I was 29 years old when I opened my practice, and I took everything that came in. I did some divorce work. I did some personal injury work. I did some DUI defense.
When you’re 29 or 30 years old, you’ll take a case because you’re young or you’re hungry. However, after a year or two, I realized that it just felt better when people hired me to do divorce work. I felt that they were generally good people, and I was helping them get out of a bad situation.
The other cases, like traffic court cases, for example, that didn’t stroke my ego as much. With family law cases, it was real people, real families, with real problems. I found my passion, and I considered myself very lucky. So, I decided, “You know what? I’m going to change the firm name to family law. “We’re going to put family law on the website and in the email address.”
We just started; and it just kept going and going and going. We seemed to be good at it, and that made more business come in. We hired more lawyers, and the lawyers seemed to be enjoying doing this kind of work, and it was all rewarding.
We represent a lot of celebrities and well-known people and those cases are exciting not because they’re famous, but because they’re going through the same thing that people that are not famous go through. I enjoy seeing people that we’ve seen on the TV or on the basketball court come in and go through the same things that we all experience and realize they’re human beings, and that I actually have something that I can offer them. I’m now able to help them and give back for the joy I’ve gotten from watching them play on the field or on the court.
THE ROLE OF A FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY
There’s a saying, a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Everyone needs some objective advice, whether it’s lawyer advice, or friend advice, or pastor advice, or ministerial advice.
The challenging part in dealing with people who are going through a divorce and are still angry is to get them to step outside of their case and look at it from a third party’s point of view. I encourage them to look at it from the judge’s point of view. If you’re a judge and this lady is mad as hell at her husband for what he did to her, you might want to help her or you might just be turned off by how angry she is and turn to the husband and say, “You give me a suggestion, because she is too off the deep end. I can’t really listen to her.”
It’s hard to get people to put the anger aside for a moment and to speak rationally. What people don’t realize is that the judge’s job is not to punish and reward. The judge’s job is to find a solution to the problem. There is the same amount of money, but now there are two households. Same number of children, but now they’ve got to spend time in two different places. How do I solve that?
I can say, “Shame on him for doing that,” but that doesn’t get you more time with your kids or more money. I’ve got to figure out how to divide the money that there is or the debts that there are and how to make sure the children know both parents. Convincing people to be rational, to step back from it, and look at it somewhat objectively, is probably the hardest thing and the most important thing that we do.
MANAGING EMOTIONAL CLIENTS
The bottom line is someone comes in and says to the lawyer, “I’m going to pay you thousands of dollars to avenge what my spouse did to me.” There’s an ego thing, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t say, “I’m going to stand up for him or her,” because they’re putting their faith and their trust and their money in me. It can be hard to step back and say, “That’s not the right thing to do.”
There are people that will say, “I want to go after him or her. Make them suffer, and I don’t care if I get anything.” But there are people that I will tell, “Do not pay me to go to court. You will not come out any better than the offer that’s on the table, except that you’ll pay us a lot of money.”
Sometimes people will tell me, “I’d rather give the money to you, Mr. Kessler, than give it to him or give it to her.” We hear that all the time and a lot of times, I’ll say, “Well let’s put that in writing. And why don’t you think about it for a week. Or maybe I’m not the lawyer for you.”
There are times when they might be right about getting more money. I might be wrong that they’re not going to get more than that. They might say, “I think I’m going to get more than that. I’d like to tell my story.”
But the key is that we must have a calm, rational discussion. If they have thought about it, then fine. But if it’s just anger, and they just want to use us to vent; then it is a different matter. I’ve got one reputation, and I’m not going to go into court and jump up and down on my high horse unless it’s really, really, really, really warranted. Because if it’s not warranted, I won’t be able to do that again for the next client. I need to save my credibility. You argue when it’s worth arguing about it, and you settle when you’ve got as much as you can get without having to go to court.
