“I can pinpoint the exact moment I decided I wanted to become a lawyer,” says marital and family law attorney Carolyn Zisser.
As a sophomore at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, Zisser’s dorm was an old Victorian home known as the French House.
“There was a young woman, a graduating senior, who lived just down the hall from me,” Zisser recalls, “and I asked her what her plans were after graduation. She said, ‘going to law school,’ and a light went on in my brain.
“Now, back then there were very few women going to law school, in fact as I recall, there were maybe only a handful in my first-year law school classes. It was not at all intimidating; however, I felt that, like all women of my generation, I had to really excel in order to be taken seriously. But I used that as a motivator.”
A cousin reassured Zisser’s mother that she would probably find a husband in law school. “Just as an aside,” she says with a smile, “I actually did get my MRS degree; although, that was not the intent. I married Elliot Zisser, a fellow classmate who was a year ahead of me in law school.”
She and Elliot were married the summer between her second and third year of law school in 1971.
“Getting married at that time did complicate things just a bit,” says Zisser. “My husband was newly graduated and had accepted a job in Jacksonville, Florida. I still had my final year of law school to complete. Naturally, as a newlywed, I wanted to be with my husband, but I was facing the dilemma of how to successfully complete my Juris Doctor.”
WHERE THERE’S A WILL…
Taking the bull by the horns, Zisser threw herself into extensive research exploring how other women in her situation had managed. Long before the convenience of the internet, Zisser accomplished her research the old-fashioned way, through many phone calls, trips to the library and reaching out to anyone she thought might be of assistance. Her efforts were not in vain. Zisser discovered that, despite the usual two-year residency requirement, George Washington Law School was willing to work with her.
Zisser gives special credit to two George Washington University professors, both of whom were graduates of the University of Florida. “Professor Green and Professor Park were wonderful,” she says. “They knew what an excellent school it was since they had graduated from there themselves. They accepted my third-year University of Florida credits, and all I had to do was complete an honors writing residency requirement on a labor law topic.”
She triumphantly maneuvered through the seemingly insurmountable research to find the perfect solution and received her Juris Doctor with honors. It’s an impressive accomplishment, considering how many obstacles she overcame to complete her studies in Florida. This feat foreshadowed Zisser’s unassailable attitude toward life.
“That’s kind of been the theme of my whole professional career,” she says. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. I operate from the fundamental values that my parents instilled in me.”
FAMILY TIES THAT BIND
Zisser was born and raised in Philadelphia. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father a world-renown research electrical engineer – perhaps the source of Zisser’s own gift for inquiry.
“I feel my background, the way I was raised and the attitudes my parents shared have a great deal to do with who I am today,” she says. “My sister, too, as a college professor was a professional role model for me. I had a lot of terrific role models growing up. I was the baby of the family. My sister was nine years older than me, and all our cousins were around her age, taking on the role of big brothers and sisters. They are very accomplished, wonderful human beings who have impacted my life in various ways, all of them positive.
“Education was extremely important in my family,” she adds, “and I was always encouraged to continue my education and to always try my best and work hard.”
THE ROAD TO FAMILY LAW
Beginning with the topic Zisser chose for her honors writing requirement, it seems she knew that eventually she would be practicing family law.
“I chose that topic because I was really interested in employment law,” she confirms. “I was also interested in constitutional law and due process. Generally, I liked the idea of helping ensure everyone, men and women, benefitted from our justice system.”
As it turns out, her labor law topic dealt specifically with women’s issues. Women flight attendants were terminated from their employment in the airline industry if they became pregnant, which Zisser found appalling.
“I seized one of those decisions, and my paper was ‘Mandatory Maternity Leave Violates a Woman’s Right to Work,’ which appealed to my interest in due process and individual rights,” she says. “Then, after being a Legal Aid lawyer for three years practicing family law, I looked for a labor law firm. At that time, I had additional considerations because we were starting our family, and I had a young child at home. I wanted to work as close to home as possible and discovered there were no labor law firms in that immediate area.”
Ultimately, Zisser decided the solution was to open her own private practice. The location was minutes from her home, and it offered the freedom to practice law in a unique way.
“I really enjoyed representing people and building a ‘people practice,’ as opposed to a more institutionalized clientele, such as banks or large companies,” she explains. “I felt family law would enable me to pursue what was right and just for individuals, because family law typically deals with people in transition. Plus, I had done some family law at Legal Aid, so I had familiarity with the practice. It was interesting because virtually from the minute I hung out my shingle, family law cases seemed to gravitate to my door.
“I think the reasons why this happened were twofold: first, I think family law clients tend to prefer smaller firms; second, I was the only firm headed by a woman handling marital and family law cases at the beach in Jacksonville.”
While making the decision to open her own practice, Zisser and her husband determined it was best to keep work and family life separate. They each have their own separate and independent law firm.
