Why is the McCourt’s divorce unique?

Why is the McCourt’s divorce unique? Because lately the high profile cases in the news have been resolved out of court (Think Tiger Woods, Sandra Bullock and A-Rod). In fact, most high profile matters our firm is involved in are settled without any press and with very little expense. Actually going to trial with so many dollars at stake (and so much public reputation to lose) is becoming rarer and rarer. But the McCourts are there (click here for link to UPI story). No doubt the lawyers tried their best to guide the parties to resolution. Lawyers of that caliber always do. But when one party (or both) think their position is blatantly reasonable, or is an obvious “winner” in court (there is no such thing), it can be hard to settle a case. Some cases are just easier to try.

Unfortunately for the McCourts, it appears the court will decide their divorce which is guaranteed to make one, if not both parties displeased with the outcome.

On ocassion we encounter a stubborn opponent (opposing party or opposing lawyer). Even then, steps are taken to try to reach resolution. Mediation, settlement conferences and even pre-trial conferences with the judge are usually attempted to promote settlement. We also sometimes utilize a process known as Late (or Early) Case Evaluation. This process entails hiring a family law attorney who is respected by both sides to give everyone a “reality check”. Sometimes that does the trick. But when someone is truly unreasonable, the only way to resolve a case is trial. But even then, the good lawyers can only ease their conscience if they have truly attempted settlement first. But once settlement efforts are exhausted, trial becomes inevitable. Perhaps the one benefit of the McCourts actually going to trial is that others will realize how risky and costly trial can be, and thus become more determined to resolve their own cases privately. Let’s hope the message is sent, and heard, loudly and clearly.

Contributions to Judges?

Politics and judgeships shouldn’t mix, but they do. Across the country judges are elected or appointed as part of the political process. Where they are elected, as they are here in Georgia, should lawyers who appear before them be allowed to contribute to their campaigns? Or, maybe the opposite makes sense, lawyers should really consider contributing since lawyers are in the best position (usually) to know which judges are better than others?

The Georgia Supreme Court is now taking a serious look at the issue (click here for a link to the story). The good news is that it seems this is not a “rush to judgment”. There has been a study group and the apparently many different aspects and factors are being considered. The point I made in the first paragraph illustrates the dilemma. On one hand, is it right for lawyers who appear before a judge to contribute (or to refuse to contribute) to a judicial campaign? Does that indiciate a potential for unfair treatment (favorable for donating, unfavorable for not donating)? Perhaps? But if contributions are made to ethical candidates, then the risk is reduced. On the other hand, if lawyers are prohibited from contributing to judicial campaigns, then the contributions will come from less informed sources who may not have had nearly as much experience with the particular judge. Wouldn’t we prefer that those in the know help guide the rest of us?

This is a fascinating issue. There are lots of “workarounds”. Lawyers can (and should, in my opinion) participate actively in opinion polls about judges. Lawyers should educate their clients and friends about judicial races given the insight lawyers, at least trial lawyers, may have about certain judges. But all too often we sit on the sidelines. We know which judges are excellent and we should strive to keep them in place. This benefits society as a whole and lawyers are in a unique position to help and can, and should do their/our part.

Fulton County Family Division finally here to stay

First Family Court in Georgia nolonger

One day in late 1996 or early 1997 while I was Chair of the Family Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association I received a telephone call from Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford. Judge Bedford had previously been Chair of the entire Atlanta Bar Association and was and is a proponent of lawyers and judges working together to better our court system. It was not, and still is not common for a trial lawyer to receive a call directly from a jduge. But this was important he said. Fulton County was about to announce a project which would attempt to create the first Family Court in Georgia. He told me where the announcement would be made and that lawyers, especially family lawyers were invited and should attend. I went.

