consultation. “The power of the divorce lawyer is extraordinary,” Newsome says.

“Some cases can be brutal,” she adds, and she doesn’t promise any “kumbaya moments.” Yet she sees it as her responsibility to help clients develop a calm working relationship with their ex-spouses, and to leave them financially secure and emotionally stable—as she says, “at the end of the day, whole people. It’s daunting, and it’s humbling.”

 

The mediator

Newsome says societal changes in recent years have affected her practice—moms are sometimes the main breadwinners; dads are sometimes the more nurturing parent; an at-home spouse coming out of a long marriage does not necessarily require lifelong alimony. Another change is the increased reliance on arbitration. (Newsome is a trained mediator.)

She has a reputation for being ready to go to court in any of the 40 to 60 divorces she handles a year. But she believes her readiness to try cases often results in fair settlements. “The best settlements come from cases that are ready to go to court,” she says.

Barry Szaferman, another prominent New Jersey family court lawyer who has faced Newsome as an adversary, says he considers her to be a straight shooter. “I can think of three cases that I had with her, all of which were very contentious and involved a substantial amount of money,” says Szaferman, the founding partner of Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader in Lawrenceville. “She is a tough adversary but trustworthy. This is critical in resolving complex matrimonial cases.” In each case, Szaferman says, he and Newsome reached settlements that both they—and their respective clients—regarded as reasonable.

That kind of respect from other lawyers is one reason that Newsome worked her way up the bar association ladder so seamlessly. From attending meetings as a young lawyer, volunteering for committees and assignments—the professional equivalent of raising her hand to clap the erasers—she climbed through the male-dominated ranks over the years to be elected president of the Morris County Bar Association and then president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, the fifth woman to lead the state bar since it was founded in 1899.

Driving all over the state for bar meetings during her year as president, 2007 to 2008, she was reminded of those sales trips with her dad when she was a kid. She still drives a lot—a 50-mile daily commute each way between her home in Lawrenceville and her office in Morristown—and says her 2006 Acura RL has more than 120,000 miles on it.

Her current firm has only 12 lawyers, and Newsome likes it that way—the family feel and the chance to mentor other young lawyers. One of those is Debra Weisberg, who followed Newsome by a few years as president of the Morris County Bar Association. “She has truly been a mentor to me in every way,” Weisberg says.

Perhaps the most important thing Newsome has done for her as a role model, Weisberg says, is inspire her to become a mentor herself. “I try to do for them what she did for me,” Weisberg says. Both Newsome and Weisberg assure younger women lawyers that they can keep working and have a satisfying family life. But they urge women to set their priorities and stick to them, and not to try to be Superwoman.

Nowadays, Newsome says, judges and clerks are much more accommodating when it comes to the demands of family life. For instance, she says, many judges won’t schedule anything late on the afternoon of Halloween because so many lawyers want to go to their kids’ costume parades and parties at school. Not just women lawyers—men, too. Newsome says that when she was a younger lawyer, she never would have dreamed of letting a judge or even a court clerk know that she was hoping to finish up in late afternoon so she could get to one of her sons’ after-school events.

“We didn’t mention our kids at all,” Newsome says. “I’ve seen that change dramatically in the last 30 years, and I like to think my implementing generation was a part of that.”

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

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