Matrimonial Summit Held at Hofstra Law School with 60 Participating Family Law Attorneys
On March 10, 2017, a one-day matrimonial summit was held at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University that was sponsored by the Law School’s Center for Children, Families and the Law, its Freedman Institute for the Study of Legal Ethics, and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS).
The goal of this intensive summit, entitled “Matrimonial Practice in New York in the 21st Century: The Bar’s Role in Shaping Change,” was to encourage the dozens of participating attorneys to use their expertise to shape the family law system through open and frank communication to make it function in a better, more effective and more representative way for today’s clients and their children.
Dozens of highly qualified matrimonial and family law attorneys participated in the summit and actively engaged in activities focused on identifying, analyzing, promoting and implementing the changes in the family justice system that they believe could best effectuate these necessary changes. View a full list of the participants.
Overview, Brief Report From 2015 National Family Summit and Keynote Address
The summit began with welcoming remarks, introductions and an overview by Judge Gail Prudenti, the dean of Hofstra Law (then interim dean), and a presentation by Andrew Schepard, Hofstra Law’s Siben and Siben Distinguished Professor of Family Law and director of its Center for Children, Families and the Law, on the challenges facing family law professionals in shaping the system that serves children and parents, including a brief report from the 2015 National Family Bar Summit, which was hosted by the Honoring Families Initiative at IAALS at the University of Denver.
This was followed by a keynote address by Andrew Perlman, dean and professor of law at Suffolk University Law School and chair of the Governing Council of ABA’s Center for Innovation, entitled “The Future is Before Us: Innovation in Legal Practice in the 21st Century.” Dean Perlman is a nationally recognized authority on the future of legal education and law practice and the role of technology in both.
Participants Divided Into Six Small Discussion Groups to Discuss 12 Topics
The matrimonial summit participants, which included interested Hofstra Law students, then divided into six working discussion groups, and each group was assigned two of 12 preselected topics during the course of the day. Each smaller group had a designated leader, and discussions within each group lasted for approximately 90 minutes. For each of the discussion groups, a Hofstra law student served as a reporter and later reported back to the entire group about that smaller group’s salient discussion points.
The topics covered challenging problems confronting the matrimonial and family law bar, and each group received a series of hypotheticals, which were designed to trigger discussion as to how to concretely make changes to the current legal system that would better accommodate the needs of today’s children and parents.
The topics were The Role of the Family Attorney; Education of a Family Law Attorney; A Holistic Center for Out-of-Court Divorce; Judicial Review of Divorce Agreements; Triage and Differentiated Case Management; Litigation Management and Cost Containment; Trial Practice; Self-Represented Litigants; Early Neutral Evaluation; Children of Divorce; Domestic Violence; and Unmarried Parents. Following the small discussion groups, each group, through their law student reporter, relayed back to the entire assemblage their respective findings and for further discussion.
The Groups’ Findings
Although a dozen different topics were debated by the various discussion groups, several recurring themes emerged. The first called for more training for attorneys and law students in the increasingly specialized area of family law. Similarly, parent education for clients and self-represented litigants was deemed to be so important that the consensus was that parent education programs should be made mandatory in both Supreme Court matrimonial parts and in the family court.
Another prominent concept was that attorneys must recognize that psychology is intricately involved with family law practice and the inherent conflict it causes to family members. In this regard, the participants were of the opinion that it is critical for attorneys to be able to understand and relate to their clients’ emotionality and to honestly and empathetically manage their clients’ expectations during the stressful process of separation and divorce.
Another common theme was that in view of the undisputed harm that litigation causes to families, attorneys should place greater reliance on a range of alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation and collaborative law. This would entail frank discussions with the clients about the high cost of litigation in both emotional and financial terms as well as imparting to them that while the clients’ strong emotions may be a constructive factor in mediation, those same emotions will only be frustrated by the litigation process.
In this vein, the participants also supported the creation of a nonprofit Center for Out-of-Court Separation and Divorce, which would provide alternate dispute resolution services, primarily mediation and legal information for parents unable to afford legal representation. Also strongly supported was the creation of a differentiated case management system which would streamline the process and afford litigants both emotional and financial benefits by using early and accurate classifications of matrimonial and family law cases.
Early neutral evaluation (ENE) was viewed as an excellent tool to foster mediation and other settlement efforts, as it provides the parties with a “reality check” early on in the case with respect to their expectations and mindsets. In ENE, a neutral third party — the neutral evaluator — hears abbreviated case presentations by the parties and counsel, provides an informal assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, and may offer a nonbinding opinion. Neutral evaluators have significant experience in matrimonial law and specific training in early neutral evaluation. Their assessments and opinions can often help parties to analyze the case, facilitate discussion and generate a settlement on one or more issues.
The summit participants supported making ENE mandatory in the financial components of family law cases and recommended its use in some custody matters. They also recommended that clients be screened for domestic violence early in the process and that domestic violence training for attorneys should be made mandatory by the state bar. The creation of a unified family court to consolidate all aspects of related cases involving a family in crisis, including criminal and family law concerns, was an agreed upon solution.
Lastly, the working groups addressed the issue of the increasing number of self-represented litigants. Making court forms that are universally deemed “confusing” easier to understand was an agreed upon priority, as was providing professional legal, mental health and financial assistance, which would help to reduce conflict and possibly lead to a resolution in these cases. The groups’ consensus was that the use of early neutral evaluation in both parenting and financial disputes involving self-represented litigants would be beneficial and that the courts should develop uniform practices for review of agreements submitted by pro se litigants to ensure that they fully understand and intend the provisions contained therein.
The participants left the summit with enthusiasm and vigor after concluding that the bar, the bench and the public should unite to form and fund a system that is dedicated to providing families undergoing a reorganization with more pathways to resolve conflicts in a manner that provides children with the best possible relationship with both parents.
The summit experience was equally uplifting for the participating law students. “As a law student, I was inspired to see practitioners engaged in academic and theoretical discussions regarding the future of matrimonial law,” said Jennifer Zangler-Scaduto 3L, the peer review editor of the Family Court Review. “It reminded me that with becoming an attorney comes great responsibility to not only your clients but the legal community as a whole. This summit is an example of one of the ways that attorneys can come together to persuasively and collectively influence the community and possibly change the actual way in which matrimonial and family law is practiced.”
Before his death, Professor Herbie DiFonzo drafted a report of the summit’s deliberations and recommendations that incorporates what he heard and what the student reporters reported back on the group discussions. His report was drafted before he passed away and was sent to the summit participants for their comments. A final version of the summit report will be forthcoming soon.