Meister Seelig & Fein’s Matrimonial Team: The Big Picture of Family Law

Some legal disciplines are by nature quite focused. Day in and day out, the lawyer provides the same services over and over with little variation. On the opposite end of the spectrum are practices like family law where the lawyer must serve as a maestro in a full orchestra of overlapping legal problems – family law, real estate, estate planning, commercial and corporate, tax, criminal and more. In this practice, not only must the lawyer have insight into a variety of areas, but collaboration is essential.

So, when Samuel Ferrara and his matrimonial and family law team sought a new firm, they chose the powerhouse New York law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ferrara and his team to discuss their practice, the long-standing camaraderie they’ve developed and their transition to MSF.

“It was a win-win,” Ferrara said. “We brought something to the table that the firm didn’t have before – a family law team – and the firm brought a very reputable and sophisticated group of resources for us just down the hall. Over the course of its 30 years, the law firm survived some significant outside economic forces. They’ve ridden out the housing bust and economic downturns in the city. Today, they’re stronger than ever.”

The matrimonial team, along with their esteemed non-legal support staff, Maureen Palmer and Lorraine Vaughn, collaborated closely and relied on each other’s strengths as they navigated the transition together. Now, six months into their tenure they’re making great strides. In speaking with them, it is clear to see that the group dynamic is built on collaboration as they chimed in to each other’s stories and echoed their shared perspectives. The discussion was not without a smattering of laughter, dry wit or the occasional amusing aside.

Over the course of its 30 years, the law firm survived some significant outside economic forces. They’ve ridden out the housing bust and economic downturns in the city. Today, they’re stronger than ever.

The Path to Family Law

Each member of the team found their own unique path to the practice of family law. Sam Ferrara, the chair of the matrimonial team, describes his entry into both the practice of law and the focus on family law as “organic.”

“After undergrad, I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” Ferrara said. “I wasn’t raised by lawyers or around lawyers, but in college, the concept of a lawyer having many hats and opportunities was attractive to me.”

Similarly, in his first year of law school, he began working for a matrimonial lawyer who became his first mentor.

“The thing I loved about family law is that it isn’t just the practice of family law. It’s a jack-of-all-trades practice. You need to know a little about a lot of different disciplines, including tax law, estates/trusts, real estate, commercial and criminal.”

Partners Michael E. Ratner and Daniel H. Smith had similar experiences. They both began clerking for Ferrara in law school and the rest was history.

“While I was in law school at Hofstra, I was on the Family Court Review, and the editor-in-chief steered me to Sam for a law clerk position,” Ratner said. “That was 2001. Since, I’ve gone with him through two firms.

“There really wasn’t much of a choice about what career I had,” he joked.

Smith shared that he began law school with no interest in the practice of family law. “I wasn’t really introduced to the practice until Sam hired me as a law clerk,” he said. “Over time, I found the practice area really complemented what I could bring to the table, my skills. It seemed to go from there. I guess I knew too much for my own good and now I’m a matrimonial attorney.”

Michael E. Ratner
Michael E. Ratner
Daniel Smith
Daniel Smith

For partner Andrea Brodie, the practice of family law seemed destined. She was a child of divorce whose stepmother served as a judge in Florida and oversaw many divorces. “In many ways, family law was an obvious choice,” she said.

She had planned to focus on a niche of family law, representing children in abuse and neglect cases. This was perhaps inspired by her internships during law school, working for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Hofstra’s Child Advocacy Clinic. When she graduated in 2009 in the midst of the economic crisis, however, she pursued a position focused on the general practice of family law.

Partner Jill Goffer has more than 20 years of experience in the practice of family law. While attending Brooklyn Law School, she began clerking for a matrimonial judge. “I loved it,” she said. “It just stemmed from there. I took more classes and one thing led to another.”

The “new kid on the block” partner Joy Jankunas joined the team almost 10 years ago in 2015. Her journey to family law was a little more circuitous than the rest of the group. After graduating from Georgetown Law, she handled white-collar criminal defense cases at a BigLaw firm for the first six years of her career.

“My firm offered a program where associates could work for a nonprofit for a year, with part of our salary and benefits covered,” she said. 

In 2008, she took advantage of the program and began working for Sanctuary for Families, where she’d been volunteering for a few years. They asked her to handle their matrimonial practice.

“It wasn’t a specialty I had sought out or saw coming, but it was something I enjoyed,” she said. “I received a federal grant to make my position permanent. I was then taken on by another family law firm a few years later before I joined Sam and this crew.”

Andrea M. Brodie
Andrea M. Brodie
Jill Goffer
Jill Goffer
Joy Jankunas
Joy Jankunas

On Leadership

By November 2015, the full team was working together under Steven J. Eisman. Unfortunately, he unexpectedly passed away. “There was a lot of uncertainty regarding how we would move forward,” Brodie said. “I remember distinctly conversations that made me feel like we are a family not just coworkers. We became much closer as a result. We were always colleagues that worked exceedingly well together on a professional level, but this shared experience bonded us on a much more personal level.”

Ferrara took up the leadership mantle.

Samuel J. Ferrara
Samuel J. Ferrara

“I’ve had a lot of different bosses,” Jankunas said. “Sam is demanding but a good mentor. He will talk through issues with you. While we take the reins with our own matters, it’s great to know we have someone we can go to with the thorny questions. If we can’t crack the code, he always has the key.”

