What makes a good family lawyer? A highly respected figure in the legal community, Bernie Rinella, says it is important for lawyers to be good bar members.
By Dan Couvrette, CEO, Divorce Marketing Group, Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine.
Guest speaker: Bernie Rinella
SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE
Bernie Rinella shares his thoughts on:
- The essential qualities that make a good family lawyer
- Advice for young family lawyers
- Why divorces are more difficult today than 20 years ago
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HERE IS THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST
Hello, I’m Dan Couvrette, the publisher and CEO of Family Lawyer Magazine and www.familylawyermagazine.com and Divorce Magazine and www.divorcemagazine.com.
Every month it’s my pleasure to interview professionals who are working in the area of divorce, whether they’re family lawyers, family judges, mental health professionals or financial professionals.
Today it is my pleasure to be speaking with Bernie Rinella, a family law attorney in Chicago. I’ve known Bernie for 12 or 13 years and in spite of all the terrible things that his colleagues have said about him, I’ve decided that today I’m going to interview Bernie and talk to him about his life, his career, his involvement with bar associations, and his involvement with charitable associations. And of course I’m joking! Bernie is one of the most highly respected family lawyers.
In my research for this interview, I came across something that described Bernie as having been one of the nation’s leading divorce lawyers. But even that description doesn’t capture his unique stature in the profession.
For starters, Bernie is now in his early 70s. He upholds a family tradition of leadership in matrimonial law. The Rinella brand dates back to the 1930s. His father was a founder of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His mother, Katherine, was a leader in the Chicago law before most women had the opportunity to practice law. Today, he’s one of the profession’s better angels, as a colleague put it, with a warm, charismatic presence and a quick study of people.
Now, Bernie, I’ve never been across the table from you as an attorney in a case, but I can say that all the nice things that were said by this person feel very accurate to me.
Well, thank you for the nice words. I appreciate it. I don’t deserve it, but I’ll accept it.
Well, you’re always humble. That’s the other thing that people love about you. I want to talk to you about your career, your involvement with many family law-related and legal bar associations, and particularly about your charity work because this particular interview is about family lawyers who make a difference. I know you’re humble, but you are certainly one of the family lawyers in North America who has made a difference to both the profession of family law, and also to divorcing people because of the work that you’ve done.
I’d like to start by asking you what qualities you think are essential to make a good family lawyer — business qualities, the qualities you need to deal with clients, and perhaps even qualities you need to deal with the system, and with other family lawyers.
I think you’re going to be surprised when I say this, but I think having a good sense of humor is extremely important in the family law field. You’re dealing with incredibly emotional situations — child custody, support money for a wife, visitation, and things that are so personal to people. You can get drawn into these battles, and if you don’t have objectivity and see the trees for the forest, you’re going to be in trouble. I’ve always found that having a sense of humor helps me in many ways. It eases a situation, to a large extent, if one doesn’t come in completely uptight and inflexible.
I think flexibility is another quality that’s important for lawyers who want to practice in this field in particular. You can’t take a position that is the position and hold it without, then, ultimately going to trial and possibly not being the best advocate for your client.
However, being a people person is extremely important, too. You’ve got to be able to know how to cajole, how to move people, how to move your opponent in a manner where they don’t know they’re being moved. And that’s a quality that some people don’t have.
It really seems strange to say, but even temperament, a sense of humor, people person, flexibility, also creativity is a quality that’s necessary in this field, because if you get stuck on point one, you can’t move to point two. You must be able to know how to negotiate — and that’s true in any field of law I’m sure — but in this field in particular, because people take hard stances and you need to come up with an alternative position or a suggestion that’ll move the case forward.
But one thing you don’t wanna do, and I find a lot of young lawyers do this, is they adopt their client’s position as if they were the client and they don’t have that objectivity or the flexibility to move the case and their client.
So, in my opinion, those are obvious qualities that a lawyer need in order to practice in this field. I also think you have to be a little bit crazy to do it in the first place, because you’re dealing with such emotional people. Most lawyers shy away from this field and wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. I’ve heard this for over 50 years—how do you do it? I think one of the reasons that I’ve lasted along with some of my compatriots who have the vintage that I do, (most of these people are what I would say pretty good-natured folks,) is that once we leave the courtroom or office, we don’t take the case with us. You work for your client’s behalf while in the office or court and don’t take it home with you.
