A husband and wife walked into Waltz Palmer & Dawson in Rolling Meadows one day to discuss business matters with their lawyer.
Susan Dawson, the attorney who handles such matters at the firm, was certainly there to address her clients’ business and financial needs. But something else was on her mind — the bigger picture.
“I talked from the get-go about, ‘Look, if you guys divorce, who gets this business?’” she says.
Divorce wasn’t on the couple’s mind. It was strictly business. They were happily married, so imagining the possibility of divorce was likely the last thing they expected to discuss during their visit.
But at Dawson’s urging, the couple determined who would get the business in the event of a divorce and how that business would be valued. Then, partner Nichole Waltz, the firm’s family lawyer, prepared the necessary legal documents, memorializing the decisions made that day in the office.
“Lo and behold, six months later, they’re getting divorced and it’s going smoothly because it was all planned out,” Dawson says.
The divorce case was referred to a different firm to avoid a conflict of interest between business and family matters, but Dawson says the advanced work made this process easier for all parties involved.
“All the documents are put into place, everyone knows what’s happening, no one is fighting over it and the business is getting handed over,” she says. “It’s all done. It’s clean.”
Dawson’s firm adheres to a growing mentality that it’s acceptable, maybe even preferable, to integrate family law practices with other existing practices at a firm.
Generally, lawyers in practices other than family law would rather not tackle a family law case because of how emotional clients can be and how those emotions can drive them to make rash or sometimes ill-advised decisions.
But aspects of married life — prenuptial agreements, real-estate expansions, deed transfers or even divorce — are present among business owners or their spouses, so why not establish a firm that provides all those services under one roof?
Dawson launched her firm in 2008 based on this idea and recruited like-minded colleagues who agreed business-owning clients are better served by having all their legal needs covered in-house.
But clients don’t always trust one firm to handle such a wide array of services, she says.
“When I’m talking to somewhat of a sophisticated business owner and mention business law, commercial real estate, employment law, secured lending, even estate planning, they get it,” she says. “As soon as I say family law, it’s like, ‘One of these things doesn’t fit with the other.’ ... They think we’re trying to do it all, and we can’t possibly be good at any of it.”
But it’s not about one lawyer providing several legal services to a single client, Dawson explains; it’s about one firm providing many complementary yet distinct legal services for its clients. Clients can consult different lawyers — with respect to the their individual practice areas — for any issue that may arise, all under one roof.
The business model
A similar idea inspired business lawyer Tom Skallas to join forces last year with Dean Dussias, a longtime friend who practices family law, to form their own firm that brings a concierge-like approach to its middle-market client base.
“Instead of having a transactional-based practice where the client’s one and done, it’s about a relationship now so that if we can do more of their other type of work — whether it’s estate planning, or real estate or otherwise — they become a client for life,” Skallas says.
That’s not to say the big-firm or solo-practice models don’t work, Skallas says, but this business model, with its emphasis on relationship building, is one his firm, Dussias Skallas Wittenberg, and a handful of others have embraced.
It’s a benefit for the clients who come to the firm, Dussias says, because most would prefer not to visit several experts in different offices all for a single case.
But it’s also a benefit for the firm’s attorneys, he says. Under this model, clients are kept in-house and not referred to other firms for specific legal services.
“We’ve been able to figure out what our clients need,” Dussias says. “Whether it’s a personal family tragedy like a divorce or starting a new business or acquiring a business, we know that we can provide those (services) without having to lose clients elsewhere.”
And nothing beats having the ability to draw upon internal resources while servicing a client, says Steven Wittenberg, the firm’s newest partner.
“To come into a firm that understands the importance of having a business side where we do divorce,” Wittenberg says, “it’s a very unique sort of circumstances.”
A complicated matrimony
While some lawyers laud the benefits of integrating business and family law practices, others are quick to point out the dangers.
Miles Beermann, a partner at Beermann Pritikin Mirabelli Swerdlove, says this integration poses a particular danger to business lawyers, whose handfuls of clients may continually return for legal services. Family lawyers, on the other hand, may juggle a couple hundred divorce clients, which typically do not return with additional legal needs, he says. And dissatisfaction with the way a client’s family law matter was handled could drive away another lawyer’s longtime business client.