“He’s not afraid to get down in the trenches with us,” Smith said. “He’ll be at the conference table with his sleeves rolled up with the pen and paper right there with us to assist getting it done.”

“From my first day with the team, there has always been a mutual level of respect for me as an attorney regardless of the significant gap in years of experience,” Brodie said. “When we discuss cases and strategy, the first line of inquiry from Sam to me is usually ‘what do you think?’  We don’t always have the same approach to resolving an issue, but I know I can always offer my input openly, and in many instances, Sam is open to adopting or modifying his approach based upon our discussion.  One of the things I truly appreciate most about working with Sam is his willingness and desire to teach as opposed to dictating/demanding without explanation.”

On Teamwork

“Attorneys move around a lot,” Smith said. “We’re unique in that we have six experienced attorneys who have been together this long. We can all help each other out to the benefit of our clients.”

“The reason we’ve all stayed together is because we have a great group of lawyers,” Ratner said. “We collaborate a lot and we respect each other. We enjoy being together (at least in a work setting).”

The group laughed and nodded along.

“It comes down to us having a lot of trust in each other,” Jankunas said. “It’s not just your reputation out there, it’s the reputation of the firm as well. We all trust that everyone is performing well and representing clients to the best of their ability. The extension of that is you have a team of experts you can walk down the hall and bounce ideas off.”

And their approach to representing clients is holistic.

“Sam always prides himself on putting clients and attorneys together for a reason,” Goffer said. “When he built his team, he had the same mindset in place, and it worked. We complement each other well.”

“He knows what to expect from each of us. We have our own personalities. He knows where the strengths are in our team,” Smith said. “We all have the ability to relate to our clients and focus on their concerns. Some people appreciate the direct approach while others desire more sensitivity.”

“It’s all about managing expectations,” Ratner added. “We want our clients to know where their case is going. Each case is different. We’ve seen virtually everything from every perspective. We know what the other side is going to do because we’ve been there before. We can predict what the other side will do on a particular issue.”

“With our collective experience, there aren’t many areas one of us hasn’t touched,” Smith said.

Each member of the team touched on how important collaboration is within their practice. “It’s one of the things that truly sets us apart,” Brodie said, “whether that’s within the department or one of the other departments in the firm.”

The culture at Meister Seelig & Fein feeds directly into this approach that the matrimonial team has always conducted. Now, each lawyer can walk down the hall with a “thorny question” for a fellow matrimonial lawyer or approach another department with an issue that crosses into another practice.

Ratner described it best as a “synergy between departments.”

“We can reach out to any of our colleagues in the other departments to give the clients the representation they need in all aspects of a divorce or family law case,” Smith said. “All those cases touch on other areas.”

Getting Involved

One of the reasons the team is so successful is because of the name they’ve established for themselves within the community.

As a department, the whole team is very involved in the Nassau County Bar Association, one of the largest suburban bar associations in the country. In fact, Ferrara is on the leadership track and should serve as president in a few years.

“I’ve been a very proud member for over 30 years,” Ferrara said. “I joined while I was still in law school. I’ve worked on their educational programs, planning and social events. It’s a terrific organization.” He is particularly proud of their work on We Care, the charitable arm of the association.

Ferrara also sits on the executive committee of the New York State Bar and is a member of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). “It’s a national organization of legal and mental health professionals. It does a lot of work at the ground level of the interplay between those two disciplines to serve the family law community,” he says.

In addition, Ferrara gives back through his work as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University School of Law. “I don’t think anyone would disagree, but adjunct professors don’t do it for the money,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to share my experiences and keep on the cutting edge of my practice. Plus, I get the opportunity to be exposed to some of the best upcoming attorneys interested in the subject area.”

Ratner is also very involved in the local community and has served in several leadership positions in the past. “The PEACE program is the largest piece of what I do,” he said. “It was actually through that program that I started working with Sam. Twenty-three years later, I’m still donating my time to speak with divorcing parents twice a month in a setting where they get to understand the legal process before they speak with mental health professionals.”

Brodie was very involved with the Nassau County Women’s Bar Association serving as the “COVID president.” She took office in June 2020 and oversaw the virtual year. “I’m really proud of what we accomplished despite the limitations throughout the year.”

The Future is Bright

For Meister Seelig & Fein, the celebration of their 30th anniversary, the addition of the matrimonial team as well as the expansion of their IP practice group, and the opening of a Los Angeles office, has brought them closer to their ultimate goal – providing clients with a complete representation. 

“I think I look at the big picture better than most,” Ferrara said. “I try not to let any one piece of a case derail us or allow us to lose focus of the entirety of the case. In our world, in this area of law, everything is interrelated – custody is in many ways related to equitable distribution which is related to the support aspects of the case. It’s very hard to say in our world that any one thing is dispositive. I bring everyone out of the detail to focus on the big picture.”

He is bringing that same big-picture mentality to his work at the firm as a whole.

“My goal is to grow our practice not only in family law,” Ferrara said. “The challenge when I joined was to expand our Long Island footprint. MSF is a NYC firm with a lot of Long Island attorneys. Bringing our firm expertise out to the island is something I’m looking forward to.”

It’s very hard to say in our world that any one thing is dispositive. I bring everyone out of the detail to focus on the big picture.

At a Glance

Meister Seelig & Fein

100 Jericho Quadrangle, Suite 208
Jericho, NY 11753
(516) 243-7575

Firm Headquarters

125 Park Ave 7th Fl
New York, NY 10017
(212) 655-3500

Matrimonial Team

Practice Areas