WHEN TO TURN DOWN A CASE
There may be a case that might be really hard, and I think, I can fix this. Perhaps this guy or this woman thinks they should have custody. In reality, it may appear that they probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to listen. Maybe they’ll persuade me that it’s the right thing to do, or maybe they just want a judge to hear them. We’ll dig around a little bit and we’ll see. But even if they don’t have the facts to win custody or to win whatever they want to win, and we get into the case, maybe I can find a compromise. Maybe instead of him getting 75% custody, maybe we can get it to a place where he can get 50% custody, and that’s good for the children.
But there are times when you just say no. People come in and they’ll say, “I know I’m not a good parent, but I want to do it just to mess with him or just to mess with her.” I don’t want anything to do with that. But if it’s a closer call, I will consider it because I want to make sure I can help fix the world in a small way. If I can help do something for the kids, or if there’s someone who’s got unrealistic expectations, and I can alter their expectations and make them understand, that’s not realistic and convince them to look at it in a different way, then maybe I’ve done something good.
So in the high-dollar cases, where there’s a lot of assets, part of it depends on what they’ve grown up with. If someone has a child with someone who is rich, but they’ve never lived a high lifestyle, that’s one thing. If someone’s raised children, married to, or lived with someone who makes a lot of money, and the child has lived this lifestyle, and this standard of living, then the child, I think, has the right to expect to continue to live that way.
Even if they didn’t live together, both parents have a duty to support. So if a father or mother makes two, three, four, five hundred thousand dollars a month, then the child should be allotted more than a thousand dollars a month to meet their basic needs. They should maybe have the possibility of private school if their public school in their neighborhood is not good.
I’ve handled many high-profile and high-dollar child support cases, and very, very rarely does the recipient get rich on the child support. I think there’s this misnomer that, “Oh, she’s a gold digger, and she just wants money, because she’s going to live a rich lifestyle. And she’s getting $5,000 a month child support or $8,000 a month child support.”
Even five, six, or seven thousand dollars a month of child support is not enough to get rich on if you’re really raising a child. You can put some money away. You can have a better life than some other people, but being a single parent is very time-consuming and it’s harder to do other things.
So, yeah if you’re getting $25,000 a month and you’re still living in a $2,500 a month rental place and driving an old car and pocketing the money for yourself, that’s not right. But if the money’s being used for the child, even the people paying it are really often not that upset, as long as the money’s really benefiting the child.
It’s when someone’s paying a lot of money and they see the recipient spending it on themselves and not on their child. That’s when it’s wrong, and that’s when it’s a harder case. That’s when we have to expose it and say, “Judge, he or she should not be receiving $20,000 a month because the child doesn’t need that. The other side’s already paying the medical insurance, the college, everything else. That’s too much. That’s just an ounce of flesh. They’re trying to be vengeful.”
It does happen, but those cases are more reserved for California and New York. Georgia does not have the highest child support guidelines in the country, although we’ve seen some high awards, but nothing like the awards in those states.
MANAGING RELUCTANT CLIENTS
People with money will say, if you have a problem that can be solved with money, you don’t have a problem. We’ve certainly been involved in cases where we represent the monied spouse or parent who has millions and millions and millions, and the other side foregoes custody or yields custody, because they know they’re just not capable, or they have some personal issues. They know the child will be better off with the other parent. It’s hard for them to do that, and it’s hard for them to give up the one thing that makes them even with the other side.
But I’ve had those hard conversations with athletes, with people that make a lot of money. And I say, “You have all this money, what if I could tell you the one thing you could do with that money is make sure that your child is raised in a good environment. Not only with you, but when they’re with the other parent. That the other parent is always healthy and always has a safe car. What better use of your money?”
They start to think about it, and they get it. As soon as they stop seeing it as he or she is just trying to get money from me, and start seeing that this does help their child, it’s like a light bulb goes off in a good way. I explain to them that in the long-term, when your child is 20 years old, 30 years old, they’re going to say (let’s be stereotypical), “Dad, you raised me. You took care of me. You paid all my bills. You bought me clothes. And you still gave mom $5,000 a month, so that when I was with her, she didn’t have to suffer and she didn’t have to feel like she couldn’t buy me nice things like you could. And she didn’t have to feel unequal. You did that for me?”
