Family law 101: Attorneys share ideas, expertise and enthusiasm

By Jo Mathis
Legal News

Family law practitioners, mediators, and financial and child specialists will hold panel presentations at Cooley Law School’s Ann Arbor campus once a month for three months beginning Jan. 29.

The goal is to introduce lawyers and law students to the practice of family law, with a focus on interdisciplinary practice and settlement.

Eileen Slank, an attorney with Nichols, Sacks, Slank Sendelbach & Buiteweg in Ann Arbor, wants to share the knowledge, skills and wisdom she’s gained during her 26 years practicing family law with students coming into the system.

Family law is a challenging practice, she said.

“To effectively serve a divorcing client and the family, one must develop a great set of diverse skills,” said Slank, who is chair of the Michigan Family Mediation Council. “Not all of these skills are taught in law school.  These panel presentations at Cooley Law School will be an introduction to what it takes to be a good family law practitioner.”

Slank hopes the students and young lawyers in attendance leave the presentation realizing the importance of this area of law in society, and the responsibility that comes with being a family law practitioner.

“As a family law attorney, we are working with families going through crisis and what the attorney does or doesn’t do can make a great difference in whether this family will come out of the process in a whole and healthy way,” she said. “And that includes the children.”

The group of local family law practitioners and other professionals is convinced that divorcing couples need the right kinds of support throughout the process, said attorney Zena Zumeta, owner of Mediation Training & Consultation Institute in Ann Arbor. 

Otherwise, she said, they may be left alone post-divorce to pick up the pieces.

“What’s important is that families know there’s a way they can work together even if they’re not living together,” said Zumeta, who has found that too often, family law attorneys are unaware of resources that would help everyone involved. “We really want the newer lawyers to understand a better way to go about a divorce practice.”

For example, she said it’s better to get the couple to sit down together to work out issues before the attorney files the complaint. Otherwise, the clock starts ticking and the parties become more anxious and tense than they need to be.

And often lawyers will begin formal discovery by sending out requests for needed documents when it’s less contentious for the couple to discuss those papers face-to-face in an informal meeting.

“Families can still be families, just different,” she said. “They don’t need to be lined up on opposite sides, pointing at each other.”

Couples do well when they sit down and talk about how their divorce will affect their friends and relatives, said Zumeta, noting that she was very close to her mother-in-law when she divorced and that it would have been sad to sever that relationship.

The Jan. 29 panel will focus on setting up a family law practice, including the initial client interview. Panelists will include attorneys Sherry Chin, Monika Sacks, Liz Solomon and Kent Weichmann. Mental health professional Siri Gottlieb will also be a presenter.

An interdisciplinary discussion of issues in family law will be the focus of the Feb. 12 session. It will feature attorney Margo Nichols; financial specialist Gary Rogow; child specialist Judi Green; client coach Brady Mikusko; and mediator Gary Marsh.

“A lot of lawyers feel they need to do everything themselves, but in family law, it’s better to involve other specialists,” said Zumeta.

In the old model of family law, only the lawyer would be in touch with experts, said Zumeta. Now, the couples are involved, as well.

The March 19 presentation will be a discussion of settlement options, including mediation, collaborative law, attorney negotiation, Friend of the Court, and the court.

Panelists will include Zumeta and Slank, as well as Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Darlene O’Brien; attorney Naomi Woloshin; and Washtenaw Friend of the Court mediator Alan Zoltowski.

Lawyers going into the field must develop particular skills of mediation, negotiation, and collaboration that are unique to the practice of family law, she said.

“Of course these skills are important in other areas of law, but dealing with the dynamics of a family situation, often with young children, is different than dealing with contracts, torts, criminal or corporate law,” said Slank.  “Family lawyers deal with what is the core of society—the family.”

Dean Joan Vestrand said that when approached last year by the lawyers with an interest in designing and presenting such a program at the law school, she was excited for her students and very grateful.

“Their ideas, expertise and enthusiasm bode for an outstanding series in a very important area of practice,” she said.  “We are pleased to host these sessions and welcome all interested members of the bar to benefit with us in this programming.”

Each of the three sessions is from noon to 2 p.m., and pre-registration is not required. Students from any law school are welcome, as are all law professionals.