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How To Make The Family Bar More Family Oriented

By: Charles F. Vuotto, Jr., Esq.

The following comments were made by a highly respected group of judges and lawyers at the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Mid-Year Meeting in San Francisco, which took place in November of 2009.  The seminar was entitled “How to Make the Family Bar More Family Oriented”.  The speakers were the Honorable Bernadette DeCastro, J.S.C., Honorable Kenneth J. Grispin, J.S.C., Michael J. Stanton, Esq., Stephanie Frangos Hagan, Esq., Jeralyn L. Lawrence, Esq. and Michelle Crupi, Esq.  This seminar was moderated by Patrick Judge, Jr., Esq.  I wish to congratulate the aforementioned judges and lawyers on the laudable messages contained in their presentation.  The following professional guidelines are very important and should be considered by every practitioner on a daily basis.  It is for this reason that I have written this column to summarize their sound advice, which is enumerated below.


1.      Judges do not like to be surprised on the day of trial or the day of a motion.  As soon as you know there may be a problem with witnesses, scheduling, or even your child’s school play, advise the judge of the potential problem.  It is easier to reschedule or deal with the issue if enough advance notice is given.


2.      Most judges will not deny a reasonable request for an adjournment.  Do not be afraid to approach the judge.  Be candid about why you are requesting the adjournment.  (Taking your children out for trick or treating may be a legitimate reason.  After all, we should be in the business of trying to make family life easier for all of us not just our clients.)


3.      Always be courteous to your adversary.  Judges do not like to have to be referees between adversaries whose professional relationship has deteriorated to the same level as their clients’ relationships.


4.      Be especially courteous to pro se litigants.  Do not appear to bully them or intimidate them with legalese that they simply do not understand.


5.      Patience with all participants in the process is essential.


6.      Do not caption every motion with the words “emergent.”


7.      Anticipate that your client may want additional parenting time around the holidays, so the judge is not faced with numerous emergent motions the week before a holiday.


8.      Engage in mediation whenever possible.


9.      Speak to your adversary to try to resolve problems before you file a motion.


10.  Not every problem warrants a motion.  You may consider exploring contacting the judge with your adversary to address an issue.


11.  Call the Court in advance if an attorney is going to be late.  Judges often see attorneys and/or litigants waiting patiently in the hall because they have been sitting around since 8:30 a.m. while an adversary is stuck on the Turnpike due to an accident.


12.  Do not ever, ever bargain with children.  Never permit your client to use visitation as a chip in negotiations.


13.  Someone needs to be in charge of the asylum.  In the courthouse, it is the judge; outside the courthouse, it is the lawyers.


14.  Do not make faces or sigh at counsel table.  It empowers the client to do the same…or worse.


15.  Do not interrupt.  You can be an effective adversary without being the wrong end of the horse!


16.  Be a problem solver, not a problem maker.  This means avoid taking on the emotional persona of your client.  Abandon the drama, and think like the professional you were trained to be.


17.  Maintain good communication with the court, your client and your adversary from the inception of your matter.  It is easier to put out small fires as they arise vs. the bonfires.


18.  Elicit and encourage the help of mediators and experts.


19.  Be organized.  Use calendars, to do lists, and computer programs to manage your tasks and appointments.


20.  Control your schedule.  For example, do not schedule depositions, meetings, etc. on Monday morning; instead leave Monday for your day to organize and review your week or catch up on loose ends from the prior week.


21.  Do not let your clients control you.


22.  Balance!  Your hard work must be met with personal enjoyment.


23.  Always remember your family comes first.  As working parents, it is easy to get caught up in our cases and forget that our families depend upon us not only for financial support but emotional and mental support.


24.  Get Organized.  One of the biggest problems working parents have is that they are not organized at home or at work.  This leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety at home and at the office as you are constantly worried you are forgetting something (filing a motion, reply papers, etc. or forgetting the school play, the book fair, etc.)


25.  Make Friends.  Be cordial to your adversary in every case as you will never know when you might need a favor.  I live by the motto that cases come and go and you never know when you will have the adversary on another case in the future.  While you may be on the “winning side” of one case, you could be on the “losing side” of another and need your adversary’s help in the future.  Also make friends with the parents of the children your children are friends with, especially when they are younger.  I built a network of friends with the parents of my children’s friends and never had a problem finding a car pool or help in a pinch.  I also had a network of people who would “fill me in” on anything I was missing in school as well as on or off the playground.


26.  Communication Is Key.  Always, always, always talk to your adversary, the judge or your boss whenever you have a family issue, emergency or activity you must attend.  Don’t be afraid to let the judge or your adversary know you need to leave.