I mean it brings tears to your eyes when you think about it like that. When you explain it like that to somebody, they say, “You know what? You’re right.”
THE HARDEST THING ABOUT THE JOB
The hardest part is seeing the hurt, the person that does not want the divorce or the separation. That’s the hardest part, because I can’t fix that. The saddest part for me in divorce or family law is that the light bulb never goes off at the same time. It would be great if both people woke up and said, “Today, we both decided we feel the exact same way, and neither one of us wants to be married, but we want to be friends.”
It’d be a lot easier on me. But usually somebody wants out. They come to that conclusion that they’d be better off single or moving forward and the other person isn’t there. The unfortunate part is often when that other person wants that person back, they’re not willing to negotiate hard. They don’t fight for themselves, because if they fight for money, it’s going to push the other person further away, and they’re hoping to get them back. Or they throw money at them. They say, “Here, I’ll give you more money if you’ll stay.”
They’re not thinking about protecting themselves. I’ve got a million dollars, you can have it all, because I want you to know I’m a nice person. Well, you take it all and you get divorced, now I’ve got nothing. I’ve got to protect them from that, while not interfering with the possibility that they might make the marriage work. Maybe they’re right. So that’s a hard balance. I wrestle with that at times.
People act out of anger, they act out of emotion. They don’t think long term, because when someone’s leaving you, it’s rejection. You’re leaving me? You don’t want to be with me? I’ll show you. How dare you leave me. You’re going to be poor. You’re going to suffer. And hindsight’s always 20/20. A year later you wish you hadn’t acted that way, but you know, when we’re hurt, we lash out. We say things. You see it all over the world. You see it all the way up the political spectrum. You see it in Tweets. You offend somebody, you hurt somebody’s feelings, you disagree with them, and they lash out. There absolutely should be a way, that when you send an email, it doesn’t send for 30 minutes. You can go back and say, I’ve rethought that email, let me edit it a little bit.
The same thing vocally, if I could just say, “You know how I feel?” and then pause. 30 minutes later, it’ll probably come out differently than in the heat of the moment.
If people were smart about this stuff, if people were rational about it, I’d be out of business; and the world might be a better place if people would just think through and work through these things. But that’s why there are family lawyers, because people don’t think about it rationally.
They come into it emotionally and angry and vengeful. A good lawyer will say, let’s put the vengeance aside, because it’s not going to advance your position or your cause or your case. A bad lawyer and there are a lot of bad lawyers there are a lot of good lawyers, I think there are a lot more good lawyers than bad lawyers, but there are some bad lawyers that will say, “Yeah, let’s fight a little bit harder,” and charge you by the hour.
I think lawyers have reputations for a reason. If you look around, the good ones are the ones that you want to be like if you’re a lawyer. You realize they will tell people to do the right thing. When you see them behind closed doors, you have a case with them, and they say, “Don’t worry, we don’t even need to file this case. He’s going to keep paying your bills, and we’ll work it out.”
I could make a lot more money by going to court and saying, “Judge, make him pay.” But if he’s doing it anyway, I’ve done a good job, and hopefully she or he’s going to call his friends and say, “Look. I have the best lawyer in the world. If you ever need one, go to him or her.”
ADVICE FOR PEOPLE CONSIDERING MARRIAGE
To prenup or not to prenup. I think prenups are an interesting conversation. If you’ve been married before and went through an ugly, expensive, nasty divorce, you have a much more authoritative position on saying, “I want a prenup this time. I thought the last marriage was going to last, and it didn’t. I was wrong. I think this one’s going to last, but if I’m wrong…”
If you’re older and you’ve created a lot of wealth and you are worried that that’s going to all be in the pot if you divorce. But I think it comes down to a personal decision. It may be that you’re the dependent spouse, you’re the one that doesn’t make as much. You might be the one who wants the prenup to reassure the other side. But I think the best advice to someone getting married is don’t rush into it. I mean, life is long. You can take your time. But if you decide to rush in, just recognize, if it doesn’t work out, I was a romantic, I jumped into it. I can live with it. It’s hard to remember, but three years from now, if my marriage doesn’t work out, it was worth it because I loved her so much that I wanted to try. I jumped in, so shame on me for not waiting.
