Transcript: Be Careful (and Sparing) with Your Words in Court – Joy Feinberg
I’m Dan Couvrette, the Publisher of Family Lawyer Magazine and divorcemag.com and I have the real pleasure today of speaking with Joy Feinberg. I’ve known Joy who is a family lawyer from Illinois for 20-plus years. Joy’s a member of our Family Lawyer Magazine Advisory Board. We go to Joy when we need advice and guidance and have done so actually for the past 27 years that I’ve been in business. When Joy Feinberg talks other lawyers listen. I’ve seen her in action in mock trials at CLE events. The other lawyers are just fumbling around, and Joy is charging forward without any notes, knowing exactly what needs to be said and when it needs to be said. She is an amazing human being. When Joy walks into a room at an AAML event, or probably any other event heads turn because they know Joy has arrived.
Today, we’re talking about how family law has changed. The business of family law, the practice of family law, how clients have changed over the past 10 years, and what Joy sees as the future for all of the above. Joy, thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me today.
Joy Feinberg: It’s a pleasure to be here and especially with you because you have taught me so much and I’ve learned from you over the years. I truly appreciate how you’ve gently guided me to the future. Thank you.
Let’s start with the business of family law and how it’s changed. Technology has had a big influence but tells me how you see the business of family law has changed over the past 10 years, and where you think we’re going to go in the future.
I have a two-pronged approach to this. One is that family law has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. By virtue of the law itself, we have gay marriage. We also have the intensity of what’s going on with the use of technology in so many areas and we can’t in 2022, not look back over the last two years and say, my gosh, what on earth has occurred to have such change where you have so many things done outside of the courtroom, because we weren’t able to go to court due to COVID.
So, we learned dramatically how to deal with our cameras, how to deal with lighting, how to deal with so many things that we needed to deal with, and how to effectively take our skills from inside the courtroom to try and distill keep the story alive, keep the drama alive, keep the cross-examination vibrant and be able to tell our stories over Zoom and that’s not as easy… Well, it seems easier today, but it was quite the learning curve.
Absolutely. It was forced on you. You didn’t have a choice. So, you had to jump in. Do you feel that your skills have improved in that area, and have you seen other lawyers’ skills improving in that area?
It’s great to see the lawyers who have had some acting in their background because they are the ones that really know what’s going on and what to do and how to carry themselves over Zoom. But I always need a little bit of help and so whereas I might have done something alone, I’m fortunate enough to have the type of cases where I’m able to have a skilled second, and they tend to be able to take care of the document in the way that we can get them on the screen and use them effectively. But it really requires planning. Any good lawyer takes the time to be ready and effective. So much is done by the written word, you have to make the written word exciting and use things like color, indentations, and making lists so that you can see at a glance the most important words. Knowing where to put things in pleadings. These have always been important, but remember, today our attention span is six seconds or less. Thank you, TikTok, or anything else you want to blame it on.
You don’t even have a 10-second soundbite anymore. You have to get your story out right away and it has to be simple. It has to be clear, and it has to be articulate if you’re in court.
I know you’re very articulate and very specific about the words you choose. You clearly understand the power of words and how they’re presented and that’s not a skill that I see in every lawyer coming from their marketing point of view or from writing for Family Lawyer Magazine. They’re just not as conscious. Where did that come from in your life that you gained that knowledge of how powerful words could be, and how did you become an effective wordsmith?
I don’t know that I’m always effective, but I try to be. But look at what’s going on in this day and age. What’s going on right now is that you can use words that were totally acceptable 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and they can bite you today. Our mayor used the words to somebody, “You think you have the biggest balls.” That’s no longer acceptable. It’s not tolerated. Wordsmithing today has to not just take into account what the actual word is, what the connotation is, but how younger people will see it. Our judiciary is younger. Our lawyers are younger. Our younger lawyers don’t tolerate certain things.
Being careful about words comes from both my acting background and my love of reading and writing. I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve had some people remind me of some mistakes that I’ve made in writing that were hilarious – or embarrassing. But you learn from that, and as you get older, you really understand how difficult life can be. So you want to make sure that your words hit the mark but are not destructive – and that’s a real art form that comes from experience. You have to spend time thinking about what your theme is. That’s always been true, but now crafting it even better. We have to be so careful about what we say.
I know you’ve been very actively involved in mentoring women lawyers. When you look back over the past 10 years, can you say anything about the progress that you feel has been made? Maybe looking forward how does it look for women lawyers? Is it equal/equal now and we’re just marching forward or is there still some resistance and some residue left from women being treated as not equals, in the legal profession and specifically the family law profession?