“He was in practice with his brother,” she adds, “and there was the geographical issue, too. His firm was located in downtown Jacksonville, and our home was at the beach. I knew I wanted to stay close to home and my children. In many ways, it would have been much easier for me if I had been part of his firm because I really had to make it on my own. But we decided this was a better way to go for a variety of reasons. I have no regrets.”
The Zissers have two children: son Jonathan, 43, and daughter Alison, 35. They also have two delightful grandchildren, who obviously are the apple of their grandma’s eye.
“They are so much fun,” the happy grandmother says with a smile. “Lily, Jonathan’s daughter, is 4 years old. 14-month-old Will is Alison’s little boy.”
Sadly, the couple lost a third child at a very young age. “Leah was 4 years old when we lost her,” says Zisser. “She was the middle child. It’s been a long time now, but of course we think of her often, and I wouldn’t want to leave her out. I understand loss.”
“It was a real challenge managing everything when the kids were small,” Zisser says frankly. “I managed because my office was five minutes from our house. That was intentional and had a lot to do with my decision to open my own practice. That is why I didn’t join another law firm. I was also very fortunate in that I had a wonderful, wonderful woman who came to the house every day to help. We were blessed to have Clara from before Jonathan was born until Alison was in college.”
It also helped she and her husband agreed family would always come first. “When the children were babies, I’d go home during the day for lunch and spend time with them,” Zisser says. “They know that they always came first.”
Jonathan followed in his parents’ footsteps and joined his father’s firm in Jacksonville. Alison also pursued an impressive, compassionate career as a clinical child psychologist, on staff at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School.
“We’re immensely proud of both children,” Zisser says, beaming.
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME
In practice for nearly 46 years, Zisser says she is still as passionate and excited about her work as the first day.
“I love being able to make a positive difference in someone’s life,” she says. “Beginning with my initial client assessment, I love knowing that when they leave my office, they are no longer scared or feeling lost. It means so much to me to be able to lighten their load, knowing I will do everything in my power to help them. I feel especially so about women, particularly when they are the financially dependent spouse. They are terrified about what’s going to happen to them and more importantly, to their children. My male clients want to make sure they will not be financially devastated from their divorce.
“During the initial meeting when I find out about their situation, I answer their questions and let them know what they likely can expect,” she continues. “More often than not, the news is much better than they anticipated.”
We don’t live in a perfect world, and Zisser’s profession is no exception. There are certain aspects that she would like to change.
“It can be both challenging and frustrating when I have a highly uncooperative attorney on the other side,” she says. “Usually, they are being fueled and influenced by a very recalcitrant spouse. Typically, this comes from unresolved anger, and their client is more interested in revenge than in a fair and civil resolution.”
What makes the most difficult aspects of practicing law easier is the firm’s overall culture. Zisser explains, “The wonderful thing about our firm is we are a team. All our attorneys are integrally involved in all our cases. For example, Lynn Salvatore adds a unique perspective and positive energy to our culture. She is vital to our firm’s future.
“I enjoy the actual running of the practice,” she adds, “which is certainly different from the actual practice of law, but various aspects of running any business can be quite challenging. This actually goes back to the opposing client unnecessarily driving up the costs. That’s why I’m trained in collaborative law, and I always encourage my clients to handle things in a collaborative, positive way. I believe it’s an excellent alternative to the traditional litigative model.”
Zisser’s firm is distinguished for being the longest-practicing, female-owned marital and family law firm in Jacksonville.
“Personal attention and persistent commitment” is the motto of Zisser’s practice. Not surprising, since this has been Zisser’s approach to everything in her life. Quietly sophisticated, with a warm smile and melodic voice, she can become a tiger ready to pounce when the occasion calls for it. An innate sense of compassion helps her genuinely relate to every client, so she feels it is a personal battle to protect and to fight with everything she’s got.
“No two cases are alike,” she says. “To best serve each individual, our team works closely with our clients and specialists, from financial advisers to therapists, in order to shape and reshape case plans as the matter moves toward resolution.”
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact money is a distant second to the concern and care of each client. To this end, Zisser says they deliberately limit their caseload to give each client the time and attention they deserve.
Zisser says both she and her firm have grown the past 43 years since she first opened the doors of her practice at the beach. She’s enjoyed the ever-increasing demands, new experiences and challenges each day brings.
“We’ve grown and matured over the decades as we’ve been entrusted with greater and more complex cases,” she says. “I’m proud our clientele has consistently grown, though we do limit how many we take on at any one time, but it’s been primarily through word of mouth.
“You know, I’m often asked by younger women just entering our profession if it was terrifying for me as a woman starting my own practice back then,” she adds with a knowing smile. “To be honest, I truly was never scared. I never had that feeling I was jumping off a cliff. When I started my practice, I didn’t take out any loans, I had my Smith Corona electric typewriter, my experience, high energy and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. I believed in myself and believed I could help a lot of people. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four decades. I couldn’t be happier.”