No one comes into divorce knowing full well the workarounds of the process. After all, no one enters marriage thinking about having a divorce later on. If by chance you are contemplating a divorce, then Beermann Divorce and Family Law Partners, Thomas T. Field and Michael D. Sevin, have you covered as they give us the Divorce 101. They give us a view on what to expect – from when and how to call a divorce lawyer to all the things you need to prepare. Letting us in on their role in the process, Thomas and Michael talk about handling privacy, conducting the initial meeting, and hand-holding clients.
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Divorce 101: Breaking Down The Basics Of Getting A Divorce
Our CMO, Sandra Napoli-D’Arco, asks questions that get the attorneys talking about everything they know and have experienced throughout their years of being divorce lawyers.
I’m here with Tom Field and Michael Sevin, divorce and family law partners at Beermann. On this episode, we’ll be speaking about Divorce 101. A lot of questions that you may have if you are contemplating a divorce, how to call a divorce lawyer, when you should call a divorce lawyer, questions you should ask and how you should prep, all the things that you are not familiar with. Hopefully, you’ll have a better understanding at the end of this show. I’d like to introduce Tom and have him share a little bit about himself as well as Michael.
Tom: I’m Tom Field. I’m the Head of our matrimonial practice here at Beermann. I’ve been with Beermann now since 2006 specializing and practicing only in the area of family and matrimonial law for that entire period of time. As far as my background goes, I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and Highland Park. I went to U of I for my undergrad. I came back to Chicago for law school and business school. I’m a JD/MBA. I very much enjoyed dealing with the financial nature of divorce and all that goes along with it. I live in the city with my wife and two boys. That’s about me. Michael, why don’t you take it over.
Michael: My name is Michael Sevin. I’m an attorney at Beermann as well. I’ve been practicing at Beermann since the end of 2011. I did my undergraduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. I went to law school at DePaul. I practice in litigation. I’m pretty comfortable in the courtroom. I also live in Chicago as well.
Tom, let’s get started with you. If I’m a potential client and I’m contemplating getting a divorce, the first thing I probably will do is ask friends and family or search the internet. Take me through the process before I even step through the door. What should I be doing?
Tom: Everybody is more comfortable with a warm referral. Somebody you know knows somebody, it always feels more comfortable because at least in theory they’ve had an experience or there’s a relationship. I get that and I can appreciate that. It doesn’t mean that their relationship is necessarily a good one. It doesn’t mean that that person necessarily knows the practitioner well, but it’s still a comfort level. We as practitioners can appreciate that. Our former clients in particular and other lawyers that don’t practice in our area are typically our best referral sources. We get clients or prospective clients calling us who are uncomfortable talking to a friend or a relative. We get that too. I’ve had CEOs contact me because they found me online through a law directory or some other methodology because they didn’t want anybody knowing their business.
They want to keep their matter private. They’re doing their own due diligence and their own investigation. There are plenty of places for them to look to do that as well. There’s one website in particular called Avvo.com that is not necessarily unique in our space but different and that our former clients can go on and post reviews about us and either remain anonymous or not. In doing so that’s their choice. It’s a public repository of feedback that is rare in the professional services world because especially in law, you don’t get that anywhere else for the most part. I know we as a firm are working on providing our potential clients with other avenues to learn about us including this show. There are definitely resources out there, super lawyers and leading lawyers, websites as well where people can learn about us.
Tom, I’ll ask Michael about this. I know you mentioned CEOs come to the firm. They don’t want people knowing their business. Michael, how does the firm handle privacy if I am a CEO or anyone for that matter? I’m coming to your office. I don’t want my neighbor knowing. I don’t want the press knowing. I don’t want anyone knowing that I’m even thinking of speaking to a divorce lawyer. How do you as an attorney and as a firm handle the privacy of that potential new client?
