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A New Year A New Focus

By Charles F. Vuotto, Jr., Esq.

Chair – Family Law Section

 

            I am honored to serve as the 40th Chair of the Family Law Section, a Section that is one of the preeminent Sections of the New Jersey State Bar Association and the third largest of the 36 Sections of the State Bar.  I am humbled to follow a long line of distinguished family law practitioners who have served in this capacity.  I hope that I will honor them and the members of the Section – with my service in the year to come.   

            I can safely say that I would not likely have received this honor if not for a handful of very special people.  First, I want to thank Judge Gene Iadanza for swearing me in on May 14, 2009.  Judge Iadanza sits on the Executive Committee, attends most, if not all Annual Retreats and truly cares about the, litigants as well as the family bench and bar.  Next, I wish to sincerely thank my mentors and Past Chairs:  Frank Louis, John Paone, David Wildstein, James Yudes, Lee Hymerling, John DeBartolo, Lizanne Ceconi, Cary Cheifetz and Pat Barbarito.  One cannot navigate the often foggy landscape of bar involvement without a guiding light.  I am very fortunate to have many lights to help me find my way through sometimes difficult circumstances and I very much thank them for their wise assistance during my journey.

            I cannot fail to acknowledge my new (or not so new) partners, Noel Tonneman and Steve Enis.  The three of us took a leap of faith together this year and formed our own firm in Matawan.  I figured I wouldn’t have enough to do between my duties as Chair of the Section, Co-Managing Editor of the New Jersey Family Lawyer, writing, speaking, and occasionally practicing law now and again.  It has been an intense, but exhilarating ride, so far.  I could not be in better company.  We thank all of you who wished us well as we began this journey.  This transition has given me a new look at what I had envisioned as the practice of family law.  We are beginning to realize that the practice is, in many respects, different for lawyers in a large versus small firm.

            I wish to thank and honor my mother. She has always been the person I turn to as a sounding board, to vent, or just seek comfort in difficult times. I truly appreciate all that she has done and continues to do for me.  I cannot say without great sadness that my father could be here for these events.  He passed away 13 years ago.  I would not be a lawyer but for him.  I also wish to acknowledge my brothers, Anthony and Francis, and express my appreciation for the support that they have given me over the years.

            Some may say that I am somewhat organized. However, the appearance of organization and preparation would not be possible without my assistants, Kathy Purazzo and Monica Pfeiffer, as well as my associate, Lisa Steirman Harvey, Esq.  They have been with me as I trudged up the ladder of the Section.  I truly do not know what I would do without them.  They are my right and left hands.  They make me look good when I would not.  They have my back in every way.

            I wish to acknowledge my son, Nick.  Many of you know him.  He has accompanied our Section on most of its retreats over the prior years.  He has grown up among us and, to some degree, as a result of us.  Some may remember him educating us about the stars on the train on our way back from a ghost town in Santa Fe, New Mexico, playing pool at a hacienda in Puerto Rico, racing Hummers on the Baja Dessert or whale watching in Cabo.  Some of us know that Frank and Nurit Louis’ son, Evan, taught Nicky about the birds and bees at the Clam Bake in Charleston, South Carolina.  Nick was the ripe age of “7” at that time.  I’m eternally grateful to Evan for that.  Nicky is my pride and joy and no one or nothing could ever make me more proud. 

            Last, but by no means least is my wife, Rosemary (or Cookie to me and many others).  She doesn’t like me introducing her as “Cookie.”   Of course, that’s a problem for me since I’m so bad with names, I’ll often have to pause to remember to say “Rosemary.”  But in all seriousness, she is my partner, she is my confidant, she is my rock.  There is no storm I cannot weather with her by my side.  Without her, my new firm would be in upheaval and perhaps floundering.  I love you Cookie.

Primary Theme

            As has prior Chairs, I take this post with the primary goal to maintain our Section’s status as one of the best in the New Jersey State Bar Association.  Since its inception in 1965, the Family Law Section has grown from an enrollment of 31 to 1,069 members.  Ours is the third largest Section of the State Bar Association.  In many ways, we have become the archetype shaping other Sections.  The Annual Family Law Symposium, organized tirelessly by Frank Louis, is the most prestigious family law seminar in the state and draws record crowds of about 500 participants.  In this past year, the registrants totaled 138 for the Friday night program and 590 for the Saturday program!  This was the highest Saturday registration in the history of the Symposium. The annual retreat, holiday party, Tischler Award Dinner and many other Section events are anxiously anticipated and much enjoyed.  Thanks to the herculean efforts of our immediate past Chair, Ed O’Donnell, Cabo was a blast!

