Lynn Burleson is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Specialist in Family Law. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and former Chair of the national AAML Arbitration Committee. He is an AAML Certified Arbitrator and one of the drafters of the North Carolina Family Law Arbitration Act, and the AAML Model Matrimonial Law Arbitration Act.
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What attracted you to the idea of arbitration – both for yourself and for your clients?
I had served as a North Carolina family court judge a number of years ago and was frustrated by the limited amount of trial time available for more sophisticated cases. This caused me to explore the idea of arbitration for family law cases, an avenue that has been used in commercial litigation for years.
Is family law arbitration cost-effective?
It certainly can be. Even though the parties are paying the arbitrator’s fees – while a judge’s salary is taxpayer funded – the parties control the schedule. This can be critical because attorneys do not have to attend court calendar calls or status conferences, and the hearings are not interrupted by higher priority motions. Hearings can be held after hours or on weekends. I usually spend a substantial amount of pre-arbitration time talking with the litigants and their attorneys and trying to figure out ways for them to save money by such things as stipulations and affidavits.
Are clients generally more comfortable with divorce arbitration or litigation?
Almost always arbitration. Arbitration provides a more comfortable procedure and atmosphere for the clients and the attorneys. Proceedings typically take place at the arbitrator’s office where the amenities are much greater than at the courthouse. Food and drinks are often brought in and clients tend to be more relaxed. The parties and their attorneys have more control over the timetables, as they are not being pressed to resolve the case so that the next case on the docket can be handled. While arbitration can be as formal as the parties desire, these hearings tend to move at a more comfortable pace, with parties often stipulating to relaxed rules of evidence and civil procedure. It’s a less stressful process for both the parties and the attorneys.
Once an attorney has experienced divorce arbitration, would you say they’re probably equally comfortable with arbitration as litigation?
I think they’re more comfortable with arbitration, and with not being put in a situation in which judges often put them, in terms of having to be ready to proceed sooner than they would like. It’s just a more client and attorney-friendly procedure.
Is arbitrating complex cases more suitable than litigation?
Absolutely. I cannot imagine having a complex divorce case that involves some sophisticated business valuation issues where a district court judge would be more qualified to hear it than an American Academy of Matrimonial Law Certified Arbitrator. Experienced family law attorneys try sophisticated valuation issue cases all of the time, whereas some of the judges rotate through different criminal and general civil courts. Often judges will not have sufficient time to devote to a specific case.
If you really want a fair, good, thoughtful decision, I think the best way to achieve that is for the litigants to agree upon a reputable family law specialist – ideally, an AMML Certified aArbitrator – to arbitrate their case.
Is the privacy aspect one of the most powerful factors in attracting complex divorce cases to arbitration rather than litigation?
I think it is. In fact, higher profile cases, where one of the parties has some notoriety – such as sports or entertainment figures, and sometimes business figures – would like to keep their matters out of the public eye. Often one of the first topics addressed in an arbitration proceeding is confidentiality and how best to protect party privacy.
Lynn Burleson is a family law attorney and arbitrator practicing in Raleigh, North Carolina. To learn more about Lynn, please visit his firm’s website: www.tharringtonsmith.com
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