The Partner

Lynne Gold-Bikin on saving, and ending, marriages  

Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2008

If you find yourself sitting next to Lynne Gold-Bikin on your next flight, don't plan on getting much reading done. "You know how you always swear undying love to the person who sits next to you on the plane?" asks the senior partner of WolfBlock's family law practice group, leaning forward in an elegant upholstered chair in her Norristown office. She's telling the story of a plane trip she took in 1993. She was approaching her term as chairperson of the ABA's family law section and thinking out loud with her seatmate on how to make a mark. "I thought, ‘What could we do that isn't being done anywhere else? As divorce lawyers, we know more than anybody about what breaks up marriages.'"

The two of them got to talking and by the end of the flight she had secured a commitment from her new acquaintance, an expert in long-distance learning, to attend a weekend-long meeting of communication experts, educators and divorce lawyers in Boston. What resulted was Partners for Students, a program made up of five one-hour segments that combine videos, role-playing exercises, homework assignments and classroom appearances by attorneys, all on the topics of family law, communication skills and marriage. The program gives high school students the tools to make well-informed choices. It costs $200 to purchase—lawyers' groups often buy them and donate them to area high schools—and Gold-Bikin crisscrossed the country to get the word out.

Partners made an instant splash, appearing in a Time cover story and garnering praise in Hillary Rodham Clinton's It Takes a Village. A framed letter from Clinton hangs low on an office wall that's packed to the moldings with Gold-Bikin's collection of vintage and antique marriage licenses and bridal photos, plus photos commemorating highlights from her career and her kids' and grandkids' lives. A newspaper-clipping collage made by her daughter highlights Gold-Bikin's term as first female president of the Law Student division of the ABA while attending Villanova School of Law. This is someone who knows about partnerships—when they should be preserved; when they shouldn't.

"The abusive marriage, the drunk, the drug addict, the person with the zipper problem, you're not going to save those marriages," says Gold-Bikin. "But people who grow apart, those you can save."

 

Gold-Bikin fell in love and married at age 18, and had four kids and no degree by the time she was 26. Her husband at the time (they later divorced) moved the family from her native New York City to Pottsville for a job as president of Cadillac Cable Corp. The change of pace was a jolt. "I could either drink or go to school," she says. "And I don't like to drink." So at age 30 she began commuting to Albright College in Reading. She ended up class valedictorian.

The attorney chose law for idealistic reasons. "When I started practicing," she says, "I thought I'd be on a white horse, saving everybody and chopping down all the bad lawyers. Then you realize that you need other lawyers. You can't just say, ‘The hell with you.' You have to say, ‘Let's do this together.'"

In the late '70s, she joined Pechner, Dorfman, Wolffe, Rounick & Cabot. At the time, Pennsylvania was one of only two states that didn't allow a couple to split without placing blame. (Today, all states have no-fault grounds in some form.) Gold-Bikin's mentor Jack Rounick, a senior partner at the firm, sent her to Harrisburg to join a group of attorneys campaigning for the New Pennsylvania Divorce Code, which provided for alimony, recognized marital property in dividing assets and established no-fault divorce in 1980. Gold-Bikin was on a committee to establish the legislation.

In 1982, she left to start her own practice, building it up to include six other lawyers over the next dozen years. Then Jerome Shestack of WolfBlock approached her.

"She's a splendid trial lawyer and has an uncanny ability at rainmaking—she operates at the highest level of our profession," says Shestack, a former ABA president. Gold-Bikin agreed to join WolfBlock and has been there ever since.

Rainmaking aside, teaching is close to Gold-Bikin's heart. "It's what my whole career's about," she says. "I believe that when you do something and you learn it, sharing it with someone else is a very good thing to do."

This semester she's teaching a sociology course at Rosemont College on law and the media. She's also taught trial skills the past 20 years at the University of Houston Law Center, traveling there for a week before Memorial Day. She's written a couple of books, The Divorce Trial Manual and The Divorce Practice Handbook, which are highly regarded in the field, and is as devoted as ever to Partners.

Mary Cushing Doherty, a partner at Norristown-based High Swartz, is going into her 13th year of bringing Partners to juniors and seniors at Upper Dublin High School. "They're at the cusp of taking responsibility for their lives," she says. "This gives them the tools."

There are no follow-up studies of the program's grads, but there are plenty of anecdotal successes. Gold-Bikin tells of one 6-foot-5-inch basketball player from Martin Luther King High School who said to his mother, "Mom, when you're done doing dishes, do you have two minutes to talk?" Amazed, his mother asked, "Who taught you to talk like that?"

"We teach the kids to ask for time, not just to walk in with demands and accusations," says Gold-Bikin, picking up a reference card of word stems from the coffee table. "We teach them to always start their statements with I: I assume, I wonder, I expect. I. I. I."

In the past few years, Gold-Bikin has traveled to Russia and China to talk about Partners, but her ultimate goal is to see the program in every high school in this country.

She'd also like to do more traveling with her grandkids. She's already taken two to Greece, one to London, another to Paris. So be warned if Gold-Bikin ends up in an airplane seat next to you, "I talk to everybody, whoever's next to me," she says. "I ended up with Cardinal Bevilacqua next to me one day and the poor guy couldn't get up for two hours because I was talking." She pauses and places the word-stem card back on the table. "And I was talking about this program, by the way." As if there was any doubt.

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