I think things have improved. But in our recent hearings on the Supreme Court, you know, it, me of Anita Hill. So, we’ve made some progress. There are a lot more women in family law today. I haven’t just mentored women. I’ve mentored a lot of men too. But I think it’s been a real love of mine to say women, you have to think about marketing, and you taught me that Dan. You have to be out there and in front of organizations and you have to do things and understand what you have on social media, which wasn’t something I had to worry about but they certainly do now. You have to be very careful about how you use that.
I think there are more pressures today on people to be careful about what they’re putting out in the world. I mean, I know things are supposed to disappear, but they seem to be able to be found. You have to be very careful about social media and how you use it, and you can’t not use it.
You deal with a lot of higher net worth clients, business owners, professionals, and people who have wealth, and have they changed in the way that they are as clients given that they’re possibly more informed now? You mentioned the internet and social media. Has your relationship with them changed or is it pretty well stayed the same and where do you see that going?
No, I think there’s been a lot of difference, Dan, and that is nobody comes to me today without having checked me out on social media, on the internet, or our website. What have I written, what have I spoken on? What do other people have to say?
As you know, I almost always wear red glasses. Every once in a while, I’ll go to an initial meeting with my blue glasses and the potential client says, aren’t you supposed to have red glasses? And I said I am glad to know that you were on the website.
I find that we’re being looked at a lot more, people ask a lot of questions and in truth, this practice has become so much more sophisticated. Every time you see something, something advances. Every time there’s a change in the law, something advances. I enjoyed it back then and today, there are a lot more women and you can notice that as lawyers. You can notice that across the country, across the world, because I enjoy my work with the International Family Lawyers Association and I also enjoy the national work that I do with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
You really see the advancement in that respect. I participate in several different groups of women lawyers across the country who have set up referral sources and they tend to have less value even though they are brilliant. I participate in various events where you have people in different groups, and from different walks of life come together once a month for a meeting to be referral sources. You really do have to understand the world of marketing. That is no longer left for the few. That is something that everybody has to do to survive because the business has become much more “you eat what you kill” and for you to have power, you need to have your own book of business to be able to support yourself and to be valued because dollars are valued. I think one of the sad things is that there are so many fine lawyers who are so intelligent, but don’t have those marketing skills or don’t care about it, or don’t engage in that.
You have to do a little bit of everything these days and I think women understand that far more today than they did 10 years ago and so you see a real gain in that. I also see a difference in the lawyers, and I see a difference in two ways. First of all, some of what I will call old guard, at least old guard to me have retired or have passed away. You have this younger group of lawyers, and I will say something that I truly believe, and that is cream rises to the top, no matter where you are. The good lawyers are the ones that don’t scream, that are articulate. They are able to make their points and do it with reason and without inflaming things, and there are always the inflamers but they’re not as well respected.
As family lawyers, you’re always working with each other, and you do have to have respect and camaraderie with them in order to get things done. It’s not who’s going to pound the table the hardest. As you know, that’s often going to put their client in a losing proposition. Do you think that has evolved over the past 10 years?
I think there are two styles. I think some clients really gravitate towards yellers and screamers and believe that somebody who pounds the table gets a better deal. It doesn’t get you the respect of your opponents or the court. Every once in a while, I have a client say, Joy, I hear you’re really good friends with the other lawyer. I have no problem with saying, yes, I am, and it will help you significantly because we won’t have to go through some of the fighting and bravado. We know who each other is. We know that we’re both good and we have respect.
If I’ve seen anything change, I get dismayed when I hear lawyers talk about how bad everybody else is. Because I look around and I don’t know, these lawyers are pretty good against me. So, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues. They’re talented, they’re bright, they’re funny. If you like people and respect them, that will be returned to you, and you will have a more effective lawyer. The screamer, if it makes you feel better as a client, you’re missing the boat.
Absolutely. Is there anything else on where you think we’ve been and where do you think we’re going in terms of the practice business and clients in a family law case?
I always like the lawyer who is creative, because the practice of law, especially with people who are business owners or high-level executives, is, do you understand what all these perquisites are? Do you understand the structure so that you can move forward? In generational wealth, you need to understand what’s going on with the hiding game of trusts. But we’ve become more articulate about this, we’ve become more intense in business valuations, and we start making more laws as we tether through each strand that we have. So, the ability to be creative about something really sets you apart. It allows you to move forward. If you love what you do, and I love what I do, I’m not working, I’m having fun, being creative, and I just enjoy people. I would say to lawyers, you have some pretty fabulous colleagues. Get to know them, ask for help, and be kind to one another. It’s a good way to practice law and it will come back to you tenfold.
So, I’m going to end it there because I don’t think it could end it any better. For people who want to learn more about Joy, please visit her new website. She’s at www.davisfriedman.com or if you do a Google search for Joy Feinberg, family lawyer, oh my God, there’s so much information that you’ll find about Joy and it’s all good. Thank you again for your time. Real pleasure talking to you as usual.
Thank you so much, Dan. You take care.