That sounds like good advice. I think probably what you mean about moving the opposing attorney one direction or another is about having a clear understanding of what your client’s important needs are. That way, you can give up what might be less important, and try and stick to what’s the most important. So you can move the opposition and they feel like they’ve won as well.
Dan, you should have been a lawyer. You’re better than most of us. You said it better than I did.
Thank you Bernie. So talk about your involvement with bar associations, because I know you’ve been involved with many. Why did you get involved, and what benefits did you gain? Also, what benefits do you think younger or experienced lawyers could gain from being more involved with bar associations?
I think it’s very important for young lawyers to become involved in the various sections of the bar associations where they have an interest. Our sections are the matrimonial and family law sections. As a young lawyer, I started out in these various sections. Then, if you attended the meetings and you enjoyed them as I did, you normally worked your way up the ladder, being the secretary, treasurer, until you got to the point where you were the chairman of the committee.
The value of these committees is that, not only are you learning first-hand and in many instances recommending what the law might be, you’re dealing with all of your brethren who are going to be your opponents. They’re going to find out and you’re going to find out that you’re both reasonable people, and you can work together. That’s very beneficial in the divorce field.
Also, it’s good for your profile because these committees tend to be relatively high-profile in the big cities anyway and if you’re a chair of a committee, your name goes into a report, then into a journal and other lawyers in other specialties will see that if he or she has made that position or is in that position, they must be relatively qualified. So it’s a good public relations move as well, in addition to being a good learning tool. For me, it was also a lot of fun being involved in these various committees because of the camaraderie that you have with follow members.
Well, you’ve managed to make it to 50 years. You’re doing something right, Bernie. Have you seen any difference in the way that divorcing people are when they start their divorce cases or are considering getting divorced over the years?
It wasn’t as accepted as is today although frankly, the divorce rates have been down for the last seven to 10 years in America. I would say during the ‘80s, that was the high period of divorce, where people were getting divorces in greater numbers than they are today. I think there’s a tremendous difference in the personality of the people going through divorce today as there was in, let’s say, 10, 15, and 20 years ago.
I think people today are much more difficult to deal with. They’re more emotional. I can’t answer why. Maybe it’s just the way we live today. But they’re more intractable and more difficult. I find that the lawyers today coming out — this is not a rap on the lawyers, because these young lawyers are smart — but as I mentioned earlier in this conversation, they don’t necessarily have that flexibility.
So the clients are more difficult and sometimes you run up against inexperienced lawyers who are intractable, and that makes things a lot more difficult. I think anybody who has practiced over 30 years in this field will tell you things are a lot tougher to deal with today than they were before.
It’s almost like you would have expected it to go the other way; that the longer people have been divorcing, it would be easier because so many people have gone there before.
I’ll tell you one of the reasons why this is the case, in my opinion, and I think this is a fact: They did away generally with fault divorce. Now, that probably is a very good thing. But, in a way, that takes away a person’s opportunity to vent. In other words I wanna say that she ran away with this guy. You can’t really do that today. We really have, across the country, what a lot of people called no-fault divorce. I would say in Illinoiswe have what we call irreconcilable differences. Today, people feel that they’re handcuffed, and that they really can’t get into the whys and the wherefores of divorce. They feel frustrated. That’s my opinion. So what do they do? They take it out on the spouse in areas such as custody, visitation, alimony, maintenance, or property division, because they’re frustrated to a great degree. They haven’t really been able to get out why they’re getting divorced.
It’s just one of numerous reasons. But, I think things are more complicated today than they’ve ever been. Also, we have more knowledge today. I tend to deal with some cases that involve people with some wealth. You’re dealing with a lot more complicated situations. Today we also have, in custody cases, expert sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists. There are a lot more experts who we’re dealing with, such as valuators. So these cases are much more complicated than they were in the past.
For Part 2 of the interview, click here.