UPDATE: This post originally ran Aug. 2, 2010. Last week I had the good fortune to meet David Wells, who practices collaborative law in Austin and recently posted a two-part discussion of the divorce process.
Yesterday I read a New York Times article on married couples who separate but choose not divorce, and it got me thinking about the potential impact of a protracted recession on the practice and business of family law.
“Separations are usually de facto, rarely pounded out in a contract, and family law is different state to state. But even long-estranged couples are irrefutably bound by contractual links on issues like taxes, pensions, Social Security and health care….
Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples, the motivation to remain married is financial. According to federal law, an ex qualifies for a share of a spouse’s Social Security payment if the marriage lasts a decade. In the case of more amicable divorces, financial advisers and lawyers may urge a couple who have been married eight years to wait until the dependent spouse qualifies.
For others, a separation agreement may be negotiated so that a spouse keeps the other’s insurance until he or she is old enough for Medicare. If one person has an existing condition, obtaining affordable health care coverage is often difficulty or impossible. The recession, with its real estate lows and health care expense highs, adds incentives to separate indefinitely.”
One anecdote jumped out:
“One woman, a 39-year-old mother of two from Brooklyn…has stayed separated for nearly two years at the suggestion of five lawyers. [emphasis added]
‘There’s no advantage to getting divorced,’ she said. Both she and her husband are in new relationships. Most people assume they’ve officially split. But given the health insurance issue and the prospect of legal fees, she said, ‘I feel like we could just drift on like this for years.'”
That case got me thinking about two areas where innovative family law practices might differentiate or carve out niches for themselves:
- Building expertise, capabilities and marketing around long-term separations as a divorce alternative
- Building expertise, capabilities and marketing around cost containment in divorce proceedings and lower-cost alternatives to traditional family law firms.
I’m still looking for examples of the former, but I found two instances of the latter today.
A recent post on the Pennsylvania Family Law blog entitled “Practical Tips for Dividing Personal Property” forthrightly begins:
“Given the current economic climate, divorcing parties are more vigilant than ever about the value and disposition of their marital assets.”
An excellent primer, it outlines issues like depreciation, appraisals, valuation methodology and awareness of one’s motivations — also invaluable advice for couples open to long-term separation.
The second example popped up on Twitter today when family, wills and estates, and general business attorney Jordan E. Watson (@differentlaw) started following me. I was intrigued by her profile:
“A different kind of lawyer, who has created a practice solely using flat-rate billing practices. Despite people telling her she’s crazy.”
I clicked through to her website (www.notyourparentslawyer.com) and found this clarion call of a business pitch:
“I am not your parents’ lawyer. You know, the one who watches the clock tick by, who charges for every phone call, every minute spent in thought about your case, even when you didn’t ask them to. That’s not how I do things. My law office exists for one purpose: To bring quality, affordable legal counsel and care to clients who might otherwise never get the help they need.With an emphasis on value pricing, I want to bring change to the legal profession. No legal issue is the same, so I likewise bring a unique approach to the practice of law. Competent and approachable, yet determined to get the best possible outcome for you, I will diligently work on your behalf. I welcome your questions and inquiries and the first consultation is always free, whether or not I take your case.
The billable hour is finished. The clock has stopped. This is a law office dedicated to you and to the upstanding practice of law.”
Practitioners attuned to the zeitgeist, plugged in to social networks and willing to take bold chances with their business models and marketing could end up winners in a down market — and fundamentally change legal marketing in the process.