Divorce is complex. That’s the reality. The good news is, with sound counsel from your professional team, you can still navigate the process with clarity and confidence. In Episode #9 – Complex Divorce, we go behind the scenes with a recent client, answer a question from our audience and learn how to proceed in a complex divorce with our guest, attorney Mary Fran Quindlen of Beaufort, South Carolina-based Quindlen Law Firm, P.A.. You may view the original We Chat Divorce broadcast here.
Karen: Welcome, Mary Fran. Thank you for joining us.
Mary: Thank you
Karen: Why don’t we start out with you giving us a little bit of background about how you got into family law and where you started and how you got to where are now.
Mary: I'm originally from New Jersey, where it's very cold and snows. I graduated from Rutgers and knew that I wanted to move to the Beaufort area. I have been coming here since I was a child, and I knew this was where I wanted to be. I went to the University of South Carolina for law school, but first I joined the Marine Corps. Then I went to the University of South Carolina for law school and after I graduated from the University of South Carolina, I went to training for the Marine Corps. The basic school, naval justice school, and then I was stationed to Parris Island which is, for anybody who's not from here, right across from Beaufort, within Beaufort. When I was on active duty, I did about two years of defense work and about two years of legal assistance, which is basically family law. That's when I learned that I really, really understand and like doing family law.
Karen: We're glad that you do that, and we love working with you. We're going to circle back to a question that was asked a little bit ago that we wanted to ask directly to you. The question is, "Do you tell your clients what to do, or do you help them make the best decisions for themselves?"
Mary: Well, I was wondering if I was the “pitbull” attorney that your audience member was asking about in the previous segment. I say, you know, when we walk out of these doors, whatever you want ultimately, you're paying me to advocate for you. As long as it's not unethical, illegal, or damaging to my professional reputation, I will go out and let you spend $3,000 to fight over a $20 end table because it means that much to you. But I'm going to tell you why you're wasting your money and why you're wasting your resources. I never tell a client what decision to make. I always present them with as many options as possible. Particularly when it’s a strategic question for trial, so, you know, "He isn't paying the credit card bill on time. I want to rule him in, I want a contempt action. Will you do that?" And I'll say "Okay, well let's talk about it. Why isn't he paying the payment on time?" "Well, he just got laid off." Okay, well, we could still do a contempt action rule to show cause if you want, but a defense is the inability to pay. Then I flesh it all out and I'll write down, "here are your options.” You know, option A is the “pitbull” attack, and this is what I think the likelihood of success for that is and why you should do that and so on.
Catherine: One thing that I love about you from personal experience with joint clients is that you really do want the individual to move forward in a positive direction. You really do want them to transition through this process in the best possible way and you're really open to them making decisions outside of your room. But, if that goes awry, you are so ready to be that aggressive attorney, and that's such a great mix. It's very good.
Mary: I appreciate that. I will say though that what I frequently say to clients is that in family law, if you do complex cases -- and complex doesn't always mean a lot of money -- sometimes it can be custody battles, sometimes there might be international components, there can be lots of things that can make a case complex. But if you do complex work, it means you love to litigate because you’re going to court a lot and I tell clients all the time that I love to litigate and I've got lots of children to put through college. So if you want me to litigate, I am happy to do it and I like to litigate but my happiest clients control their own destiny, settle their cases quickly, and have minimal contact with me.
Karen: What do you do if a client sits in front of you and says, "I don’t know what to do. Just tell me.”