Michael: As a starting point, when you reach out to an attorney, everything is protected by the attorney-client privilege. The communications that a potential client, whether they sign up with you or not, is going to be deemed privileged if the expectation is that it’s captured privilege. A lot of times people will come with a parent or a friend for comfort level. We have to advise at that time the presence of a third party in the meeting will get rid of that privilege. If there’s something in particular that they want to keep privileged, we’ll ask that person to step out of the room. We’ll assure them that whenever they tell us whatever information they provide us, that’s expected to be kept confidential and will be. We can’t be ordered to divulge that information either because that’s part of the privilege as well. Anything they come to us, advise us of, and the information that we provide them back is governed by privilege. It’s kept entirely confidential and that includes documents they provide us with. Anything they provide us that we save is kept on secure drives and in the cloud with password protection to ensure that privilege is kept in place.
If I am calling you, Tom, but my husband met with you or my husband decides to call you, how does that work?
Tom: We have a very sophisticated conflict system in the office where if one spouse reaches out to us before we have any meaningful conversation with them whatsoever, they are run through our conflict system to make sure that we have not been contacted by or spoken with their spouse. We haven’t done any work for them, either of the parties or any closely held business that they may own in the past. We make a strong effort to protect again the confidentiality but also the security of information flow. We don’t want a circumstance like that where you contacted me one day, but your husband has already been here. I can’t sit down and schedule that meeting with you unless and until I confirm that we don’t have a conflict.Everybody is more comfortable with a warm referral. Click To Tweet
What if you’ve met with my husband, but he doesn’t hire you? Can you then represent me?
Tom: It comes up a fair amount in our world because of the high end of the practice, which is where our firm is at. There are some usual suspects as far as our competition goes. We are typically vying for the best cases in the Chicago land area. We at Beermann are very careful about staying within the parameters of the ethical guidelines. There are rules of professional responsibility that will allow us to take on representation in that circumstance where by way of example, you’ve met with us, don’t elect to hire us and then your husband wants to hire one of my partners. The way that typically works is if you met with me and somebody on my team, anybody in our office that could have come across you or your notes that we may have taken will be Chinese-walled off physically from your file and electronically.
What does that mean?
Tom: It means that no lawyers, paralegals or paraprofessionals in our office could access any notes that we kept from a meeting with you. Those people would be walled off from that information so that if your husband decided he wanted to hire Michael and Michael wasn’t part of the team that sat in on your counsel, they could take on that representation assuming that you didn’t sign an engagement letter with us and pay us a retainer.
Michael, what could I expect from my first meeting from the time I arrive at the office? Let me take a step back. Before I even arrive in the office, how many attorneys should I reach out to?
Michael: I would start with one in particular. It’s a comfort level between the attorney and the client. We’d hope that they would come to us and stay with us. Part of what we do in that initial meeting is to not only gather information from the potential client that we would need for preparing a case, but also educate a potential client who’s coming in about how the process works, what they’re looking at, what the issues might be and how they might be viewed or treated by a judge throughout the process. A good deal of what we do in the initial consultation is educating them on what the law provides, how long it will take, how much it will cost them, which are a couple of things we can’t predict to some extent. We’re also educating them on what the law says with respect to child-related issues, financial issues, the status of their marriage itself in terms of filing and all of those areas of the law.
Tom, what type of questions can I expect in our initial meeting with a divorce lawyer? Do I need to sign an engagement letter with the attorney after the first meeting?
Tom: Let me work backwards there. You are not compelled to sign an engagement letter in our presence at that first meeting unless you are ready to go and you love us, trust us and want us to handle your case. I’m confident that you will love us, trust us and want to stand on your case, but not everybody feels super comfortable being handed a pen and asked to sign that day and at that time. I make it a practice to give every potential client a proposed engagement letter when they leave or email it to them immediately thereafter so that they have it in hand and are ready to move forward whenever they’re most comfortable doing it. As it relates to the new client meetings, though I would say I at least break them down probably into five parts. As Michael said, it’s about education.
The first part of the meeting I may inquire of the potential client as to why they’re here specifically. What brought on the circumstance in their life that made them take that leap, which is not an easy one to call us, email us or whatever they did to reach out. I get a little flavor of the case, the personalities perhaps and some baseline data. I’ll go into the process a little bit about how somebody needs to file the case and then we go into the discovery phase and the settlement phase. I’ll also walk them through the law as it relates to property division and child support maintenance, which is our term for alimony.
