Divorce Can Tragically End Your Biglaw Practice

Oct 31, 2014 by 0

When an Am Law 50 partner filed for divorce in 2010, she had no idea she was ending not only her marriage, but also her tenure as a Biglaw partner. The career she built on three degrees and over thirty years of hard work, ended unceremoniously as a casualty of a rancorous divorce.

What went wrong? It’s no secret that Biglaw firms scarcely differ from large corporations when it comes to employees’ personal matters. They tend to take a laissez-faire approach, unless they are pressured to protect the firm’s image or assets. The managing partner of the local office explained to her that it would be important to the firm that the partner’s productivity or the office atmosphere not be impacted by the divorce, but was otherwise unconcerned with the proceedings.

Jaffe & Clemen’s ace divorce attorney, Frisco Fayer, explicates that “[m]ost modern big firms recognize the need to support their partners and they do so whenever possible. That said, the demands placed on a divorcing partner by his or her career are not going to disappear. The partner’s clients are still going to expect the same level of service and the other partners in the firm are still going to be interested in maintaining billable hours.”

Our anonymous partner spent around fifteen hours a week after working hours and on weekends on her divorce case. Nonetheless, she contends that there was no correlation between her divorce and productivity, performance or how she interacted with her fellow partners, associates and staff.

The divorce started as amicably as one could reasonably hope for, but as distrust bubbled, the split escalated from a perfunctory proceeding into contentious brawl. Our anonymous partner stated that she took multiple steps to bring about a quick, fair and amicable resolution of the divorce to forestall unnecessary expenses, but that her spouse was not interested in resolution only conflict. She stated that her spouse incurred both legal and accounting fees each in excess of six-figures but she incurred minimal legal expenses due to her election ultimately to represent herself. The firm was supportive of her intention to represent herself so long as her time was not diverted from firm matters.

In Fayer’s experience, this is hardly extraordinary. “A non-contentious matter can be resolved for a relatively minimal amount of money if the parties are able to reach a fair deal and still trust one another. But, once the trust is lost or if the divorce becomes a tool to get even and exact revenge, the costs can quickly move from five to six or even seven figures.”

As the trust disintegrated, so did any remaining civility. As her spouse’s counsel escalated the fight, the firm became embroiled in the fray. Subpoenas were issued, alerting the firm that the partner was going through a divorce. While most fellow partners were initially sympathetic, the spouse’s lawyer petitioned the court to issue an earnings assignment order that was quashed as the court found she had paid all the spousal support on time. Nonetheless, as word of the order spread to several partners, sympathy was quickly replaced with indignation among those who took the order as an indication of a failure to comply with a court order.

Fayer explains that, “[f]irms are often served with subpoenas which demand the production of documents. If the burden on the firm is particularly onerous or if the requests are excessively invasive, we will often seek a protective order from the Court to limit the demands placed on the firm.”

The Am Law 50 firm did issue a protective order, but this did not curtail the steady stream of calls, subpoenas and orders from the spouse.

Eventually, the acrimony manifested as a surprise visit by the partner’s estranged son to the law firm. Slipping through security, the son made his way to the office and started screaming at the partner in full view of all the partners, paralegals, clients and assistants. He eventually left and the partner was pulled aside by the managing partner of the firm’s local office and the HR manager and told that should that happen again, she would be let go. On the positive side, the firm revised their security policy to prevent future breaches.

In a rare move, the partner was eventually let go despite having a formidable practice. She went from a cushy $600,000+ a year compensation to losing clients and countless hours of her life in a three-year divorce that ended right as she began to approach the mandatory retirement age. Without a book of business, she was left with few options but to start anew as a sole practitioner.

Our anonymous partner is but one of many Biglaw lawyers who have gone through a divorce. Some estimates peg the rate of divorce for the general population around 30% and for lawyers in general around 11%, despite the popular claim that 50% of marriages end in divorce. The research on divorce rates for Biglaw partners is virtually nonexistent, but it wouldn’t be surprising to find that the rate is higher given the amount of pressure placed on them.

By treating divorce as a non-issue, firms are likely losing productivity as attorneys go through a time consuming ordeal that can consume firm resources. By recognizing divorce as endemic and not singularly spontaneous, firms could better equip themselves with dedicated attorneys to assist in divorces and other personal matters rather than assigning busy attorneys and thereby losing billable hours.

According to Fayer, who started his legal career as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, “[d]ivorces are hard and the cost can’t be measured in dollars alone; there is an inevitable cost to the psyche. That said, I’ve never had a client who regretted getting divorced. And, the emotional difficulties can be tempered by taking care of oneself with the usual prescription of sleep, diet, and a little sunshine. Of course, most Biglaw partners were already under huge pressures even before the divorce proceeding, which is why it’s particularly important to find the right divorce lawyer who can shoulder as much of that burden as possible.”