Resilience, Humor, and a Little Magic

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jacalyn Birnbaum: Resilience, Humor, and A Little Magic

The following article originally appeared in “Leading Lawyers Magazine — Women’s Edition for 2010” before Jacalyn Birnbaum joined the law firm of Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux.

Nobody ever remembers the whole sonnet attached to the Statue of Liberty.

It is the lament of Jacalyn Birnbaum, a member at Nadler Pritikin & Mirabelli LLC who can recite Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” with obvious passion and energy. Birnbaum views the Statue of Liberty not just as a patriotic symbol but a role model, a compassionate and nonjudgmental figure she seeks to emulate in her family law practice.

“Lady Liberty is not telling people they are dysfunctional. She’s not telling people what they did wrong, that they’re too fat, that they didn’t do this, didn’t do that, or should have done something else.” Birnbaum says.

“All ‘The Lady’ does is stand there and say, ‘You know what? It’s fine. With all your imperfections, it’s just fine. Go get busy.’”

Getting busy has never been a problem for the 60¬year¬old Birnbaum, who started law school when she was 37 and has built a niche practice as a frequently appointed child representative and guardian ad litem for children in divorce and family law cases.

‘Swan Dive’ Into Law

Birnbaum always wanted to be a lawyer. Her father, Herbert F. Friedman, was an attorney and his work always seemed exciting to Birnbaum.

She graduated from George Washington University in 1972 with a degree in political science. During her junior and senior years, Birnbaum worked as an aide to Congressman Phil Crane. She thought about attending law school after graduating from college, but times were different then.

“The women in Washington at that time— the most brilliant women in the world—were still getting coffee. It’s incredible that young women have the choices they have now, because those choices sure weren’t there in 1972,” Birnbaum says. “I decided, well, you know what, the pioneers can go be pioneers. I’m going to go get married and have my kids.”

And that’s what she did. Birnbaum has been married for 38 years to her husband, Marc, and they have two children and two grandchildren. When their daughter was in high school and Birnbaum was 37, she decided it was time to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.

Of course, the decision didn’t come without its share of anxiety.

“I was terrified to fail and I was terrified to succeed, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “So I figured, all right, sometimes you just have to take a swan dive into life, and that’s it. And I’ll figure it out.”

She did figure it out and graduated from DePaul University College of Law in 1992. She joined the firm now known as Berger Schatz and remained there for more than nine years before starting at Nadler in 2000.

An Unusual Approach

Birnbaum says her niche practice representing children is fueled by her belief that they are all heroes. She strives to treat them with sensitivity but is disgusted by the thought of pitying her clients as if they were weak, wilting flowers. The only deep security in life, she says, is resilience.

“When people in the family are fragmented, the kids rise to the occasion,” Birnbaum says. “Understanding that is really a way to equip them with the tools they need to get through trauma the rest of their lives.”

Her partner, James B. Pritikin, says it’s not unusual to walk by Birnbaum’s toy-filled office and see her sitting on the floor with a child. In the 15 years they have known each other, Pritikin has faced Birnbaum as an opponent in court and also represented clients whose children were assigned to her.

“As an opponent, she’s a worthy advocate for her client. She is knowledgeable. She is perceptive beyond any lawyer I’ve ever dealt with, to tell you the truth,” Pritikin says. “She was a good, tough litigator but never took an unreasonable position.”

Pritikin says Birnbaum’s unusual background contributes to her abilities as a lawyer. Because she started her legal career when she was 40, Birnbaum brought maturity and rationality that are sometimes missing from young attorneys’ skill palettes.

Birnbaum says her practice incorporates humor, a little magic, and her belief that the most powerful words in the English language are “figure it out.” That resilience has been lost in society’s move to portray pain as synonymous with danger, she says.

“If you don’t have a toothache, you can die from blood poisoning because you don’t have any notice,” she says. “Danger is ‘run away.’ Danger is a saber-toothed tiger. But if you run away from pain, how do you learn anything?

“So you have kids who are going out there with—virtually—emotional AIDS because they have not had a chance to develop a resistance to anything,” Birnbaum says.

This is not to imply that she is insensitive. Circuit Judge Edward R. Jordan says Birnbaum has never failed to settle a case in the 15 years he has been appointing her as a guardian, and the high success rate comes as a result of her empathy for the parties involved. She does particularly well with cases involving angry young parents, he says, because she talks to them as if they are her family, as if their children are her grandchildren.

As for her young clients, Birnbaum’s allegiance to them is unquestionable, Jordan says. “She makes me crazy,” he says affectionately. “I have yet to have her come back and not tell me that this is the most beautiful, brightest kid she’s ever met in her life.”

However, he also describes Birnbaum as “hopelessly practical,” someone who takes no prisoners and brings common sense to all her cases, making her a favorite with all the judges in the division.

‘Remarkable Sense of Humor’

Because Birnbaum waited until her children were nearly grown before she started law school, she says she did not face some of the difficulties women lawyers encounter when trying to balance work and family life. Now, she seeks to mentor young women attorneys and teach them not to be their own worst enemies.

Women, she says, want to be super-people. They hate to say they cannot do something, and they continually judge themselves by a different standard than men. This is particularly crucial in times of stress, when Birnbaum theorizes that men and women revert to their varied biological impulses.

“Men are designed to drop the buffalo. That’s what they’re supposed to do. So they don’t look to the right, they don’t look to the left, they have unerring faith in their judgment, that’s it. And once the buffalo’s down, it’s time for them to put their feet up and have a beer,” Birnbaum says.

Women, on the other hand, must figure out what to do with the buffalo once it is down. Birnbaum says this is infinitely more complex.

“Who do you feed? How do you preserve? How do you know when the next one is coming? All that other stuff they have to think about, in a tapestry.”

“What happens is that women see more because they see at a different level of specificity, and I think that’s really biological,” she says.

Such colorful metaphors fly freely in conversation with Birnbaum, whose sterling reputation in the Cook County Domestic Relations Division is fed in part by what Jordan calls her “remarkable sense of humor.” When asked if he can recall an anecdote to describe Birnbaum’s personality, Jordan immediately begins to laugh.

“She’s a little bit nuts, a little bit crazy, which I love and adore,” Jordan says as the preface to his story.

“It was Halloween, the 31st. She shows up in court wearing a full witch’s costume, green facial makeup—she looked like she was right out of Wicked,” he says. And while Jordan cannot think of a single other attorney who could get away with such a stunt, everyone laughed with Birnbaum when she did it.

“She could get away with it in front of any judge in this division and there’s not one lawyer who would complain,” he says. That is a testament to both to Birnbaum’s reputation as an excellent, skilled lawyer and as a remarkable, likable woman.

Perhaps it is also a sign that she has been able to channel a little of what she says is the power that built the country—the resilience represented by her role model, the Statue of Liberty.

“When you’re sitting there yearning to breathe free—when you’re trying to get out of the colossal emotional imprisonment of a rotten marriage or the colossal emotional imprisonment of trying to save two parents that are in the middle of a real tough time,” Birnbaum says, “if you can tap into that (message): that you don’t have to hide and that you’re a hero and I get it, that’s it.”

“It’s like you have nuclear power there. You can make a bomb or you can make a power plant. That’s the power of pain when it’s not frozen. That’s why I love what I do.” ■