Family Guy

Albert Momjian wrote the book on family law, literally

Published in 2010 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine

It was just after 3 a.m. when the telephone rang. Albert Momjian’s wife Esther sat up, rubbed her eyes and watched as her husband rolled over and picked up the receiver. He listened for a few minutes, said some consoling words, hung up.

“Who was it?” she asked.

A client, Momjian said. A woman in the middle of a divorce. The woman—who had been caught having an affair with her nephew, which her husband discovered after placing a voice-activated recorder under their bed—called to say that her husband had been discovered dead and frozen in the trunk of a car.

“There was nothing that could be done at 3 in the morning so I went back to sleep,” Momjian explains during an early morning interview inside his cloud-high Philadelphia office on Market Street. He’s been practicing for more than 50 years. “My wife couldn’t though. She stayed up the rest of the night.” He chuckles, then sighs. “It’s a crazy practice.”

Momjian, chair of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis’s family law department, has represented all kinds of famous folks: Larry King, Will Smith, Lee Daniels. This being family law, confidentiality is king, and he honors that. But some stories he just can’t resist telling.

Take the case of H. Beatty Chadwick, a corporate attorney who, at age 73, was released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence for refusing to return the $2.5 million that he transferred out of the county during divorce proceedings. Momjian represented Chadwick’s wife. According to Momjian, Chadwick moved to Delaware after the court ordered him to return the money. Soon after, while Chadwick was still on the lam, Momjian got a call from a dental technician in Center City. “Mr. Momjian,” the technician told him, “Mr. Chadwick is one of our patients. I don’t like him very much and I thought you should know that he’s coming in very early tomorrow morning for an appointment.”

The next day, people from the sheriff’s office arrived at the dentist’s office to find Chadwick in the chair. When you’re finished, they told him, we have to take you in. Chadwick protested. “I’m not Mr. Chadwick,” he told the deputies—just before he maced them and tried to make a run for it. He was arrested on the spot. He was incarcerated for more than 14 years, the longest incarceration in the U.S. for civil contempt.

 “I thought it was terrible for a lawyer to put himself in that position,” Momjian says. “I suppose the good thing about it was that a lot of women come in from the Main Line now and say, ‘Are you the guy who put that lady’s husband in jail for 14 years? If so, I want to retain you.’” He laughs. “I guess it happened to be a good marketing thing.”

Momjian, whose own marriage has lasted five decades, laces his stories with one-liners. His sense of humor has served him well.

“I try not to be too serious,” he says. “You need to have a sense of humor. Becoming cynical won’t make you a good divorce lawyer. You have to be sympathetic.”

But it wasn’t sympathy that got him this far. It was apathy.

 

Momjian was valedictorian of Atlantic City High School’s class of 1951. He had plenty of options in front of him. Only one problem: he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

At Columbia University, law wasn’t on his radar. But in his junior year he found out the law school would count his first year there as his senior year as an undergrad. He couldn’t resist the double dip.

He found he liked it. He enjoyed the intellectual challenge.

In 1958 he got his start as a family law attorney with Abrahams & Loewenstein. He quickly set about developing his reputation as a lawyer people can trust during rocky times.

In 1978 he co-authored the landmark treatise Pennsylvania Family Law. It was very well received and propelled him to an entirely new strata of renown. The volume (which has since been revised many times over) covers all phases of Pennsylvania family law, including forms with annual supplements and citations. What made it so important was that it was the first book of its kind to provide such a comprehensive and practical approach to the practice area. To this day the commonwealth’s appellate courts frequently cite the volume.

Momjian is self-deprecating about it. “Yeah, it’s nice when you look up and a judge has [my book] on the bench,” he says. “You write a book and everyone thinks you know what you’re doing.”

But make no mistake: he knows what he’s doing. For a generation Momjian has been a force in shaping and advancing family law in Pennsylvania. He has co-chaired the Committee to Consolidate Pennsylvania Family Laws and served as a consultant to the Pennsylvania House and Senate Judiciary Committees during passage of the Divorce Code of 1980. For more than two decades he wrote a regular column for Pennsylvania Law Weekly, commenting on new divorce cases that came before the commonwealth’s high courts. And lately, he’s carved out a new niche for himself, at the intersection between family law and animal law. He’s serving as one of the chairs of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s animal law committee and writing articles about who gets the family dog, which can be, as you’d expect, a delicate negotiation.

“If a couple has children, they still fight over the pet,” he says, “but if they don’t have children, they fight over it like it’s God!”

 

Momjian has also spent the last 30 years dedicating time to the delivery of humanitarian and medical aide to Haiti, and providing legal counsel and support for Philadelphia’s substantial Haitian population. He has served since 1978 as honorary consul for the Republic of Haiti in Pennsylvania, a position that became all the more visible after the country was hit by an unprecedented earthquake in January.

“It’s an absolutely unbelievable situation. A catastrophic catastrophe,” Momjian says. “I’m actually spending more time on the Haitian tragedy than on my law practice right now, helping people locate their families and obtain passports to visit.”

He has help in his work, and with his family law practice, within his own family. His three adult children are all successful attorneys. The oldest children, Carol and Mark, are twins and the youngest is Thomas. Mark worked with his father for many years before recently going out on his own, and the experience informed him greatly.

“This is a profession that has a lot of challenges, because you’re dealing with people who are often at the most difficult time in their lives,” says Mark. “It requires a deft hand. But Albert has more than a deft hand. He has a deft soul. He goes beyond what an ordinary lawyer would do to make someone feel comfortable and confident that they have an advocate in their corner.”

 

And what about that man in the trunk? The husband of the client? Well, it turns out the nephew did it and was later convicted. One thing Momjian’s career is not is boring.

“I enjoy it so much,” he says. “It’s like opening a novel every time I get a new case.”

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