How to grow a successful family law practice and be proud of your own work. David Lee says pursuing excellence in everything lights up the path to success.
Interview with David Lee, Family Lawyer
David is a partner in the Boston family law firm of Lee, Rivers and Corr. He has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers since 1978, and a past president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. David is also a former member of the National Board of Governors and a director of the American Academy Charitable Foundation. Among numerous other accolades, almost too many too count, he has been a top super lawyer in Massachusetts, and recognized by both Boston Magazine and Lawdragon. It is my pleasure to introduce a frequent speaker and author of articles in the area of family law on a variety of topics including divorce, tax law, business evaluation, stock options, retirement interests, and more, David Lee. Welcome, and thank you for taking a few minutes to speak to me.
To start things off, how did you become interested in doing family law? I guess beginning with studying and then moving on to actually being in practice.
Well, interestingly enough I never took a course in family law in law school.
I had no intention of involving myself in the practice of family law. My intention was, and I was hired by a firm out of law school for this, to do First Amendment appellate work. I did this with the top lawyer in that field in Boston and within about a month of being at that firm a large divorce case came to one of the partners of that firm. The person whom he had hired to begin as a new young associate was still on vacation before starting his job after law school and he asked whether or not I could be loaned for his use in the divorce case until the new associate was available.
So unbeknownst to me I was traded, and found it very interesting. I then found out that because of the rapport that I had with this other lawyer I wasn’t traded back.
I see. So he stole you. (laughs)
So early on I said I had better learn something about this stuff since it was what I was going to be doing, and I put my head down and tried to learn what I could about this area of law.
The point in time when I began to practice in this area of law was one where it wasn’t terribly intellectually focused. Its principal focus was who could threaten the other more, who could yell louder, and who could intimidate the other side more. I decided that wasn’t really the style that I wanted to have, and I wanted to learn about this area of law and bring it to a new dimension where it could be thought of with higher regard. So I approached it that way and then decided that any time I did research and any time that I was asked to do any type of legal memorandum by the person for whom I worked I would write an article about it. Within a short period of time, within about five years of my being in practice, I had written more articles about the area of family law in Massachusetts than almost anyone; the one person in the Boston area who had written more was about 20-25 years my senior.
So were you writing from the point of view of educating yourself about the subject or did you feel like you wanted to get the word out about how you thought the process could be better-handled?
Initially when I had the assignment given me to write something it was to educate myself and educate the judge or whoever the assignment was for. But then later I saw that it was useful to share with the rest of the legal community a unique area of investigation that might be used by them as they pursued cases that might touch upon the same issues.
So I assume that back when you started it was fault divorce and that’s why you were talking about people basically bashing each other?
Yes. No-fault divorce came into play later. But nonetheless for a period of years, even when equitable distribution came to Massachusetts, people were still trying to intimidate as a means of getting an outcome rather than creatively using legal theories to effect a resolution which made sense to both parties.
How did you resist that acrimonious way of handling divorce, or did you have to play that game as well when you started?
Well, I had to show two things. First I had to show that I was thoughtful and second I had to show that I was capable of doing some of that if necessary. But generally through my demeanor and through my development of relationships with people I earned the respect of other lawyers to the point that they understood that they didn’t have to go through that type of act in order to get an effective result.
You also probably saw the progression, as family law and divorce became more common, that there has been a transition in terms of the way lawyers deal with each other as well as the way society deals with divorce.
I think that is certainly the case. No-fault divorce has brought about a change like that. Even if in Massachusetts conduct is still a factor of consideration in a contested no-fault divorce. There are still conduct elements that enter into the legal approach to that sort of thing.
Are you saying that if there has been infidelity in a case that it could weigh in terms of one party getting more than another party?
Yes, it can. And I wouldn’t say that it’s a major consideration, but it certainly is something that can be taken into consideration along with inappropriate physical behaviour, verbal behaviour, and other acts that might have had an adverse impact upon the family.
Going back to where you started in family law, or maybe where you started in law in general, did you have a mentor in the early years? Was there anybody who influenced you positively or negatively as to how you would practice in the future?
Well, both. It’s the same person but they had both a positive and negative impact on me. The partner who did divorce work, the one I went to work with after law school, was charismatic, smart, and somebody who knew how to try a case. I was able to recognize the value of all of those positive things and pick up on them. At the same time that person was also somebody who had a mercurial personality; he was somebody who wasn’t necessarily well-mannered when dealing with clients. Thankfully I was able to identify what was positive about what he did and what was, in my view, not beneficial to clients.
The benefit that I had in working with this particular person was that he gave me a huge amount of responsibility from the very beginning and he had the quality of cases that allowed me not only to be challenged intellectually but also interested in the subjects. This enabled me to have experience before the court and experience in substantial negotiations that I might not otherwise have had.
I have the feeling, from having talked with you a little bit as well as others, that one of your absolute core qualities is integrity. I think I saw a little bit of that when you were describing this other person’s negative quality, that they had a little bit less integrity for you in the way that they dealt with their clients or the opposing counsel.
