When husband and wife attorneys Elliot Zisser and Carolyn Zisser started their separate family law practices, their focuses were on achieving the best possible results for their clients. Elliot Zisser founded his downtown firm with his brother Barry, a renowned Jacksonville trial lawyer, in 1971. Carolyn Zisser started out on her own in Neptune Beach two years later, choosing that location so she could be closer to home and the couple’s children. The idea that over the ensuing 40-plus years, “Zisser” would become one of the most lauded names within northeastern Florida’s marital and family law legal community probably never occurred to the dedicated lawyers. But that is exactly what happened, and today, the two “separate but equal” law firms, each with its own firmly established reputation for providing exceptional family law services, have joined forces to become a single firm under the name Zisser Family Law.
The law firm, which will maintain its two existing locations, officially became one on January 1, 2020.
The boutique family law practice includes partners Elliot Zisser, Carolyn Zisser and their son Jonathan Zisser, who had joined the downtown practice from the Jacksonville Public Defender’s Office in 2007. Three associate attorneys who were on board at the Zissers’ previous firms are also part of the new Zisser Family Law. They are Joseph Alvarez, Katherine Johnson and Lynn Salvatore.
The firm handles marital and family matters that range from the relatively simple to the highly complex, including cases involving divorce, alimony and child support, timesharing, valuation and distribution of assets and complex valuations of businesses.
With Jonathan Zisser at the criminal law helm, it also takes on criminal issues that arise in the context of family litigation, such as domestic violence and domestic battery, DUI offenses, child abuse and other cases.
MAKING THE DECISION TO COMBINE
Why after more than four decades in their highly successful individual practices, did the Zissers decide to integrate into a single firm? There were several important factors that drove the decision. In addition to some brand confusion in the marketplace because of the similar firm names, as the reach of the two firms continued to grow, the partners found that they were sometimes in competition with each other.
“Besides the name confusion, we were competing for the same clients that we could be sharing,” says Carolyn Zisser. “Another factor was that it just worked. We both practiced in complex family law, we both had established very strong family law practices, so we could come together as equals.”
The two original firms also shared the same core values, which further made the decision seem like a natural one. Adding to that the ability to combine technological resources as well as leverage the legal experiences of a larger group of attorneys helped cement the decision to become a single-family law unit.
“We now have more great minds working together,” says Elliot Zisser. “We may have different views and opinions, but through this collaboration, I think we’re able to achieve even better results for our clients. And we aren’t sure, but we may be the biggest boutique family law firm in the area. It is rare to have six people practicing family law together in Jacksonville.”
“As firm founders and pioneers in the family law legal field, with each having more than four decades of experience, my parents wanted to make sure there was a pathway forward,” Jonathan Zisser adds. “We wanted to make sure their legacy continued 10, 20 and even more years into the future.”
A DISTINGUISHED FAMILY LAW HISTORY
While there is no doubt a legacy as strong as the Zissers will continue long into the future, their accomplishments stretch far into the past. After establishing his downtown practice with his brother, who recently retired, Elliot Zisser became the first board-certified marital and family lawyer in Northeast Florida. He also co-wrote the exam for board-certified family lawyers in Florida to come.
“I was one of six to eight people selected to be in the first board certified group and to write the exam for the first group of people taking it,” he says. “Somebody had to do it so they geographically distributed it to the members of the original group. I was Northeastern Florida.”
He later became the Chairman of the Family Law Certification Committee for the Florida Bar.
When Carolyn Zisser started her firm in 1973, she was the only woman-owned family law firm in the Jacksonville area. Today, in addition to helping clients navigate difficult family problems, she is a respected lecturer and writer on family law topics for the American Bar Association, Florida Bar and Jacksonville Bar Association. She is also formally trained in collaborative family law practice. Although the firm thoroughly prepares every case as if it is going to trial, when it is within clients’ goals to try and negotiate settlements, her special insight in this area is of great benefit.
Jonathan Zisser’s history with the firm began 13 years ago, when the Jacksonville native left the Public Defender’s office and joined his father’s firm. While there he represented thousands of clients and tried more than 30 jury trials. At Zisser Family Law he practices in both criminal law and matrimonial and family law.
“Our firm is unique because it is not a standard family law practice having maybe a sole practitioner or maybe two attorneys,” he says. “It is actually a family firm doing family law. For me, working side-by-side with my parents brings an extra aspect of joy to the practice.”
BLENDING A FAMILY
Like blending a family, merging two law firms can have its share of bumps on the path to becoming a single strong unit. However, the firm smooths the bumps by focusing on collaboration and bringing uniformity into its processes and procedures.
“We really manage by collaboration and consensus,” Carolyn Zisser says. “We have committees to establish common practices, including a Uniform Practices and Procedures Committee and a Brand Engagement team to make sure that our core values are experienced by the clients.”
“The beach office has a personality and the downtown office has a personality,” she continues. “It’s really a work in progress understanding our differences, yet striving to have uniformity in our procedures.”
While internally the firm is experiencing the natural changes that take place when organizations merge, clients are not really feeling the change because the same attorneys generally continue to work out of the same locations. Rather, the combining of the firms has provided clients the benefit of a greater wealth of knowledge brought to their cases.
GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
In addition to their strong dedication to compassionately helping individuals and families through the travails of family legal issues, the Zissers firmly believe in giving back to the Jacksonville community that has given them so much. Throughout Jacksonville, it isn’t unusual to see their name associated with a variety of legal and charitable organizations.
Jonathan Zisser speaks monthly and provides pro bono legal advice at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s family law clinic. Carolyn Zisser helps support local musicians and musical education endeavors through the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Florida Chamber Music Project. Elliot Zisser was on the City of Jacksonville’s Environmental Protection Board for many years and was also president of the Jacksonville Jewish Federation charitable organization. The law firm is also involved with the Family Nurturing Center of Florida and is currently assisting with its annual Taste of Chocolate Fundraiser. The nonprofit helps local children and their families impacted by divorce, child custody disputes, domestic violence and other family law issues.
These are just some examples of the ways in which the family and the firm have given back over the years.
LOOKING TO THE FIRM’S FUTURE
What do the three partners hope for the firm’s future?
“We want to know that what we have been able to establish will be continued and viewed in the same way years from now,” Elliot Zisser says. “We want to leave a legacy and want the name to continue on and what the name represents to continue on. We are proud of what we have been able to accomplish and we think we are extremely capable of carrying on the tradition as a combined firm. We have a brand here in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida and I would like it to continue. I am also delighted that our firm’s attorneys are equally male and female and there are a variety of age groups represented. The way our firm is structured reflects society.”
“Elliot said it beautifully,” Carolyn Zisser notes. “I would say it exactly the same way. The only thing I would add is that I have always wanted my firm to live on beyond me, and that is one of the reasons I am especially excited about my firm merging with Zisser Law, because collectively our firms can live beyond us and can continue practicing family law.”
Jonathan Zisser, who will continue to shepherd Zisser Family Law into the future, has the last word.
“I would like to build on the 40 years of experience my parents have worked for and carry that into the future,” he says. “My goal is to continue to work and collaborate and to be the anchor for the decades to come. I would like to work with the associates to see them become future partners.
“Most important is that the tradition my parents have built over the last four decades is going to have a solid path forward and the legacy they created will stay,” he continues. “I know it is important to them that I have all the tools I need now to carry the firm forward.”