            Although there are several goals that I would like to achieve in the upcoming year, I would like my theme to be a re-dedication to the children that are impacted by divorce.  Children are the true victims of divorce.  For many years the prevailing view has been that divorce was not only traumatic for children but contributed to negative life outcomes for the majority of those whose parents divorced.  According to the book “For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered” by Hetherington and Kelly (2002), a new picture emerged. While a recent study attempted to suggest otherwise, even that study concludes that 25% of the children from divorce did end up with serious psychological, social or academic problems.  Not everyone agreed with these conclusions.  While some practitioners may believe that the percentage is low, the fact is that most children going through divorce are negatively impacted now, and to different degrees in the future.   I do not believe that we have as a Section focused on this issue in a way that may make a meaningful difference.  As such, I have created a committee on Children’s Rights, which will be Co-Chaired by Amy Wechsler and Mary Coogan.  This Committee should seek to explore ways to lessen the negative impact of divorce and family violence on children.  Certain problems in our system need to be addressed such as the impact of the policy of public access to documents; the infrequency of appointments of Guardians or Attorneys for children to protect their interests; and the need to educate parties about the dangers of using children to gain financial advantage or exact revenge against the other party.  Perhaps changes in the Rules of Court regarding the appointment of experts needs to be reexamined.  Admittedly, this is easier said than done.  However, we cannot and must not shy away from such a noble task, no matter how daunting. 

Mission Statement

            It should be the goal of every new leader to add something to the organization they head.  For me, in addition to the committee on Children’s Rights, I would like to propose a new and revised Mission Statement for the Section, as follows:

The mission of the NJSBA Family Law Section is to serve as the statewide leader in the field of Family Law, protect the family (with special emphasis on the impact of divorce on children) and to serve our constituents.  To accomplish this mission, we adopt the following goals for the Section:

 

1.      To be sensitive to the needs of children and to protect children from the negative impact of divorce or other involvement in the judicial system;

2.      To promote and protect the concept of “family” in all of its various forms;

3.      To provide a forum for the discussion and resolution of family law issues and be the pre-eminent resource to judicial, civic, governmental and public organizations in matters affecting family law;

4.      To serve, educate and enhance the skills of our members in various ways including the publication of the New Jersey Family Lawyer and involvement in continuing legal education programs;

5.      To review legislative and administrative proposals, rules and statutory changes and, where appropriate, initiate legislation and legal reforms in the areas of family law;

6.      To improve public and professional understanding of family law issues;

7.      To increase the diversity and participation of our membership;

8.      To improve professionalism of all participants in the administration of family law;

9.      To promote and develop appropriate alternative dispute resolution approaches to family law issues; and

10. Undertake all such other activities as may be authorized, from time to time, by the Executive Committee of the Section for the purpose of accomplishing the foregoing goals.

            I am pleased to announce that this revised Mission Statement was approved by the Executive Committee at our first meeting on June 9th and passed with only one slight change regarding cultivating camaraderie among Family Lawyers.  It has now been submitted to the NJSBA Board of Trustees for approval.

Prior Themes

            I would also like to suggest that we continue certain themes of past Chairs.  Namely, Ivette Alvarez’s theme of diversity, Lizanne Ceconi’s C.O.R.E. approach and Ed O’Donnell’s MORE approach. 

            No one can dispute the wisdom and laudable goals of having a diverse Executive Committee leading a diverse Family Law Section, which itself represents a diverse state population.  The current population of the State of New Jersey exceeds 8.7 million and is divided into numerous and diverse ethnic groups.  It is eminently appropriate that the group that leads the family law attorneys in this state strive to be at least as diverse as the population it will service. 

Further, a group cannot lead from an ivory tower.  Lizanne made significant strides in breaking down the concerns of some of the general membership that the Executive Committee was an elite group detached from the vast majority of family law practitioners.  Her C.O.R.E. approach (an acronym for Communication, Outreach, Relationships, and Education) was implemented through various methods including, but not limited to, the continuation of Meet & Greets between the State and County Bars, creating the E-Newsletter, improving the involvement of liaisons between the County Bars and the Executive Committee, continuing outreach efforts to garner new members, and other endeavors.  Ed O’Donnell continued Lizanne’s C.O.R.E. approach but introduced it as the MORE approach for those who needed a catchy phrase, MORE communication, MORE outreach, MORE relationships and MORE education.  I would like to propose that these concepts be continued, not only during my year as Chair, but in subsequent years.

As to the “Meet and Greets” throughout the State, we intend to have them in North Jersey, Central Jersey, and South Jersey.  Prior year’s Meet & Greets have been well-attended and excellent vehicles to convey county level concerns to the Executive Committee.