Well, integrity I think is the most important quality that one can have in being a lawyer regardless of whether it’s family law or any other area. But particularly in family law I think there’s such a suggestion or impression in general society that lawyers who do this type of work are not necessarily to be admired or trusted, so it’s that much more critical that you maintain that integrity in your practice in this field.
When you started in the area of family law did you have any particular goals at that time? Did you think that you’d like to be out on your own, doing your own thing? Or was that not even in your mind at that time, did you just think you wanted to get better at being a family lawyer?
Well, I think that my principle or mantra has always been that you only go around once. It’s not acceptable to just be good at what it is you do, you have to strive to be the best at what it is you do. Mediocrity is not something that was of any interest to me at the beginning and it never has been of interest to me in the course of my practice. That was certainly a goal that drove me. I was fortunate in that the success that I exhibited early in my career caused me to become a partner very early in the law firm that I had worked with.
I had remained in that partnership for a period of about ten years before I broke off into a different partnership which is essentially the same one I’ve been a part of since 1984 up to the present.
Where do you think not wanting to be mediocre came from? Is that from your parents or teachers?
I think that at its core it came from my parents and was just a general principle going through my education. Don’t just try to get passing grades; try to get the best grades.
And it wasn’t the pressure it was just an accepted form of thinking. I took that with me into my general practice and I’d say that it was also contributed to by others both in who I came in contact with at work as well as my father-in-law and my wife, who had the same attitude herself in her own profession.
Like my father used to say, if you’re going to do the job, do it right. It sounds like you had the same sort of upbringing that there’s no sense in doing a bad job.
The only thing that’s difficult about having that standard is that you never are satisfied with what it is that you think you know.
I already summed you up as having a bit of a Type A personality, and I kind of fall into that same category myself. When you’re driven to do the best you can it’s a challenge. I’m wondering how you can cope with always expecting the best and how other people in your firm interact with you and react to that.
Well, over the course of years people have reacted in different ways. Certain people have not continued working with me because they found it too much pressure on them to meet that standard. For others I think that it’s wonderful to see them take on the same type of attitude and have become excellent lawyers themselves.
I like to think that somehow I am driven and drive others; that I don’t do it in a way that people find oppressive. Instead they sense that they want to strive to both satisfy me and satisfy themselves in being the best that they can.
You have to hold it in the right context, which I believe you do, and that is really an opportunity for everybody to thrive within a firm that really has high standards. It’s a lot more fun and a lot more beneficial to your clients if everybody’s playing the same game, and it sounds like from the interaction I’ve had with your firm that everybody, at least that I’ve spoken to, is doing that. It makes life and work a lot more fun from my point of view and it sounds like it does for you as well.
Yeah. I do think that most of the people who work with me enjoy coming to work. I’m not saying that they’re thrilled to be here every day (laughs), but I’m saying that I think that they enjoy the workplace.
So how did your current firm start out? Were some of these people partners in the previous firms you were with?
I was with the firm that I was initially with for ten years up until about 1984, and then that firm broke apart and one of the partners I had from that firm and I formed our own firm. About four, maybe five, years afterwards he became a judge. Then one of the firm’s younger associates, who I was impressed with, became my partner in about 1989. Later the partner who became a judge left the bench and came back to the firm and we continued working together.
The three of us were partners over a period of time until about 2004. Then the younger associate who had become a partner stayed on until the end of 2012 when he chose to leave litigation and focus solely on arbitration and mediation work, which is what he does now. Two of our younger partners became name partners upon his leaving in 2012.
That’s very quick.
It’s been basically the same core of people for a period of time. My partner William Levine, who left in 2012 to do mediation, is somebody who had been working with me either as an associate or a partner for a period of about 30 years. Continuity is something that is very valuable and important.
So what keeps you interested in the practice of family law? Is there anything in particular that drives you now to keep on wanting to do family law?
I find that every day you walk into the office is an exciting day, and I’m very serious about that. You don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you.
You don’t know who the new people are that you’re going to meet and what their story is and how it is you’re going to be able to be of help to them. You don’t know what sort of quick decisions you’ll have to make to deal with what comes out of the court.
The area of family law is one that has never been stagnant through the entire period of time that I’ve been doing it, which is 39 years. That makes it very interesting. Plus it’s evolving, and you can play a role in its evolution and you can play a role in making new law by taking the cases that have unique issues that you know will find their way up to the appellate courts. All of those reasons make it a fascinating and exciting area of practice for me every day.
Have you found that it’s more or less predictable for what you can expect out of a trial or decision that’s being made now than ten, twenty years ago, or is it the same? Are you ever 75% certain that something will happen, or is it closer to 50% or 99%?
That’s very difficult to turn into percentages because of the fact that there are so many different judges within each of our counties and there are so many different counties in which we practice.
I would say to you that the degree of reliability and predictability might be in the 75% range with respect to major issues. But there’s so much discretion that remains with a family court judge that precision is never able to be a standard that you can apply in advising a client in this area.
I know this is a bit of a political question I’m going to ask, but are the family law judges in the Boston area well-trained and suited for the jobs, or is it more the kind of thing that depends on who the judge is and how long they’ve been there?