We’ll talk about all the different aspects of that based on a little bit of factual information that they’ve given me. We typically will do a little bit more data gathering. As the meeting goes, as far as the children, as far as the finances go, it is not imperative for somebody to be intimately knowledgeable of their finances. That’s always information that we can get down the road. Whatever they do know is certainly helpful or have access to and we’ll walk them through that as well. We talked to them about a couple of variables that always play into every single case, which are, how their spouse is going to behave and who their spouse hires to represent them. Those two variables will absolutely 100% of the time impacts how long the case takes to resolve and how much it ultimately costs.
From a layperson’s point of view, Michael, what would be your advice to someone? I’ve met with Tom. He’s gone through all this information and my head is this big because this is not what I do every day. What information do I need to pull for him? What are my next steps and how much hand holding do attorneys give to their clients?
Michael: At an initial consultation, as far as information they should gather ahead of time, it’s a good idea to pull things like tax returns or any type of financial net worth statements that they might have prepared. Tax returns are always a good place as a starting point because it gives the attorney a bit of a window into the finances of the family, both in terms of what each of them may make if they file jointly, it would indicate both parties income as well as certain if they own a business, the health of the business, the financial health of the business.
The tax return gives a bit of a window into their finances. As it relates to how much handholding we do in the case, it depends on how involved that spouse was with their finances. Tom was talking about this as well. It’s not unusual for one of the spouses to come in who typically haven’t handled their finances throughout the marriage. That’s something we deal with throughout cases and we’ll require a little bit more discovery on that end. Part of what we do is assure them that we have the ability to obtain this information and what we’ll need them to do in terms of gathering us the background of where to look as a starting point for them.
Tom: I would follow on to the handholding question though too. Something I always try to impart on a potential client is they’re not just any client. This is a professional services business. One of the things that we strive for Beermann is the client service aspect. That doesn’t mean that we service the case and send our clients on their way either. When it comes to that handholding piece, especially for the spouse who hasn’t been intimately involved in the finances, we’re always looking to make sure that we set them up so that they have a new estate plan when they leave us. They have a new accountant when they leave us. They have a new financial advisor when they leave us. That they have proper insurance in place, whether it’s health insurance or life insurance. These are all follow on services that we don’t necessarily directly provide. When a client walks out the door, we want to know when it reflects better on us that they have all those things covered and that there are other professionals or paraprofessionals in their lives that are high quality that we like to think of ourselves who will follow them into the future.
What other professionals are involved in my case?
Tom: Tax advisers and financial advisers, the list probably is a lot longer than that. We’re always careful about the advice we give because no matter how knowledgeable we are about other professional services, we know what we know and we know what we don’t know. That’s why it’s important to set your clients up if they aren’t already set up with the right professionals when they leave us and when they’re with us. Part of a lot of the cases that we’re involved in deal with businesses that need to be valued and tracing of assets or determining somebody’s lifestyle. These are all almost always require us to go outside of our firm to hire professionals to do that work as well.
I know the firm handles a lot of high net worth cases. In situations where the divorce is complicated, what are the issues that typically come up? What are they most concerned about? If I was in their shoes, how would I know that Beermann or you, Tom Field, is the right attorney for me?
Tom: Experientially, that’s the type of clientele we have grown accustomed to represent. Whether it’s an athlete, whether it’s an entertainer or whether it’s a C-Suite executive at a Fortune 500 company, these are the kinds of clients we know. We’ve grown to understand them, their needs and what service we need to provide them as well as the topics that are likely to come up. When you mentioned a CEO type divorce by way of example, we know in the back of our heads we have to be thinking, “What are the various types of compensation that this person may or may not be receiving?” In addition to their salary, they’re probably receiving options. How often are they investing? What type of options are there? Are they receiving performance shares? How are those taxed in comparison to the options they are receiving?
It can make your mind swirl a little bit. Those are things that we enjoy dealing with. We’ve got our clients who are in private equity or hedge funds and have what’s called carried interest, which is a future interest in profits. It’s a function of not doing guesswork, parsing out assets and maybe having them constructively held for one spouse into the future if they can’t be divided. It’s complicated. It’s not something that especially the non-moneyed or the non-earning spouse may be familiar with. I’ll go back to the handholding conversation. That’s why we’re good at what we do. We understand these issues. For the client who is the CEO or is the entertainer, that’s a comfort level for them too because we can speak their speak. When the other side is maybe learning about the information in the case, we’re already in the know. That’s important to them as well.
