Grace Under Fire

Family law attorney Betty Moore Sandler's goal is to bring people to consensus ... and to cheer on Kentucky basketball  

Published in 2008 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine — July 2008

On a Thursday morning Betty Moore Sandler strides into her office clad in a gray pinstripe suit. High heels make her 5-foot-5-inch frame a bit taller, and she sports a pink shirt and jaunty plaid tie with masculine four-in-hand knot.

In this battle armor, Sandler is ready to spar. A 25-year marriage is on the rocks. He has his lawyer. She has her lawyer. He says she needs to get a job. She says she is physically incapable of returning to work. "I represent the wife," Sandler explains, hiking an eyebrow. "The husband is playing power games with her."           

So yes, she allows, the wardrobe choice is quite intentional. The gray suit is tough and serious but "not too flashy. This [meeting] is in Fredericksburg, and I don't want to look like [the wife] can afford a $1,000-an-hour attorney from D.C."

Sandler, 60, focuses exclusively on family law, a sometimes-treacherous corner of the legal universe. Many attorneys assume they can handle it, observes Timothy Szabo, a frequent opponent at Szabo, Zelnick & Erickson. But few are as effective as Sandler. "She's poised," he says. "She is very competitive. ... And damn it, she's charming."

She keeps a full schedule at Nichols Zauzig Sandler, where she is a name partner. Outside the courtroom, she volunteers with legal organizations. A list of credentials follow her name: a former member of the national board of directors for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and current president of its Virginia chapter; past vice chair of the family law section of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association; past officer of the board of governors for the family law section of the Virginia State Bar.

Sandler is also a tough child of the '60s, a one-time college protester and rebel who isn't bothered by the word "feminist." But for all of that, the road to becoming one of the region's top family lawyers was neither simple nor straightforward.

 

The eldest of three children, Sandler was born in 1947, the nascent years of the baby boom. Her father was elected county court clerk in Prestonsburg, Ky., and her mother worked as chief deputy clerk. The Moores were strivers, steadfast believers in pluck and hard work and education. They taught their daughter the fundamental rules of the American Dream: "You can be whatever you want as long as you work hard and study," she says. "I never felt like there was anything I couldn't do."

She spent her childhood playing on the courthouse steps and watching her father preside over juvenile court. She remembers the town fuss when Alben Barkley, a Kentuckian who served as vice president under Harry Truman, visited; and how after elections, her parents counted each vote by hand. The process could take days.

Precocious, she started first grade at age 5. Each afternoon, she walked from schoolhouse to courthouse. She remembers no major courtroom drama, no Perry Mason moment that turned her attention to law. Still, somewhere along the well-beaten path from playground to courthouse and from childhood to adolescence, it occurred to her that she belonged in the legal world. "It's all been serendipitous. I decided when I was 12 I would go to law school. I thought I would go into politics. That's what I expected to do," she says.

She graduated from high school at 16; the University of Kentucky was next. It was the mid-1960s. And while the angriest years of Vietnam protests were still ahead, college students had begun to voice indignation. As it happened, Kentucky cast out two students accused of drug possession. "They were expelled before there was any case brought," she remembers.

 A protest was organized and Sandler took part. In retrospect, there is something almost quaint about it. "We overtook the students' center because [the administration] let us," Sandler says, flashing a wry grin as she recalls the protest's slumber-party parameters. "We marched through the administration building. And they let us do that as long as we didn't prohibit ingress and egress. There was a sit-in at the student center. They told us we couldn't go into the cafeteria and we didn't. And they were going to throw us out at midnight."

Still, at the end of the day, the students won. The rules were changed. Afterward, Sandler pondered her place in the world. "I determined I could work inside the system changing things better than standing outside of it and throwing rocks," she says.

She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1969, but dropped out of law school to have a baby. Her then-husband, James Horn, took a job in Washington, D.C. "I wanted to go to Washington, anyway," she remembers. She worked in the U.S. House of Representatives' clerk's office auditing campaign reports, a small cog in government's big wheel.

All along, she thought about returning to law school. "It was something I hadn't finished and I intended to finish it," she says. Instead, she divorced and became a single mother, raising her son and working as a lobbyist. Some of the issues she lobbied for—equal pay and retirement benefits—helped her future practice.