            At Lizanne’s suggestion, as First Vice Chair, I launched the E-Newsletter.  The goal was to demystify the workings of the Executive Committee and to open communications with all members of the Section.  Amy Cores took over my role and will continue in this laudable task.

Young Lawyers Committee

            An extremely important part of the Section is our Young Lawyers Committee.  Last year, the YLC was co-chaired by Sheryl Seiden of Ceconi & Cheifetz and Carrie Schultz of Lesnevich & Marzano-Lesnevich.  They did an incredible job!  Their year included a wine making event, which was held at A Little Taste of Purple in Livingston, New Jersey; teaming up with Young Lawyers of the State Bar for the Hunt at Far Hill’s Races; a three part seminar series; a Halloween party for the entire Family Law Section; and various other events throughout the year. 

            This year, the YLS will be co-chaired by Kimber L. Gallo of Skoloff & Wolfe and Megan S. Murray of Paone & Zaleski.  Kimber and Megan hope to provide young lawyers with educational and networking opportunities and to enhance overall participation in the Family Law Section by organizing various service projects, educational seminars, and networking events.  They also plan for YLS to assist FLEC with various projects throughout the year.  We look forward with excitement to another wonderful year of events organized by our young lawyers.

New Jersey Family Lawyer

            In addition to my role as Chair of this Section, I am a Co-Managing Editor of this publication of the Family Law Section.  We continue to invite participation in the Family Lawyer by those seeking to write (in fact we encourage authors to submit articles) and to be involved on the Board itself.  Needless to say, there will be a close connection between the Executive Committee and the Editorial Board with a view toward the publication of timely and informative Issues.  I wish to thank the Board and most importantly it’s Editor-in-Chief, Mark Sobel, and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, Lee Hymerling, for all their many years of tireless work and commitment to this publication.

Section Events

There are many events to look forward to in the year to come.  After our summer respite, we start the Fall with Hot Tips scheduled for October 3, 2009, which is second only to the Annual Family Law Symposium in attendance and second to none in the number of experienced speakers.  Our First Vice Chair, Andrea White O’Brien, will be organizing Hot Tips this year and I’m sure it will be an incredible learning experience.

Our annual holiday dinner is always a blast.  Last year’s party was organized by Lizanne and took place at the PNC Arts Center.  This year’s Holiday party will again be organized by Lizanne and take place at the PNC Arts Center on December 16, 2009.

I must again thank Frank Louis for the unparalleled efforts he puts into the Annual Family Law Symposium and everything else he does for the Section.  If you attend no other seminar during the year, the Symposium is the one you can’t miss.

Fellow Officers

            As you can see, this is a rather ambitious agenda for my tenure.  I am confident that we will be successful because I have my fellow officers to assist and help lead the way.  At this time I would like to thank them in advance.

·        My Chair-Elect, Tom Snyder, who brings an informed, intelligent, calming and metered approach to every issue. 

·        My first Vice Chair, Andrea White O’Brien whose tireless energy and enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. 

·        Our Second Vice Chair, Pat Judge, who is always the voice of reason in an often unreasonable practice. 

·        Lastly, our new Secretary, Brian Schwartz, is my rudder. He will never shirk at telling me where I’m wrong, which is quite often in his opinion. I thank you for your past help and for the anticipated assistance in my year to come.

            I wish to thank our immediate Past Chair, Ed O’Donnell, for the incredible year we have had.  He championed the cause of the Section on such issues as the Palimony bill (which I will continue), Court Smart and many other issues.  He led us in healthy and productive debates and threw one of the best Retreats in Section history in Cabo!  Thank you Ed!

Annual Retreat

            I am pleased to announce that the 2010 Family Law Section Annual Retreat will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Aruba from March 10, 2010 to March 13, 2010.  Please note it in your calendar. We have a 110 room block reserved at this time.  You can make reservations at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino at http://aruba.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp.  When making your reservations for the Annual Retreat, please call the Hyatt at 011-297-586-1234, extension 4516 and ask for Aida Giel, who takes care of group reservations. Our Group Name is “New Jersey State Bar Association”.  Reservations can also be made by calling 1-800-233-1234.  All reservations must be made individually by February 16, 2010.  Airfares are low now, so you may want to think about getting your tickets early.  I am turning over the reins to Lizanne Ceconi, as Past Chairs have done, to help organize this trip.  No one could do a better job! 

Conclusions

            As I close, I wish to remember the great contribution of past Chairs and give you my promise that I will do all that is within my ability to honor their service and commitment to the advancement of family law in this State and the improvement of the lives of the lawyers who practice in this field.  I also wish to emphasize my goal to remember the family, remember the litigants and most of all remember the children.

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