Michael, you and Tom also mentioned previously, discovery. Some people may not understand what discovery means. Can you take a step back, explain what that means and what that means to me coming to speak with you?No matter how knowledgeable you are about other professional services, you only know what you know. Click To Tweet
Michael: Discovery is basically the term that’s referring to what you discovered within the case in terms of information and gathering documentation to support the facts of the case. Discovery is done using a number of different tools that court rules allow you to do. The most common being is a simple document request. What we do is issue a standard form for the most part, but it is tailored depending on what the issues are relating to whether they are CEO, how they’re compensated, relating to child custody related issues. We’ll request paragraphs and paragraphs of different areas of documents that we’re looking for to gather the information we need to ultimately put together a balance sheet to the case and the issues that arise within a case. Requesting documents is one way of doing that. Another way we do that is also by issuing what we refer to as matrimonial interrogatories.
What that refers to is basically a set list of questions that the other side has to answer under oath. For example, list all of your bank accounts that you’ve had within the last three years, the balance of those accounts, the name of the institutions and things like that. Whether you have a safety deposit box and all different areas that may arise within a case. In our experience, we’ve added to some of the requests for documents based on things that we’ve seen come up with another case. As a starting point, every party is required to fill out what we refer to as a financial affidavit. This document itself acts almost like a roadmap to both the attorneys for each party as well as the judge who will take a look at both parties’ financial affidavits, which sets forth all of their assets, all their liabilities as well as all of their expenses.
We have a picture of what the family has for expenses, what their debts are and their basic financial health. Once we have that, it gives us an idea of where to navigate in terms of discovery, what additional information we need, what do we need to support some of the numbers that one of the parties used? Additionally, in terms of discovery, if we don’t want to be patient in waiting for somebody to produce all the documents because on occasion you’ll be waiting until you’re blue in the face because people are busy. They don’t always comply with deadlines of court rules. We also have the ability to issue subpoenas to banks, to employers, to schools or whatever information we need and want to be sure that we’re getting it accurately. We have the ability to issue subpoenas to all of those entities or individuals with the assurance that they’ll give us an affidavit that they’ve produced everything within their possession or control.
There are a few additional things we can do in terms of discovery. Once you have all of the information document-wise, you can also take off the parties’ depositions. You can take third parties depositions as well to get statements from individuals either support or contrast what someone’s been telling you about the issues in the case. I wouldn’t say that we do all of these things within every single case. Discovery is something that you have to tailor to each case based upon the issues because while some cases have similar issues that we’ve seen before, I would say that no two cases are the same and every case is unique. You have to tailor what you do in terms of discovery to what you’re looking for, what do you need to prepare yourself for a trial or what do you need to prepare a case to be settled down the correct terms.
Tom, if I am the spouse that has taken care of the children, I have no idea where our tax returns are filed. I have no idea what banks we bank at. My husband gives me an allowance each week and that’s all I know. When I come to this meeting, you asked me these questions and I don’t know the answers, I feel a little hopeless.
Tom: Not at all. That’s one of the things that we try to do to reassure our clients that it’s okay. It’s okay not to know and you don’t have to feel bad about it or embarrassed about it. That’s your circumstance for better or worse, whether that’s why you’re here seeing us or not. We take you as you come in. It becomes a process. We’ll talk about how Illinois is a no-fault state. We’ll talk about irreconcilable differences being the only grounds available to file a petition for dissolution of marriage. We’ll talk about, as Michael and I have talked about, the discovery process. We may not know the finances, but baseline, here’s how we calculate spousal support depending on the income level. Even though the potential client may not know exact figures, they may have a general idea at least based on their lifestyle, where the income ballpark is. That’ll help us give them some peace of mind during that meeting.
We can also conversely do that with child support. Whether they know anything about the finances are not assuming there are minor children involved, we can have a robust conversation about parenting. We can talk about what an allocation judgment does and how it sets forth decision making for parents and four major categories. We can talk about what a parenting agreement is going to look like from a time-sharing perspective and what kind of parenting time they think would be in the best interest of the children.
