“You can get a lot farther being nice to someone than being mean. I can get what I want without having to tear somebody apart,” said Raleigh divorce attorney Elizabeth Stephenson.
“Are you kidding me? I have had cases against her and she tore into my client,” replied Raleigh divorce attorney Mary Gurganus. The two break out laughing.
Stephenson and Gurganus, once adversaries in family law court, are now partners in the newly-formed Triangle Divorce Lawyers. Their offices were in the same building for three years and they faced off occasionally in court. Partnering has given them a chance to hire three additional attorneys, Matt Jackson and Kyle Fraccaro and Sarah Hink, to provide for a team approach to the practice.
“That’s our niche, five heads are better than one. Providing our clients with a dedicated attorney, paralegal, and other outside support such as a financial planner and counselor,” said Stephenson
“It makes us all better lawyers,” added Gurganus.
The firm’s practice includes separation and divorce issues such as child custody, child support, spousal support and property division.
The philosophy of the firm is that the clients deserve to get and keep their fair share. What that means in divorce and separation is that they fight for their clients to keep their fair share of the marital property, their time and involvement with the children and the resources to meet their financial needs. The client’s fair share may mean more than an equal share. When asked about the underlying philosophy of the firm Gurganus said, “The family law legal community is a small one so we try to keep a collegial aspect while being aggressive on our client’s behalf. We’d rather be aggressive and have the client in a more peaceful role. Sometimes that helps in the negotiation process so that the client doesn’t have to be the bad guy. We try to keep them above the fray.”
Stephenson has a Bachelor of Arts and a master’s degree in social work and brings that perspective to the practice’s clients. “I’m not their counselor, but I certainly do have training and a background in child development and marital family counseling so I can help steer them toward a counselor or ask them about some issues they may not have thought about. We’re not just focused on the legal part; it’s more of a holistic approach for Mary and me. That’s why we believe fervently in the team approach and provide our clients with the supports and services they need through this difficult time.”
“It takes not a village, but a lot more than a lawyer to separate a family’s time with the children and property,” said Gurganus. The firm has a network of financial advisors, counselors, bankers and therapists. “The client is the hub. We want to make sure they have everyone in place so they get all the information they need,” she said.
The Polar Star
Gurganus was 15 when her parents divorced. “It was very hard on the children. It made a mark on my life. My parents were always involved with us. I saw the inequities of not being able to see my father. I saw the inequity of my father ending up with more assets than my mom,” remembered Gurganus.
“The starting point was always that the mother had custody and the father had every other weekend,” said Gurganus of the status quo when her parents divorced.
“There wasn’t case law, there weren’t statutes that said the best interests of the child should be considered,” explained Stephenson. “That’s what we call the polar star now and that’s what judges are required to look at. Now both parents have a constitutional right to parent and raise their children and a better chance to keep their fair share.”
“The trend is a co-parenting arrangement unless facts show one parent is less capable of promoting the welfare of the child. I think North Carolina is more progressive than many other states. We should be proud of it because it does help the kids,” said Gurganus. “Our family court judges are very interested in child development. They factor where the child is and may factor the wishes of older children into a custody schedule.”
Unfortunately, because of the backlog in the courts, a case can take many months from instituting a lawsuit to standing before a judge. “The court system is so clogged that we are moving toward more mediation, arbitration and settlement conferences,” said Stephenson.
With the trend toward co-parenting and joint custody both parents are brought into the discussion about major decisions as well as smaller issues of consistency, like bed time. “This is such a new concept for them that we recommend education and family counseling to educate them and begin healthy communications, especially in contentious cases. It’s also getting the parents to buy in to regular communications with their ex-spouses. To have joint custody, you have to be able to make decisions together,” explained Gurganus.
If prior to the separation, “one parent kept up with the children’s activities and appointments, then part of our role or the role of a parenting coach is to help both parents to become equally informed, responsible and involved.
Separation and divorce can be difficult financially. Stephenson said the first difficult discussion with clients is getting them to understand that financial impact of a second household on the family’s monthly expenses. There may not be enough income to support two households at the same lifestyle without additional income. “That’s a big shock to a lot of people. Where they live is more than likely going to change. Their lifestyle may change. A stay-at-home mom or dad may have to get a job. And that’s a lot for someone to accept and work through.” That’s why working toward the goal of getting our clients their fair share is the bedrock of our practice.
Gurganus and Stephenson say the firm’s goal is to get their clients back on their feet and planning for their future. “It is gratifying to help our clients through a difficult time and then ultimately achieve their goals,” said Gurganus.
“The clients come to us at the worst time in their lives,” said Stephenson. “At the first consultation, they are anxious and uncertain about their future. Six months or a year later when we are wrapping up, they are a completely different person. They’ve usually found their own voice. They are financially OK. Their kids are OK and they can move on and that’s the gratification.”