An interview with preeminent trial lawyer Stephen Kolodny about his commitment to passing on litigation skills, giving back to the community, and his best advice for young lawyers.
Family Law Litigator Stephen Kolodny has a long list of accomplishments: he is a recipient of Boston University School of Law’s Silver Shingle Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession, and one of the Founding Members of the American College of Family Trial Lawyers and the National Family Law Trial Institute in Houston. Family Lawyer Magazine’s Editorial Director, Diana Shepherd, recently spoke with him about his commitment to passing on litigation skills and giving back to the community.
What is the one fundamental reason why you chose to practice family law?
I chose family law because it is the only area of law that gives you the opportunity to make a positive difference in the future lives of people. I think that makes it a unique area of law.
Please describe the core beliefs that guide you and your practice.
Since law school, I have believed that it is my responsibility and obligation to be a strong advocate for my clients; to protect and assert their interests. This belief has resulted in me being an aggressive and forceful litigator. I do whatever is required, with integrity, to achieve my client’s goals. I also believe in loyalty. If you’re not loyal, you’re not somebody I want anywhere around me.
Can you name some achievements that make you proud?
On a personal level, I’m proud of my children’s success – which I hope is attributable in part to my influence and values – and my wife’s successes in her business ventures. On a professional level, I’m both proud and privileged to have earned a reputation amongst bench officers – not only in Los Angeles but in other parts of the state and country – for high personal integrity, commitment to the representation of clients, and being a skilled litigator. The success of my practice, the development of my skills and reputation, and the recognition that my stature has given me throughout the country make me proud.
I am also proud of the National Family Law Trial Institute in Houston (www.familylawtrialinstitute.org), where I have been instrumental in changing the program and maintaining a unique, highly specialized faculty. I have been doing this for 29 years: training lawyers to be better lawyers and, hopefully, to be successful trial lawyers. This has always been a source of pride for me.
Tell us more about the National Family Law Trial Institute.
We have faculty members who have been teaching this program for over 20 years. We teach advocacy! The sole purpose and the sole reason we spend a week in Houston at the end of May every year is to try and raise the caliber of family law practitioners. We teach them how to be effective, more persuasive litigators and how to better represent their clients and get better results for them. Some firms that regularly send two to three lawyers every year have said that those lawyers return with the equivalent of somewhere between five and seven years of actual courtroom experience. We believe this is such crucial education that we volunteer our time teaching there.
Why is it important for you and members of your firm to be involved in providing CLE through local, state, or national family law associations?
I write and maintain the Family Law Contempts Benchbook for California in memory of an old friend of mine, Superior Court Commissioner Herbert S. Ross, who died a long time ago. That book is probably on the bench of almost every family law judge or judicial officer in the State of California – and a lot of places outside California.
I do CLE on evidence and trial practice fairly regularly. I have been an active participant both in planning and the structuring of the Sorrell Trope Trial Institute program, which is also designed to raise the level of litigation skills of family law lawyers. It’s pretty embarrassing to sit in a courtroom and see how unskilled so many family law lawyers are because they don’t get the opportunity to try a lot of cases. They don’t have the experience, so somebody needs to be able to teach them – and I guess it’s left to us old-timers who used to try cases literally every day. Litigation skills are acquired skills that we need to pass on so that the art of advocacy doesn’t die.
What is the primary type of clients you serve? Do you ever take on pro bono cases?
A lot of our clients have high net worth. We also represent the Los Angeles middle class, who typically have money or assets, but aren’t mega-rich. Last year, I represented a fire captain for free because I thought he had a grossly incompetent lawyer – and because of that lawyer, the judge had made a terrible mistake. I was able to correct it, but it took 14 trial days and a 100-page closing powerpoint presentation to do so. We do pro bono work for firms that provide services to indigent or low-income people; three or four of our lawyers work there regularly and serve that population.
What makes you or your law firm the right choice for a family law client?
Our commitment to, representation of, and the way we seek to protect our clients are what mark the success of our law firm. Clients really come first at my firm; even senior partners set aside personal commitments in order to service clients. That commitment makes us a good choice for clients that fit within our mold – which is primarily a law firm that pushes fairly aggressively to assert and achieve the rights of clients, usually via litigation.
It sounds like the desire for justice and giving back to the community are both important to you.
A fantasy goal of mine is to see the judicial system hand out real justice to people in family law cases – I try to see that it happens as often as possible. It’s part of the reason I spend so much time on the Family Law Contempts Bench Book: it’s an area that’s not very well known and judicial officers, unless they have been on the bench for a while, do not have much experience with it.
I have probably spent over 1,000 unpaid hours planning the annual National Family Law Trial Institute program, including recruiting a topnotch faculty to pass on the art of advocacy to the next generation of family law litigators. We estimate that the Institute faculty gives over $1,000,000 of billable time each year to the program.
I have been very fortunate in my career, which gives me an obligation to give back to the community and the legal profession. I have a law firm that allows me to do these things, and that offers lower-income people the opportunity to achieve real justice. And then, every once in a while, I see a pro bono case I personally just can’t turn down.
Is there anything you wish you could change in the family law legal system?
The whole court system needs to be changed to give family law judges the time to be able to properly hear, analyze, and decide these cases. Family law has always been considered the “stepchild” of the judicial system. If you get rear-ended on the freeway, the court has no problem giving you a jury and a courtroom for as long as you want; rarely do those cases result in awards over $100,000.
We often deal with cases that involve $100 million or more in assets, but we must fight to get time to properly litigate these cases. More importantly, we deal with the lives of children – their health and welfare. For some people, the difference of $100 a month in a support order determines whether the children get to eat three meals a day.
It is wrong for courts not to allocate sufficient resources to our cases. In Los Angeles, our new Supervising Judge, Thomas Trent Lewis, has made major changes giving us a much better opportunity to try our cases, but that has not happened statewide. I hope to be instrumental in participating in discussions that lead to more changes.
What’s the best advice you could give a family lawyer who’s just starting out?
Do not take the easy way out at the expense of your client, and remember that the decisions you make affect their everyday living and the lives of their children. Family law is very important work that affects the lives of children in many different ways. We sometimes lose sight of that. For the average American, the difference in a support order of $100 or $200 a month is the difference between eating well and going hungry. A change in custody can have a critical impact on a parent-child relationship and the life experience and opportunities of a child as well as the outlook on life of that child.
Stephen Kolodny is the Managing Partner at the Kolodny Law Group in Beverly Hills, California. He has been practicing law for more than 50 years and was the Founding Diplomat and Executive Vice President of the American College of Family Law Trial Lawyers. www.kolodnylawgroup.com
Training Family Lawyers for Trial
Stephen Kolodny talks to Family Lawyer Magazine about the Houston Family Trial Institute and giving back by training lawyers to be the best they can in a courtroom.