“You take an awful chance representing that person in a divorce case instead of sending them out of the firm,” Beermann says. “Let’s say that you send them down the hall to your partner, and your partner starts representing him or her in a divorce case, and they have a parting of the ways. Think about it — you’re going to lose that business client.”
For Beermann, whose firm handles both business and family law, another worrisome aspect of this integration is when clients coming from a different business-related firm are referred to his firm for family law services. In those instances, he says, he must “promise, almost in blood,” that his firm won’t try to keep those clients on under its business law practice.
“We don’t take away any business,” he says. “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Breaking new ground
Family law integration into legal practices comes at a time when many of the long-standing notions and laws on divorce are themselves evolving.
If a married couple in Illinois wanted to divorce before the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act’s first major amendment in the 1970s, fault played a role in how much property a parting spouse was allocated upon distribution.
Perhaps the spouse was physically or mentally abusive. Maybe he or she was adulterous or had substance-abuse issues.
Regardless of the fault assigned to a spouse during divorce, the process would typically be a lengthy one because attorneys would have to build and prove a case — instead of merely walking into a courtroom, saying a couple doesn’t get along and walking out with a divorce.
An amendment passed in 1977 changed the marriage and divorce law to no longer require fault in a divorce, but couples still had to establish grounds for the split. And while the division of property might not be affected by a couple’s divorce, the spouses would still need a good reason to call it quits.
And that meant spending plenty of time and money to reach the final stage of the divorce if the divorcing couple wanted to divorce on any other grounds than irreconcilable differences, which could require a two-year waiting period before finalization, or mental cruelty, a for-cause ground that requires no waiting period.
After a while, Waltz says, the different grounds a couple could cite for divorce became little more than a formality.
“If a person came into my office and demanded to file a petition based on adultery, I would talk them out of it because from a legal perspective, it’s unnecessary. I don’t need it,” she says. “What I would say to my clients is, ‘I can prove irreconcilable differences in a 10-minute hearing. If you want to go adultery, we’re going to be there for two hours and the judge is going to be very upset with me.’”
The Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act was substantially amended effective Jan. 1 to remove all grounds for divorce except irreconcilable differences. The amendment also introduced gender-neutral terms, like “spouse” instead of “husband” or “wife,” and modernized terms, like “parenting time” instead of “custody,” among others.
It’s a step in a very good direction, Waltz says, because those kinds of changes reduce conflict and promote a more peaceful and agreeable split.
“People would fight over the word ‘custody,’” she says.
The new law also recognizes that not everyone has an elaborate reason to end a marriage.
“The prevailing view was that you didn’t end a marriage just because you were unhappy, and if so, you have to make sure you were really, really, truly unhappy and separated for two years,” says Matt Kirsh, a partner at Kirsh & Associates and chair of the Illinois State Bar Association’s family law roster.
“Now, this new law recognizes that people get divorced just because they’re unhappy, and that’s OK.”
Happily ever after — so far
Entering its eighth year in April, Dawson says her firm has grown by at least 20 percent each year in terms of clients and income and added six attorneys since its founding.
If the firm does look to expand more in the future, Waltz and Dawson say, they would look into more services that complement their clients rather than trying to incorporate practices, such as personal injury or medical malpractice.
“The three of us work amazingly well together, and don’t want to upset the apple cart,” Waltz says.
And Skallas says his firm has grown from the seven attorneys who started on Day One to 12 in just more than a year. That includes partner Steven Wittenberg, who became the firm’s newest partner this month and is bringing two attorneys with him.
“This is resonating in the marketplace,” Skallas says of his firm’s integrated services. “Our clients like it, our clients are happy, so I feel like we’re really on the right track.
“We love what we do, and we love that we’ve been able to create a new model that’s actually working,” Skallas says. “It’s exciting as lawyers, as entrepreneurs, as people who just want to help others. We’re just firing on all cylinders and it’s fun.”