From the decision making perspective, we can talk about do they think they can jointly make major decisions with their soon-to-be ex-spouse? When it comes to parenting agreements, I always tell potential clients if we can take your kids out of the litigation as early as possible. That to me is always a primary goal. We’ll get them a draft agreement within the first couple of weeks because that again takes some fear of the unknown away. It will give them something that they can grasp onto and critique for us. We can use that as a guidepost in future negotiations. Not knowing a lot of details is okay with us. That doesn’t matter when they come in the first time.
Good to know. On the flip side, Michael, if I’m the CEO and my husband or wife doesn’t know anything about our assets and that’s the way I’d like to keep it, and I am very clear with you that I don’t want my spouse to know about all our matters, Is there any way I can conceal it?
Michael: We have to operate under our own ethical guidelines. If something is requested of us and it’s in our possession and control, we are obligated to produce it. If some people are wary of the process of discovery going on for an extended period of time, I generally advise people to give as much information as possible to try and short circuit how long a case could go on. Discovery is one way in particular that some of these cases that people may have heard about divorce cases going on for extended periods of time. A lot of that time is done by either a party’s unwillingness to cooperate with discovery or gathering the information that’s needed.
For example, if you’re doing a business valuation, it’s going to take some time. If you want to get the case over with quickly, give the expert the other side of the information they need so that they can make their assessment and you can get out of the case quicker. We don’t make it a practice to hide anything. Frankly, we’re prohibited from doing so. We’re not going to do that as much as we’d love to help everyone. We’re not putting our own licenses on the line for anyone because we have many other clients to service as well.
In the Bezos case, and cases that this firm has handled, which I won’t mention, cases were handled and settled in record time from the public viewpoint. The press announced the divorce and shortly after, they were divorced. We all know these cases don’t settle overnight. Can you give me a little insight on how this all happens so quietly and quickly?
Tom: It can happen a few different ways. Sometime when cases that are high profile become public, they may have been going on behind the scenes for months, if not years and dealt with very confidentially. We tell our clients their confidence in us is so huge and such an obligation of ours that a lot of times we will have clients that will come in and they’ll say, “We don’t want anything filed in court. We want to negotiate this privately. We’re open to alternative dispute resolution, which can be mediation.” You mostly could be in collaborative law, which is a different form of mediation. We won’t sometimes file a case until the last minute when we already have a settlement struck. We need the filing as a technicality in order to get the people divorced. That’s a technique that we’ve used historically to keep things out of the press. Sometimes you can’t help it.
You can’t help what?
Tom: The press picking up a case because it didn’t come from us. Sometimes it comes from the attorneys in the other side of the case or some other third party that gets referred to the case. We can’t help it, but to answer the question about how it does get done quickly, attorneys can work collaboratively. I know I used the word litigation before, but though we are litigators, we aren’t always litigating. The practical lawyers of which we are always looking for a path to resolution, the straightest point from A to Z, there will be some bumps in the road. The faster we can get our clients in and out of this process, the healthier their families will be post-divorce. The less they’ll have spent on the process, which reflects better on us. It becomes a pay it forward mentality where we want to take care of our clients. We want to do it as quickly as we can for their best interest all the way around.
Michael, what are the top three things I should know before I pick up the phone or come see you?
Michael: I would say to try and get as best of a picture as you can as to what the finances are and it’s okay if you don’t. You should want to know what the issues are in your case so that we can direct the meeting as tailored to what your needs are as possible. The third will be to call me and sign up.
Tom: To echo some of that, don’t make yourself crazy researching lawyers. Even in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of potential client meetings where I know I was either the fourth or fifth lawyer that these people were interviewing. One of them even asked me about two other people she was thinking about interviewing after me and what I thought about them. It puts me in an awkward spot. I try to be as honest as I can be. The reality is you don’t want to spend your life for weeks or months going around interviewing ten different lawyers. At some point, you need to make a call. Along the way, you should make that call. Sometimes it’s going to be out in gut if you don’t have those warm referrals but do a little bit of research.