But some things are worth the suffering at the end. Better to have loved and lost, then never known love, they say.
ADVICE FOR THOSE CONSIDERING DIVORCE
If they were getting divorced, I would say I’d rather you make sure you want a divorce; and we will never file unless someone says that they’re ready. I can say it’s beneficial to you to file before this month, that month or that month, but I will not file unless you know psychologically you’re ready for a divorce.
If you’re thinking about getting a divorce, sooner rather than later, talk to a lawyer. Absolutely, go talk to someone who’s done it. And a good lawyer, someone who’s done nothing but family law, or a lot of family law. And if you don’t walk away from that meeting feeling very comfortable with the person you met, there’s nothing wrong with going to two, or three, or four lawyers and seeing how you feel. You might hear a lot of the same information.
Sometimes it’s not what you hear, but how you hear it. Does he listen to you? Does she tell you what she thinks you need to do when you haven’t even thought about that? You haven’t thought about where you’re going to live, and the lawyer that you meet with says, “You ought to start pricing houses in the neighborhood. You might want to check the school district you want your kids to be in, you know?”
That might be the right person, but the main thing is, find someone smart who handles family law, who you jive with, that you get along with, that you can comport with. Best advice I can give.
DIVORCE AND FINANCES
You know what they say, divorce is not about money. Divorce is about happiness. Or, as one of my clients once told me, it’s sometimes just about being less miserable. And there’s that old joke, why is divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it. You know, nobody gets divorced and is worth more money divorced than they were together.
Elin Woods, Tiger Woods’ wife—everyone says she got rich. She got divorced, they had a billion dollars, so she must have half a billion dollars. Yeah, she’s got half-a-billion instead of a billon.
The Bezos. They each have less, so you have less when you’re divorced. Obviously, you don’t get divorced for financial reasons. So, if you want to walk away with nothing, it might be worth it to you to walk away with nothing. I know people who have, former clients, friends, who say, “I’m living in a friend’s basement, instead of my million dollar house. I’m ten times happier.”
So, sometimes it’s worth it. But let a lawyer fight for something to give you a future. If you’ve accumulated a million dollars, why walk away with nothing? Why not say he or she can have 75% of it when you know the judge is probably going to only give him or her 50%? Find out what a lawyer says. Find out what your spouse is going to hear from a lawyer, and then say I’ll double what everyone’s telling you you should get. But yeah, you should fight a little more for yourself, so that five years from now, when you need a new car and you’ve got no money, you can say, “Ah, I wish I had a way to get around, because now I’m out of a car, because I gave her everything.”
It’s hard to second guess. It’s hard for me to judge, and people make that decision that’s what they want to do. As long as I give them the options. As long as I’ve told them that you would get more if you went to court, but you’re choosing to take less, my conscience is clear.
CHOOSING A DIVORCE LAWYER
So when you’re looking for a divorce lawyer, I think there are a couple things. Number one, you want somebody who has handled a significant amount. Someone who’s not a personal injury lawyer that has done one or two divorces. Now in small cities, there’s often not enough divorce business for someone to be a full-time divorce lawyer, but there are some smart lawyers that do divorce. In big cities too, by and large the firms that do only family law are going to be better at it, because they see more than general practitioners.
I think you want someone smart. You want someone that you can rapport with, that you can talk to. And if you’re still not sure, ask your friends, or ask lawyers that you know. Because a lot of lawyers can’t stand handling divorce work for obvious reasons. It’s ugly, it’s personal. They don’t want to be involved. They’d rather just do the clean, corporate work, where there’s no emotion involved, it’s just money or whatever it is. Lawyers know who’s a good lawyer, because we’re in the same community and I know who’s a good Trust & Estate lawyer, and I know who’s a good criminal lawyer, and I don’t do that, but I know who I would go to if I needed one and I know who
I would refer you or anybody else to if you needed a corporate or estate or whatever. So I’d ask other lawyers for input.