It took 10 years for her to return to law school. She earned her law degree from Kentucky, passed the state bar in 1981, then returned to lobbying in Washington. By the mid-1980s she was ready for a career change and took a Bar review for Virginia. "It's an easy way to learn the law of a jurisdiction," she remembers. "I took it to learn Virginia law more than anything else."

The Sunday after taking the Bar, she spotted a want ad for a family law attorney. She applied, not knowing much about family law, and immediately landed an interview with the firm's partner, Paul Nichols. He had received 75 applications and interviewed 50 people. Sandler was a standout. Nichols, still a partner but now also a delegate in the Virginia Legislature, says Sandler had confidence and presence. He was convinced she could hit the ground running and hired her without knowing whether she'd passed the Bar. They didn't even discuss money. "The first 12 months I knew nothing [of family law in Virginia] except what I had learned in the Bar review," she says.

About 20 miles south of Washington, Woodbridge was then a sleepy bedroom community, the type of place to stop for gas and coffee and keep driving. But like many suburban areas, it boomed in the 1990s. Sandler had landed in the right place at the right time. Within the first year, she was so busy that "we stopped taking clients four times. ... It's been like that ever since. I've never had a down day."

 

Colleagues—especially opponents—say grace under fire is Sandler's strength. "Sometimes you run into people and they feel like there has to be blood on the floor," says Jim Korman, a fellow family law attorney with Bean Kinney & Korman. Sandler, he says, is different.

Several years ago, she had a case against Szabo. "The valuation of a metal fabrication business was at issue. She had an expert witness. I had an expert witness," Szabo remembers. The experts disagreed. Sandler's expert made a fundamental mistake in the valuation matrix, and the error surfaced on cross-examination. Sandler "had the court recognize that there was a glitch in the testimony without losing a single stride," Szabo says. "She was able to do a cut and paste on her closing statement where that omission was barely discernible."

She doesn't count wins and losses. Her philosophy is simple: "Family law is not about that or at least it is not like that for me. You may have to go to court two or three times before you get to the big deal. And all along the way, the effort is to bring people to consensus. ...You have to have a realistic assessment of a client's case. And you have to translate that realism."

Every attorney, by definition, is a hired gun, but Sandler has limits. She doesn't take cases bankrolled by grandparents eager to get custody of their grandchildren. She's not interested in clients seeking retribution, either. "I have people who come in and they want custody because they would rather have custody than let the witch, or the horrible man who ran off with a girlfriend, ever see the kids again," she says. "I don't take those cases."

Three decades have come and gone since her Kentucky protest days. A rolled-up yoga mat leans against the front of her desk. "The whole idea of yoga is to give you the physical strength to meditate. Meditation is a sense of balance," says Carol Schrier-Polak, a family law attorney with Bean Kinney, and a fellow yoga devotee. Sandler, she says, has balance. "She's able to handle everything with dignity. She's never out of control."

But the take-action '60s kid is still there. Once, a female friend told Sandler about a workplace issue. There were four people—three men and a woman—with the same job responsibilities. "The men were going to be called president of their division and the woman was going to be called a manager." Sandler pauses, her eyes wide with indignation. "Puh-leeeease!"

Opportunities for women have changed dramatically, she allows. In 1969, she was one of only 12 women in her freshman class at University of Kentucky College of Law. Meetings were held in the ladies' lounge. She returned 10 years later to find half of the enrollment consisted of female and minority students. So when Sandler heard about her friend's dilemma, she couldn't help wondering, "Why are we still having these conversations?"

Among friends and colleagues, she is known as a diehard Kentucky basketball fan. "For somebody who doesn't have the same level of interest, which is virtually everybody else, it makes for an interesting conversation until you can get her on a topic of interest to the rest of the world," observes Sandy Ain, recent counsel to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, chuckling.

A schedule of the University of Kentucky basketball games sits on her desk. Assistants know not to schedule appointments that might conflict. Once, when an associate for Sandler's firm introduced herself in court, the judge glanced over his desk and remarked, "That's Betty Sandler's firm. Don't get between her and a television when Kentucky is on."

Her husband, Charles Sandler, is a retired lobbyist. Her son, James A. Horn III, 38, has three children. Her life is in balance: family and friends, law and Kentucky basketball. She was recently chosen to serve as substitute judge, although she considers this "another community service. I never aspired to be a judge. ... I like being a trial attorney."

Retirement? "I don't even know what that means," she says.

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