Trying to Avoid Adding Pain in Divorce

Saturday, August 10, 2013

This article originally appeared in Leading Lawyers Magazine—Consumer Edition for 2013.

by Keith D. Picher

Jimmy HaddonThere are two types of divorce lawyers, says James T. Haddon of Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux LLC. Some love to fight and spend a lot of time in court. Others are settlement-oriented. Haddon unmistakably belongs to the latter group.

When he learns who his opposing counsel is in a divorce, Haddon picks up the telephone to offer any needed documents: tax returns, financial statements, bank statements, and credit card statements. He asks the lawyer to reciprocate.

Haddon recalls a case when his co-counsel telephoned to discuss a three-page request for information. Rather than discuss the request’s details, Haddon instead picked up the phone and asked the opposing divorce lawyer for the materials. They arrived that night or the next morning. No request had to be served and the client avoided 30 or 45 days of delay.

“Lawyers make a lot of money doing discovery, taking depositions, filing all sorts of requests for information, and sometimes it’s necessary,” says Haddon. “But most of the time, lawyers know what their clients have, and if they disclose it, it’s done in a matter of minutes and hours, not days or weeks.”

Haddon avoids blowing his own horn. But he’s honest about how some clients hire him preemptively, hoping to avoid escalating the nastiness of a divorce. He tells the story of a friend, an aggressive divorce attorney, who met with a wealthy advertising executive for a year about an impending divorce. The executive’s marriage of 35 years fell apart with an estate of about $20 million at stake.

At the last minute, the executive decided not to hire Haddon’s aggressive friend. When the lawyer called to learn why, the executive said, “If I hired you, my wife would hire somebody just like you.”

Haddon thinks he benefits from the converse of that phenomenon. When someone hires him to handle a divorce, the other side knows his reputation and often hires a lawyer like him so the attorneys will be able to communicate and avoid trips to court every time a controversy arises.

Maol M. Sloan of Sloan & Associates has known Haddon for about 35 years.

“I probably litigate more than he does, and he’s more settlement-minded,” Sloan says. “He’s very patient about it, and he has more patience than I do.”

Sloan says Haddon avoids ad hominem attacks, is levelheaded, and doesn’t get excited, but takes great personal interest in his clients. He also doesn’t take professional exchanges personally, Sloan says.

“He’s old school, which to me means, like athletes, he can go toe-to-toe with you, but he leaves it there,” Sloan says.

Seeking Resolution, Not Conflict

Not every divorce can be settled instantly, especially when one spouse wants to save the marriage and the other doesn’t. For such a couple, divorce can be especially painful. Divorce also causes pain when clients are bent on fighting over every issue. Animosity and harsh invective make communication and contact far more difficult. Clients also spend tremendous amounts of money that few can afford.

For executives and professionals, struggling with each detail of a divorce is unproductive, Haddon says. Their businesses suffer when they constantly have to communicate with a divorce lawyer and spend time in court instead of doing what makes them successful. An executive has less focus and more distraction the longer a divorce drags on.

Haddon remembers a would-be client years ago. A successful businessman from South Korea sought a divorce lawyer for his daughter. After about 90 minutes of comprehensive interviewing, the businessman seemed ready to hire Haddon. Then he asked whether Haddon knew the opposing counsel.

He responded that he knew the lawyer and had dealt with him twice before.  The businessman asked how the matters had been resolved. Haddon answered they were settled to his client’s satisfaction. It was the wrong answer for a client who thought knowing the opponent was a minus.

“It’s very hard not to know the veteran divorce lawyers and the big divorce firms in Chicago when you’ve been practicing for 48 years,” says Haddon, 71. “When people have that kind of an attitude, I realize they’re not the type of client I want to represent.”

“He’s truly a gentleman,” says Karen J. Bowes, a family law attorney who has known Haddon for several years. Bowes says Haddon works hard at trying to settle a case, which doesn’t mean he caves in.

“Even when clients are difficult, Jimmy is Jimmy,” she says. “He is prepared and professional and never takes outrageous positions just to do so. When he says he will do something, he does it.”

Bowes describes Haddon as a creative thinker who never is out to make the life of the other side’s client a living hell.

“In a recent case we had, he tried to come up with something we could all work with,” she says.

Elizabeth Westover, a solo divorce practitioner, has settled two divorces with Haddon. She remembers how disarming he was, how he greets everyone and acts pleasantly. Haddon even brought ice cream to their first settlement negotiation.

“As attorneys, we expect the worst, but ice cream will throw anyone off because it puts you in a different state of mind,” she jokes.

“He makes you want to work with him, rather than fight him,” Westover says. “His fees are not outrageous, you get sound advice, and he makes a divorce as straightforward as it can be, emotionally.”

Haddon is a valuable resource and a mentor for Westover, even though the two met after she had practiced law for 10 years. He knows the judges and can offer an outside perspective on difficult sticking points or emotional issues.

Westover says she will refer cases to Haddon because he is knowledgeable, articulate, and reasonable. He is never highly confrontational, though he fights for issues he believes in. And he tries to minimize expenses while achieving the best possible resolution.

Another source of referrals for Haddon since the 1970s is Chester M. Przybylo, an estate-planning lawyer from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood.

“He’s a very competent attorney, he’s knowledgeable, the clients like him, and the most important thing is the very favorable results he delivers,” says Przybylo.

Haddon’s personal motto is that a lawyer should do the best job possible to get along with the other side.

“Some lawyers are absolutely unable to practice law the way I do, and I know who they are,” he says. “When I have them, I do my best to change my preconception, or I’ll tell my client to get another lawyer, or I bring in one of my friends who loves to do battle.”