I think it depends upon who the judges are and how long they’ve been there. Different judges develop themselves in different ways from when they first take the bench, both in terms of how they relate to the lawyers and parties as well as the degree of additional education.
The pool of judges comes from a wide source of the legal community. Some have practiced in family law, and some have been clerks in the court system in the family law area. Some have had clientele that have a broad range of economic difference and others have had a focus on certain areas of the economic population. Some have had experience dealing with clients who may be pro se clients which now seem to be flooding the courts.
Still others have had very little experience in dealing with pro se litigants. They have a wide range experiences, and my experience with them is that the longer they’re on the bench the more they evolve in different ways.
What have you done, or what have you put in place to help you achieve the work-life balance that you’re looking for? How do you separate your work life from your other life?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, and I think there’s a whole variety of people that would give different answers to it.
My answer is that I try to do the best I can by recognizing the responsibility I have to my clients and likewise recognizing the responsibility I have to my family and to myself. If someone were measuring it I’m not sure that they would give me an A+ in how I do that. I have a very busy work life in that I’m generally in the office, and it’s rare that I don’t do work at home, whether it be preparing for court the next day or reviewing a file for a meeting. Or even catching up on the reading of the new case decisions or some family law publications
At the same time I’m an avid sportsman. I like to travel and my wife and I are fortunate that we have three wonderful grandchildren who live not far from us. We make them and our daughter and son-in-law a regular part of our lives. I also have a wonderful son out in California who I get to see every now and then.
I also get to go to the American Academy meetings and the International Academy meetings, and they’re a way of getting out and around as well. I have found that I am getting better at not thinking about work when I’m away, especially when compared to when I was developing my practice in the earlier years.
To give an example, in my earlier years I wrote a lot of articles, and I wrote many of them while I was on vacation with a dictating machine or pocket recorder, dictating sometimes by the side of a swimming pool or lying on a beach. I don’t do that anymore (laughs) but I did that then and still had wonderful times on vacation.
You just mentioned using a dictation machine. Have you embraced technology, maybe going into court now with iPad in hand, or is that something that you don’t rely on that much?
I do rely upon technology. I’m learning more about it every day, but I have my smartphone and I’ve got my iPad and I’ve got my laptop and I’ve got my PC. So I’ve got technology all around me.
I just continue to try to learn more and more about that all the time. How I use it depends upon who the judge is that I’m before. If I’m before a judge who I know uses an iPad and has it right there I might have my iPad with me. If I have another judge who I know doesn’t recognize the use and the value of that, or maybe doesn’t have the skill yet to make use of it, then I’m maybe less dependent upon my technology on that occasion.
I know you’ve made significant contributions in the area of family law and that you’ve worked with a lot of the local Massachusetts associations as well as the International and the American Academy. Is there any particular contribution that you have made or been a part of that you’re particularly proud about of?
Well, there are a lot of things that I am proud of, the most recent being the years that I’ve spent working on alimony reform in Massachusetts leading to new legislation which went into effect in March of 2012. I chaired and co-chaired a Massachusetts Bar Association and Boston Bar Association committee on making recommendations and then was chosen to participate with the legislature in drawing up legislation which was signed by the governor in September of 2011. So I’m proud of that.
But I’m also proud of my involvement in the child support guidelines when they first went into effect in 1987; I was significantly involved in questioning the thought processes that went into drafting them. I’ve also been involved in some major decisions at the appellate court level. We have two appellate courts here, the appeals court and the Supreme Judicial Court, which is our highest court. I have argued many cases at both levels of court, and some of them have been really important to me in moving the law in a positive direction or clarifying the law. I really enjoyed that work as well.
Is there anything that people don’t know about David Lee, either about your work or how you keep balance in your life? Are you a fly fisherman or anything that we don’t know about? (laughs)
I’ve done fly fishing. I think most people know that I’m an avid golfer and enjoy golfing. But—
Does avid mean you’re a good golfer?
I never said that, did I? I enjoy being a golfer. The thing that I like about golfing, what hooked me after having been a tennis player for most of my life, was that I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t really be good at it right away; I thought I was a very good athlete. So I’ve been always striving to get better at that. It’s similar to my approach to my law practice.
I think that what people don’t know much about is my family life. You know, I’ve been married to my wife, who’s a psychotherapist, for 42 years.
And that’s certainly been a help as well, the common perspectives of our work.
I’m also an avid reader of history and other more general novels. I have a background playing nine different musical instruments. They don’t generally know that. I don’t keep up with them any longer but that was something that I think was very important as well in my development. Both in learning how to read music of three different clefs and also being able to quickly adapt to picking up a new instrument and learning how to play it.
I dealt with my professional career the same way by recognizing that when I don’t know something I have to pick up whatever it is to try to figure it out and adapt it to what I do know.
David Lee is a top-rated super lawyer in the state of Massachusetts, and is an expert on family law topics ranging from divorce to retirement interests and more. He is also a partner at the Boston family law firm of Lee, Rivers, and Corr, and you can visit their website at www.leeriversandcorr.com.
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