But really, go with your gut. Go have a few meetings. Even if it costs you $500 to sit down for an hour with a lawyer, talk to that lawyer. Ask questions, ask how much it’s going to cost. Ask who else is going to work on the case. Is there a staff person? A younger lawyer that’s going to help meet them. See if you like the team.
I bet most people walk out of our office saying, “I like them. I know they know what they’re doing. And I know they listened to me.”
And if you don’t feel like that walking out of our office, then you shouldn’t hire us. But if you feel like that, then you’re ahead of the game. There are some lawyers that will just tell the same thing to every client, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to court. We’re going to get you as much as we can. We’re going to fill out the paperwork and then I’ll call you with your result.”
Our methodology is we like to educate our client. So I don’t know if that works for everybody, but I want my clients to understand why. Why are we going to agree to skip court date? I want to see her in court, I want her to suffer. Let me explain it to you. We go to court, the judge is going to see the venom in your eyes and not like you. Or the judge might make you pay more money than you are already paying voluntarily. And then all of a sudden, she will feel empowered that she likes the judge and she won’t want to settle. Oh, okay, instead of just saying we’re not going to court, or we’re continuing it, I like to explain why, Sometimes I explain why and the client says, “Thanks for explaining why. I still want to go.”
Okay, it’s an informed decision.
REPRESENTING CELEBRITY CLIENTS
I’ve represented a lot of people, and it turns out I’d represented a friend of one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. And that friend referred the Real Housewife to me. And we were working together, and then the Real Housewife asked if I would mind being part of the show, or at least on the show. I wasn’t going to get paid, and I didn’t want to get paid. I had some long talks with my wife and my family, and I agreed to do it. They filmed her. The person walks into my office and I close the door, and that was it. That’s all I did. I let them watch her walk down the hall with me, and they said that wasn’t good enough.
They needed to see her actually asking a divorce lawyer for divorce advice. Just saying, “I want a divorce,” to make it real.
I said, “If that’s it.”
We had some heart to heart talks, they weren’t going to make me into a dramatic personality. I was just there so that it looked like she really was going through a divorce, which she was. And I said okay. And it was a risk, and I enjoyed doing it.
There is also my curiosity factor. Just like I like seeing athletes and seeing what it’s like to go from being an impoverished 17-year-old to a multimillionaire, having to figure out life and how to invest. You know watching these people that were by-and-large average people. I mean, they’re superstars, but they didn’t have anything given to them on a silver platter, and they worked their way up. Their personality and their drive got them to where they are. Seeing how they did it and how it evolved, I got to peek behind the curtain, to some degree, and I got to see what it was like. And that was fascinating to me.
Just another benefit of being a family lawyer is that I get to see what it’s like to be, whether it’s a young African-American woman struggling with all the pressures that go on in her community, and then how to deal with success when her friends are not as successful. That’s the beauty of my job. I see all shapes, sizes, walks, colors, genders, sexual preferences, and we’re all human. And it all brings us to the same place if you end up getting a divorce. You go through the same emotions of many, many other people I’ve seen and it’s sort of interesting for me to see that, and then to learn, and to live vicariously to some degree, through the eyes of others.
Sometimes we’re out and somebody recognizes me, but it’s not all the time. It’s not an impediment to my life. The famous people that I’m around, I see them, they can’t go two feet without someone stopping them for a photograph, or an autograph, a word, a picture, a video. I wouldn’t want to be in that position. But it is sort of cool every now and then, when I’m checking out at Kroger and someone says, “I know you. How do I know you? I know!”
And their eyes light up and they’re happy. And I’m like, that’s cool. They’re happy because they saw somebody who was on TV. It’s still a thing. I don’t think 20 years from now being on TV is going to be a thing. Being on Instagram might be a thing. Being on social media, but it’s still a thing where if you see somebody on TV there’s that impression that, oh, that’s pretty cool. Somebody was mystically transported via television into my living room is actually right here in my office with me. So that’s cool when I get to experience that every now and then.