27.  Mix Business with Pleasure.  I try my best to bring my wife and son on bar conferences and retreats.  The November Mid-Year Meeting is a great opportunity to attend a bar retreat and spend time with your family since it is the same week as teachers’ convention week in public schools and children are off on Thursday and Friday.  The Family Law Section’s Annual Retreat in March is always a blast.  The children who regularly attend these retreats have grown up around and, to some degree, because of their association with judges, lawyers and their families.


28.  Surround yourself with top notch and loyal co-workers, assistants and staff.  There is no substitute for teamwork or the feeling of genuine respect and admiration for those with whom you work every working day.


29.  With regard to caregivers/babysitters, be sure to have a small list of those you can trust to help care for your child when you are in a bind.  If your child/children wake up in the middle of the night with a fever and you know you have to argue a motion in just a few hours, make sure you have a list of your “go to” people.


30.  Prioritize monthly, weekly and daily tasks.  Sometimes you will need to do this hourly or even by minute.  Keep maintaining and shuffling your “to do list.”


31.  Vacation.  We all have a lot of work to do and a ton of personal commitments, but there is no prize to those who do not vacation.  I always have a vacation on my calendar.  It is what gets me through the pang of guilt that haunts me when I am in evening meetings during the week.  To know that I will have catch-up time and a quality block of time with my family is priceless.


32.  Say no.  Really.  It is okay.  If there is something asked of you and you cannot do it 100%, just say no.


33.  Say yes to lunch meetings.  I love lunch meetings.  They are generally an hour or less and do not take away from your own family time.  When you are in charge of a meeting consider planning lunch meetings.


34.  As for ready-holds.  Often times, the court requires us to appear at 9:00 a.m., and we all know that it really means that we will not be reached until 9:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., or beyond.  Call and ask for a ready-hold so your mornings are not so hairy and frantic and all you did was stress. . . just to get to the court to sit around and wait and wait and wait.


35.  Do work at bedtime hours.  Take work home every night.  Throughout the day, make a pile of what you can work on while at home.


36.  Not all meetings need to last an hour.  Say what you need to say.  If that happens in 30 minutes, it is okay to end the meeting so everyone can go about his or her day.


37.  Combine work and play.  Bring your family along with you to work retreats or outings.  I It is a wonderful way to combine your two worlds.


38.  Webster’s defines civility as politeness and courtesy.  It costs nothing to be polite and courteous.    There is no tactical advantage to being rude.


39.  Remain Objective.  Speak in your client’s voice but with the dispassionate mind of an attorney.


40.  Never engage in ad hominem arguments against your adversary or the adverse party.


41.  Always address your argument to the Judge, not to your adversary.


42.  Cultivate an appropriate sense of humor about the practice.  Your client’s life may be disintegrating, but hopefully yours is not.


43.  Modulate your voice.  Avoid raising your voice or becoming piercingly shrill.


44.  Consent to adjournment requests (of course except in extreme situations).  Do not ask your client for his or her authorization to consent.  It is your prerogative as an attorney to exercise professional courtesy and consent to an adjournment without asking your client’s permission.


45.  Always be punctual.  Dare to be early.  Being late is not only wasteful of the time of the Judge, your adversary and the parties, it also demonstrates disrespect for the dignity of the law and the judicial process.


46.  Be prepared and organized.  In other words, be a professional, and have pride in what you are doing.


47.  Treat everyone courteously:  the Judge (certainly), the adverse attorney, your client, the adverse party, witnesses, the court staff and your adversary’s office staff.


Some may say that the above comments are common sense and do not warrant inclusion in this scholarly publication.  I disagree.  This is a tough and demanding practice, but one that I love.  We work very hard, so it is necessary to play hard in order to maintain our sanity.  We must remind ourselves daily to stop and smell the roses and to enjoy life and our families and friends while managing the pressures of this practice.  It is a very difficult balance but certainly one that it is worthwhile and manageable.  Sometime, however, we need to be reminded of the methods necessary to achieve this goal.


I respectfully submit that it is worthwhile for every practitioner to periodically review this column as a check on his or her own behavior.  We all get caught up in our clients’ emotionalism.  Sometimes it is in the name of advocacy and sometimes it is simply human nature when arguing on behalf of another person to take on the mantle of their problems.  Sometimes, and very infrequently I am sure, it is a tactic used by some to gain an unfair advantage in a case.  However, whatever the reason may be, it is worthwhile for all of us to be more introspective and look at our own behavior to improve the practice not only for the benefit of ourselves, but also for the people and children involved in the divorce process.

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