Mary: I'd send them to you guys! You know, it depends on what it is they're confused about. Obviously, I don’t send people to you if their question is, “Should I separate the twins?” If it’s money, I tell people all the time there are two things that save clients thousands of legal fees: private investigators and divorce financial planners. I say, "I'm happy to sit here and my hourly rate and go over how much you have for cell phone bill and how we can reduce your cell phone plan to make it more effective for you but that doesn’t seem like a good use of your money.” But I will do it. And I have. I always say to the clients, “What’s your endgame? What’s your wish list?” And then I say, “What do I need to get you there?” You can’t ask me about financials, I’m not a CPA, I’m not a forensic accountant, I’m not a financial planner, I don’t know how to get you an eight or six or a four percent return or how much you need based on that. If you can bring me a plan that’s been put in place with a clean financial declaration and, preferably, a marital asset addendum, that shows how were getting there, then it’s my job to take that and work toward the client’s desired outcomes.
Catherine: I love that approach. It really gives the client the real feeling that you are looking at everything in the best interest and you are looking to save them time and money and stress by using other professionals to help with the whole team and the whole process. It really is so much better for anyone going through this process
Mary: When I do consults, I say to them all the time that in my years of experience, I try to be holistic because I only do family law. I say, “I know what I don’t know and I know what you don’t need to pay me to do.” Sometimes people think, “Well, we can work this out so I’m not going to go get these experts because I’m already paying much to the attorney,” sometimes we'll get into the case period of time and I’ll say I'm not saying I told you so, but what I'm saying is now I have to have someone who can give me this information.
Karen: We tell our clients that as well. You know so many people think when they’re going through a divorce, the first call is to their attorney, but if they do some homework ahead of time, it gets them so much farther down the road and more swiftly. And that actually goes with my next question. What can a client do in preparation for working with you?
Mary: I do a very detailed initial consult. It's just my style. Every attorney has a different style. My style isn't the most lucrative for me, but allows me to make informed decisions and allows them to make informed decisions. I always give people the names of other attorneys that I think might be a good fit for them. And they’re usually people that I practice with that I like that I respect. And I genuinely gauge the person and say, “You know, if you leave here and you say that crazy redhead was fast talking, I didn’t understand half the stuff she said, she made my head hurt and my dad hated her,” go see someone else, because a lot of it's about style. We’ll all ultimately come to the same thing but one of the other things I say to them before they come in is to bring five years' worth of tax returns with you. It depends if it's an emergency, protective or a complex custody matter, it might be different but I always need five years worth of tax returns. Get me any kind of documents that you have related to retirement accounts. Show us what you own and what you don't own. Complete this financial declaration. And a lot of times I also have clients come in 30 minutes beforehand and I intentionally ask them to fill out the paperwork while they're sitting there because it gets their head in the game. So many people do come in crying and upset and they want to spend the first hour getting therapy and I say I'm a great therapist, but I am not really licensed to do it. And so, you can stay focused if you've met with a financial planner ahead of time. If you can't afford a divorce financial planner, do you have someone in your family who's good with numbers? When people come and say, “I don’t know what I need, and I don't know what I have,” it's very expensive. I'm happy to help them, but subpoenas are not the least expensive way to get your information.
Karen: Absolutely. So, can you go over with us what exactly is complex litigation?
Mary: In my opinion, because we don't have a family law specialty in this state (South Carolina) which would define something like that. Complex litigation is anything that I think is very likely to end up at trial. And even if it doesn't end up in trial, and the majority of them don't, anything that's a high net value case often times will be considered complex. But sometimes you having a lot of money doesn't make it complex because they are easily divided, but if you add debt into the mix, particularly during a recession, or if you make $60,000 a month, but you spend $62,000 a month – that's a complex litigation case because of alimony. Those sorts of issues make it very complex. Anything that would be subjective to a judge, makes it complex.
Catherine: How many cases do you think actually go to court to litigation? Percentage wise?
Mary: Well, I think it depends on the attorney, honestly. Different lawyers have different ways they manage. Not everyone only does family law. That might just be a very small portion of their practice. For me, I would say that at least 8-15% of my cases get to the brink of trial and I say probably 10% of my cases go to actual trial.
Catherine: That's what I was thinking
Karen: Thank you so much for being here. We so enjoy working with you.
Catherine: Yes, we do.
Mary: Thank you for having me.
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