I volunteered our family law section to work with the judges in any manner they desired. We then invested thousands of hours of lawyer and judge time. We met monthly (judges and lawyers). The lawyers became the scriveners of a whole new set of rules that would apply in this new family court. We debated the name of the court (Family Division, well, we tried?) and we decided the cases would no longer say him vs her, but it would now be him and her. We invited experts who had established family courts around the country to come teach us what to do. I became Chair of the American Bar Association, Family Law Section’s Family Courts Committee and the ABA, with the help of then ABA President, Bill Ide, donated many resources and much time. It was well received throughout Atlanta (1998 WSB News Story-family-court ).

But one big issue was how to create a “new” court. Well really, it was the same court with the same judges, but it was to be a new division of that court. The Supreme Court authorized it as a “Pilot Project” and I am happy to report, that after twelve successful years, the court is no longer a “temporary” pilot project (see AJC story by clicking here).

There are many stories about the development of the court, from establishing the procedures (status conferences, etc.) to the selection of judicial officers, but the overall experience, although extraordinarliy time consuming, was once in a lifetime. I was lucky enough to be a part of a new endeavor that directly affected my clients. I am a firm believer that instead of complaining about rules and processes, lawyers should be a part of the planning. If you can help create the blueprint, then you are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome. The Fulton County Family Division is by no means perfect. There will always be problems when trying to devise a formula to care for and resolve some of our most basic human issues, those of parenting, support (for food, education, etc.), health insurance and shelter. But a court strictly devoted to family law matters inherently has an advantage over courts that manage family disputes one week, murder trials another week and car wreck cases the next week. And while the court is no longer a “pilot project”, it will always be a “project” as is our entire judicial system. I was lucky enough to be a part of it when it started and fortunate enough to still practice in it as an advocate. I encourage anyone who has an opportunity to improve our system to volunteer to do so. Even the Fulton County Family Division still has a need for good lawyers. The Family Law Information Center (F.L.I.C.) which was another part of the project can always use lawyers to donate time to counsel parties who cannot afford counsel.

I am excited that the court now seems more “permanent”, but we should always encourage improvement in our system and cooperation between bench and bar. The Fulton County Family Division is one good example of what such joint efforts can achieve.

ABA in San Francisco

What a time for the annual ABA meeting to be in San Francisco. I land in 20 minutes and it already feels like there is a buzz in the air. The plane is filled with Georgia lawyers all headed to various ABA meetings for different areas of the law.

But it is in San Francisco and same sex marriage has just been judicially approved with the striking down of Prop 8. I look forward to the feel of legal interest and discussion throughout the city. And I imagine that our group, the Family Law Section will be discussing it ad nauseum. I look forward to seeing what my peers have to say, especially those from California.

I hope I always feel this same sense of excitement about the law and our legal system. By no means is it perfect. But unless good men and women continue to debate, discuss and challenge our laws, the system would stagnate and eventually fail.

I am proud to be a lawyer and a member of the ABA. I look forward to learning and sharing over these next few days.

ABA Annual Meeting 2010

In just over a week, the American Bar Association holds it’s annual meeting. This year it will be held in San Francisco. It is a time for leaders in all legal areas to come together, share ideas and learn from each other.

At the meeting, I will have the good fortune of being sworn in as the Chair Elect of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association. It will truly be a privilege to serve. I have been fortunate to have had some wonderful mentors during my career, and each, without fail, have encouraged bar participation. In 1997 I served as Chair of the Family Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association and I also will soon serve as Chair of the Family Law Section of the Georgia Bar Association.

While some may think this takes away from my practice of law, the opposite is true. My practice, including every member of our firm benefits from the leadership roles and active participation in which I, my partners and our associates engage.

Attending scores of legal education seminars each year and maintaining relationships with the finest lawyers and judges in the country keeps us all on the cutting edge. If there is a new idea, trend or significant case, we are giving ourselves every opportunity to learn about it first.

While in San Francisco, I fully intend to take advantage of everything the ABA has to offer. From Hot Tips in Family Law, to programs on presentation techniques for the courtroom, I plan to soak in as much as I can. The nice thing is, most of the other lawyers there too are similarly motivated and that is exciting. I look forward to learning from my peers and returning to Atlanta with at least a few pearls of wisdom, learned, borrowed or stolen from some of the best legal minds our country has to offer.