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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

LEGAL: Bittersweet times for Valley family law attorneys.

It’s like two members of the same family seeing things in two very different ways. Some members of the family law profession say business is booming these days, others say it is very slow. And both cite the economy for their situations. “It’s kind of dead,” said certified family law specialist, Cari M. Pines, partner at Pines, Laurent & Lauer, LLP in Encino. “I think it’s a bad time because nobody has any money.” Pines, who is chair of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association’s Family Law Section, believes couples who may want one, essentially cannot afford a divorce. “Most of the money is coming from people trying to modify their support agreements because they’re losing credit lines, or their house won’t sell, and so on,” Pines told the Business Journal. According to her, there are two kinds of family law attorneys these days: “Ones that are starving, and ones that are lying,” Pines said. But at least one local family law practitioner couldn’t disagree more. “Bad times for families in the current economy has meant better times for attorneys in the business of family law, said attorney Gregory Pedrick, sole proprietor of Gregory Pedrick, Attorney at Law. “I’ve never been busier.” Pedrick said he is getting a lot of feedback from colleagues in the business of family law – that is, attorneys as well as expert witnesses and accountants – that indicates similar experiences. “In family law, I have to believe, and the feedback from my overall client base says, that economic stress tends to illuminate marital problems,” Pedrick said. Usually, Pines wouldn’t disagree with Pedrick’s conventional wisdom. But, she said, this economy has been different from past recessions, which, she concedes, have meant more business for family law attorneys. “But that’s just not the case this time around,” Pines said. “Again, it’s not that people aren’t in the mood to get divorced; they just can’t afford it.” As a result, Pines is doing more “limited-scope” representation, which, she said, some attorneys say is controversial. “I’m doing things differently now,” Pines said. “To keep work up, I’m taking things on a more piece-meal basis; helping people short term; helping them one matter at a time.” Often, a full-scope divorce case can be a full-time job for attorneys in the family law arena. Now, however, for Pines, that full-time job is being parsed out one function at a time, with the client doing more of the leg work. “I have a trial that’s been set for six days of hearing,” she said. “But the client ran out of money midway through. We went from full-service to limited-scope, and now she has to do all the correspondence. “Limited scope is controversial to some attorneys, but because of financial pressure, it’s the most I can do for her.” Indeed, said Pines, the case she spoke of had been a full time job for her and her staff. To do the work for that client and not be paid for all of the hours it required was something her business could not endure. One area of family law in which people will go “all out,” according to both Pines and Pedrick is so-called high-conflict custody battles. In such cases, lawyers say, clients will spend every penny they have and liquidate every asset they can in order to prevail. “In custody battles, people pull out all the stops,” Pedrick said. Although Pedrick and Pines agree about custody cases in which passion supersedes concerns about expense, their overall opinions about business trends in their shared practice area could not be more different. “I’m up 40 percent,” Pedrick told the Business Journal. “I’ve had to hire contract help, and I’m on the verge of deciding whether or not to bring some new attorneys on.” Pedrick said, as a businessperson, he’s always one eye on his internal trends, asking himself the question of whether or not to expand, at the same time he has watched external forces in the marketplace.” “I also have to ask, ‘will this last?’” he said. “At this point, I’m not yet sure.” But why the disparity between his outlook and that of the partners at Pines, Laurent & Lauer? “If we’re this busy and others are not, it must be because we are the firm in the region where the highest-end clients go for their family law needs,” Pedrick said. “And, I’ve never been busier.” F. Scott Fitzerald said “the wealthy are different than you and I.” Pedrick agrees with the novelist. “They say money won’t solve everything, but it will pay the rent,” he said. “If people are already having problems in their marriages, they may tend to use their money as a balm – whether it’s gambling or shopping, once that balm is gone things may come to an abrupt end when the money starts to disappear.” In other words, when the foundational assets, which in the case of the most affluent can be quite substantial, are all that is left, divorce is the next logical step for many. “There’s less reluctance to walk away when the community asset base is at or near zero,” he said. “That usually leaves the house. And even with the housing crises, it’s still a lucrative final straw – if the house is still worth millions.” Pedrick’s said most of his clients are women. “I think people believe that having an attorney of the opposite sex makes them look more sympathetic to the judge and/or the jury,” he said. “One thing I’m seeing is an increase of women as adulterers.” Another trend, which may connect Pedrick’s top-of-the-heap client base with that of Cari M. Pines’ more middle- and upper-middle-class, is more couples are continuing to cohabitate during their divorce proceedings. “I do believe that has to do with finances,” he said. For family law attorney, Peter M. Walzer, founder of Walzer & Melcher LLP in Woodland Hills, the business outlook is somewhat more nuanced than either Pines or Pedrick. “The various aspects are down,” Walzer told the Business Journal. “We’re all small firms; the biggest in the Valley is 23 lawyers; most are no bigger than seven.” Walzer said, while he may have as many clients these days as in other times, their ability to pay has been compromised by economic realities. “It only takes one big case to keep us very busy,” he said. “We may have just as many clients, but they may be maxed out on their credit cards, or they can’t draw on credit lines.” Worse, Walzer said, in the midst of a divorce, clients may suddenly be out of work. “The other ways they could once pay their legal bill just aren’t there any more,” he said. “They can’t draw on their brokerage accounts, for example.” However, there are new frontiers in family law. “I’m always exploring new markets, new niches,” Walzer said. “I’m looking at everything from social marketing, to webinars and Twitter as ways of reaching more people.” As does Cari Pines’ firm, Walzer’s also offers mediation, which provides an alternative to both litigation and litigation-based revenue. Then there’s Elkins. “Elkins is shorthand for an effort that seeks to address the lack of resources in family law,” said Walzer, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial lawyers. “We’re 20 percent of the cases the courts get, but criminal and civil both get disproportionately more in the way of resources.” Although the downturn in the economy has slowed progress, the court-appointed Elkins Family Law Task Force has issued recommendations that could ultimately mean more opportunities for attorneys. “The creation of a parenting plan coordinator (PPC) designation is one potential opportunity,” said Cari Pines. “They used to call it a ‘special master.’” There are still many issues to work out with the courts, but PPC’s can represent people in custody cases with the courts paying for the services of an attorney-PPC. PPC’s don’t handle divorces, per se. “But they can help people with crisis cases,” Pines said. “Which may include issues such as which parent controls the child’s mediations, or mental health providers. The PPC can make court orders on a daily basis, as opposed to the old way when you could only go to court once or twice a year on such issues.” Attorney Walzer is a member of the Elkins Family Law Task Force. “I believe we’re making progress in changing things for family law attorneys and clients,” he said. “But we’re still the less glamorous stepchild.”

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