There’s enough information out in the world about lawyers if you don’t know anybody, feel free to ask a lawyer. What’s their approach to a case? What team are they putting together to work on your case? How are they going to be efficient with your dollars? Those are important things to understand and who the point of contact is on a day-to-day basis. All things that are important that they’re entitled to know. At the end of the day, it’s a connection that you have with your lawyer. It’s a business transaction, but it’s important that you trust them. I don’t think you need to interview eight or nine people to figure that out if you’re going into it with some level of discernment as to who maybe a good fit for you.It's okay not to know; you don't have to feel bad or embarrassed about it. Click To Tweet
I hope this has provided you with some good information regarding Divorce 101. If you’d like more information from Tom, you can go on to Beermann’s website www.Beermannlaw.com. Both of them have bios and other information about themselves. If you like this podcast, please share it on your social media. Please also like us on Facebook and follow us on LinkedIn. Please subscribe to this podcast because you’ll hear again from Tom. You’ll hear again from Michael and other attorneys at Beermann. Thank you.
About Thomas T. Field
Thomas T. Field practices in the areas of matrimonial and family law, primarily in Cook and Lake Counties in Illinois, and where his expertise is of particular value throughout the State of Illinois. He is currently the Head of the firm’s Family Law Practice Group.
Mr. Field’s experience includes having been lead counsel in numerous trials, litigation of custody disputes, relocation actions (including interstate and international matters involving the Hague convention), and resolution of post-dissolution conflicts. He offers specialized knowledge in the analysis of complex financial matters including executive compensation, closely held businesses, and real estate holdings. He further offers significant experience in negotiating and drafting pre-and post-nuptial agreements and litigation of dissolution matters involving pre- and post-nuptial agreements as well as all family law related matters for same sex couples. Additionally, Mr. Field offers expertise in navigating the unique complexities involved when medical needs, disability, domestic violence, substance abuse, dependent adult children, or other complicating factors are present in a client’s family.
Mr. Field has extensive experience representing “C” suite executives of Fortune 500 companies as well as local and nationally recognized celebrities. His practice is known particularly for its high level of discretion and his ability to protect the public image of his high profile clientele without compromising their rights.
Mr. Field routinely lectures to both lay and legal groups on various family law topics. He was selected in 2010 by Law Bulletin Publishing Company among the Top 40 Attorneys Under Forty in Illinois. He was named a Rising Star in the area of Family Law by Super Lawyers Magazine each year since 2009, which is a designation reserved for the top 2.5% of attorneys in the State of Illinois under the age of 40. Mr. Field consistently earns a 10 star (out of 10 possible) rating from former clients and fellow family law attorneys on the online AVVO attorney rating site, and has been named a Leading Lawyer every year since 2011. He is also AV Peer-Rated by Martindale-Hubble, the highest peer rating standard. This rating signifies that the lawyer’s reviewed peers rank him at the highest level of professional excellence for his legal knowledge, communication skills and ethical standards.
About Michael D. Sevin
Michael D. Sevin primarily focuses his practice in all aspects of family law. He has significant experience litigating and settling disputed cases before both the trial and appellate courts. Mr. Sevin regularly counsels clients in a wide range of matters including the negotiation and litigation of complex financial matters, child custody, support, division of property, domestic violence, contempt and enforcement proceedings, and parentage. He has recently represented sports and entertainment clients in multi-million dollar disputes involving child custody, complex financial matters and other issues related to divorce.
Mr. Sevin began his career in family law as a law clerk at Nadler, Pritikin & Mirabelli, LLC. After his bar admission, Mr. Sevin continued his career as an associate attorney at Nadler, Pritikin & Mirabelli and through the expansion of Beermann LLP.
Most recently, Mr. Sevin was recognized by his peers and named a “Rising Star” attorney by Illinois Super Lawyers magazine, a designation limited to less than 2.5% of lawyers fewer than 40 years of age in the State of Illinois.
Mr. Sevin received his law degree from DePaul University College of Law and his undergraduate degree from Indiana University, where he was a member of the Pi Alpha Alpha Honor Society.
Mr. Sevin was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 2008 and is a member of the American Bar Association, the Illinois Bar Association, and the Chicago Bar Association.
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