Mirroring a Father’s Relationships

Haddon grew up on Chicago’s North Side. More than 20 of his closest friends today went to grammar school and high school with him. He has been married 49 years to a woman he describes as a former special education teacher who now is a professional Cubs fan. Haddon cheered for the White Sox as a youth, but today he roots for both Chicago teams.

“She has gone to nearly every home game the last 40 years, so I’m fortunate to have a wife who loves sports, which is what I love,” he says.

His son is a doctor and his daughter has a social media career, having worked for such companies as eBay and DreamWorks. His children shunned the law, Haddon says, because they hated how he made calls and read advance sheets during vacations.

Haddon’s father practiced law. Sometimes Haddon would visit with the clients who stopped by the family home. At age 12, he began answering telephones at the firm. Because of his father’s health, Haddon sometimes drove him to clients’ homes.

One of the firm’s attorneys had a huge personal injury practice. Haddon’s father also handled personal injury work, but focused mostly on real estate and divorce. Haddon grew to appreciate his father’s wonderful client relationships and how those of the other lawyer paled by comparison.

“I very much preferred the way my dad related to his clients, and it made me feel that my father was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be,” Haddon says. “It made me feel that practicing law was more than just making money.”

Haddon dreamed of other careers in his youth. His closest friend is a history professor, and Haddon earned his own bachelor’s in history from the University of Illinois in three years. Though Haddon never had a shot at it, he longed to play pro baseball. He once toyed with the idea of becoming a sports agent. Instead, he has played recreational softball for the last 59 years.

“At one time, I had seven guys on a team who were getting divorced,” he adds. “I didn’t play softball to get business, but I did get business from playing softball.”

Besides softball, Haddon also played racquetball competitively for 30 years. For a time he visited those courts four or five times a week. Nowadays, he and his opponents find themselves on the disabled list more and more frequently.

Haddon also enjoys poker and plays in four different games with friends and even other divorce lawyers.

“Some of the lawyers’ poker skills are inversely proportional to their legal skills,” he deadpans.

Haddon was the youngest law graduate in his class at Northwestern University. He turned down a criminal law job to join the 10 lawyers at his father’s firm.

He tried his first case about a month out of law school and instantly found himself involved in depositions. He handled some divorce cases early on, most of which originated from relationships formed during accident cases.

After five years of practice, Haddon began to shift away from personal injury work to focus on divorce. In the years that followed, he sometimes had lawyers who worked with him and sometimes hired lawyers to work for him.

After a lengthy solo practice, Haddon joined the former firm of Nadler, Pritikin & Mirabelli in 2007. He was 65 and his wife and two children loved the idea of him working at a large firm. He enjoyed his three and a half years there.

Sam F. Cannizzaro of Davis Friedman came to know Haddon well during their time together at Nadler because their offices adjoined. He also settled a case with Haddon after Haddon and eight other lawyers from the firm formed Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux in 2011.

“It’s in his nature to be fair and professional and not be a jerk to the other side,” says Cannizzaro. “He can negotiate very well and find some middle ground on things that other people looking at it do not.”

Cannizzaro says Haddon seems to know everyone, and everyone who knows him appears to like him. Haddon draws a circle of people with him wherever he goes.

“He’s got a great heart and I can’t stress that enough,” Cannizzaro adds. Haddon works with younger attorneys, and not just those who work for him, he says. Haddon reaches out, gives them cases, and mentors them, never looking to get cases referred back in return.

Won’t Make Spouses Cry

Since moving to Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux, Haddon says he is close with his partners. “We have worked together, shared cases, and it’s been very beneficial.”

He says the firm shares his attitude about trying to resolve cases without fighting, even though they have a couple of excellent litigators who can do very good work when needed.

Haddon has interests beyond divorce law. He tries to keep abreast of other fields of practice. He reads Supreme Court opinions. Occasionally Haddon represents clients in probate, business, and real estate matters.

Some aspects of family law frustrate Haddon, but he has hope the law continues to change society for the better.

Too many divorce clients have unrealistic expectations, he says. They seek great financial gain or to inflict economic losses on a spouse. Too many want lawyers who won’t back down when a judge speaks. They like it when an attorney makes their spouse cry. For them, mean and aggressive representation trumps a kind and decent approach.

That’s not Haddon’s style and he quickly walks away when a party seeks vengeance.

“I want a lawyer who is reasonable, who can control the client,” Haddon says. “If that combination exists, the case is going to get resolved.”

Haddon shares a learning experience from the 1990s. He took one divorce through four trials and four appeals over eight and a half years. He was invested in the case because his client’s grandmother took care of Haddon when he was a child. The client on the other side, Haddon says, was absolutely unwilling to agree on anything. Haddon had to compromise his fee at every turn because his client was not wealthy.

Despite that experience, Haddon believes attorneys must provide some services for which they don’t get paid. He has worked with the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services over the years and represented many clients free of charge or with reduced fees. Such cases rarely involve hiring experts or forensic accountants, naturally, but otherwise they resemble his other divorce work.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers admitted Haddon to its organization in 1979, and he served on the academy’s board of managers in the late 1990s. The 1,600-member academy’s stated mission is to provide leadership that promotes the highest degree of professionalism and excellence in the practice of family law.

Haddon is hopeful about family law and the law generally. Civil union laws and the organized opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 give him hope, he said.

He also appreciates how courts have struck down many restrictive voter ID laws that appear to be aimed at suppressing minority turnout.

“I’m a great believer in the equality of races and genders, and once in a while you can be proud to be a lawyer because you realize that the judiciary and occasionally the legislature are doing what’s right in the areas of civil rights and gay rights,” he says.

Sometimes, people and governments settle their disagreements fairly, if not all that quickly. ■