Hold your heads up, family-law attorneys

If family law has an image problem, it’s no wonder. The name itself is an oxymoron.

“We call it ‘family law’ but we break up families,” Vincent M. Wills, the new chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Family & Juvenile Law section, said at the MSBA’s Annual Meeting in June.

“The job is stressful, the cases are emotionally charged; the clients are not always reasonable or rational,” Wills said, “but we’re expected to be calm and collected.”

It’s a job that requires a formidable breadth of knowledge, Wills said – not just in obvious areas like family law or estates and trusts, but in psychology, accounting, real estate, business concepts like goodwill (personal and enterprise), Social Security and tax laws.

“Yet how are we perceived?” Wills asked. As “the dark corner of the judicial system,” he said, quoting from Divorce Corp, the California “documentary” released this January. “ ‘Worse than murder’.”

“We need to represent ourselves better,” Wills said. “We need to show up and stand up for ourselves.”

That concept forms the basis for Wills’ goals for the year, which he shared at the Ocean City meeting and discussed a few weeks later for this story.

Public outreach

Wills wants to start a statewide program to educate people about divorce and what family law attorneys do. The first step, though, is to determine what’s already out there. He’s asked Craig J. Little, the chair-elect, to take the lead in gathering the information from members of the section council and from practitioners in areas without representation on the council.

“There are so many different areas of divorce – the grounds, the issues for custody, alimony, and other areas,” Wills said in an interview. “We need to find out what exists statewide.”

In Montgomery County, for example, one group “used to sponsor a ‘Divorce 101’ seminar for individuals, but disbanded because of budget reasons,” he said. “I’d like us to investigate and, if there is a need for a program like that, to fill that need.

“It ought to be us,” he added, “because I don’t think people get to see divorce lawyers enough.”

Family Law U.

Aside from educating the public, Wills would like to see better ongoing education for lawyers – a “Family Law U.”

“The biggest unmet educational need for family lawyers is simply keeping current on changes in the law,” he said, singling out bankruptcy, immigration and health care, especially in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, as three noteworthy examples.

“Health care is a big deal” for families after a divorce, he said. “For example, how does the new federal law affect continuation rights under Maryland’s version of COBRA? I want to know that for my own practice, and everyone else should know that too. You don’t want to leave clients in a void.”

Under immediate past chair Justin J. Sasser, the section did “a really good job of offering different types of programs,” he said. While “Family Law 101” events are very useful, he said, it’s also important to sharpen skills of people who have more experience — a “Family Law 201,” he said.

Another past chair, Mary Roby Sanders, is in charge of the section’s popular “Hot Tips” program. In the past year, they’ve held sessions outside the more populated regions of the state, such as an alimony workshop in La Plata, a program on marital property in Western Maryland and a session at Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore. “It’s a long trip to go from Hagerstown or La Plata to Columbia for a “Hot Tips” session,” Wills said.

Civility

While divorce and custody cases can be among the most bitterly fought, the attorneys who handle them need to remain above the fray.

“Clients hire us to be objective and professional,” Wills said in the interview. “You can advance a client’s case without adopting their emotional tone. We can still meet the client’s goals without taking shots at opposing counsel.

He’s been practicing law for two decades, and says that the family law bar is by and large “a very civil community.”

“Once we’re done with the case, we’ll go out to lunch, we’ll meet each other at the convention and socialize,” he said.

A student of history, Wills said he looks to the example a young Abraham Lincoln set as a lawyer riding the circuit in Illinois.

“He and opposing counsel would argue cases during the day, and at night they would split a hotel room,” Wills said. “And the judge would travel with them!”

Legislation

While the last General Assembly saw several bills related to protections for domestic violence, Wills has his sights set on other legislative reforms:

— Redefining adultery: Now that Maryland recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry, the notion of what constitutes adultery is subject to an Equal Protection challenge, he said.

While statutes identify adultery as both a crime and as grounds for divorce, the elements are defined by case law and the resulting definition is, well, unabashedly heterosexual.

“Not to get too graphic about it,” Wills said, “but same-sex couples could not commit adultery because they could not meet the definition.”

One possibility would be to codify the definition of adultery by borrowing definitions for various sexual acts from the criminal code, “not all of which require parties of different genders,” he said.

— Multifamily adjustment: Creating a multifamily adjustment to the child support guidelines has encountered opposition in the past, but it might just make a comeback next year.

The adjustment was proposed as part of the comprehensive overhaul of the guidelines in 2010. However, it was excised in order to assure passage of the bill that year.

“It’s difficult to try to get people in the legislature to comprehend what it really means,” Wills said. “When we testified about it, it met with a lot of resistance.”

— Pre-filing injunctions: Wills is also interested in a measure to allow people who are considering divorce to first file for an injunction that would prevent the other party from taking children or assets out of the state.

“Going and wiping out a bank account is not a good way to start a divorce,” he said. “As far as children go, I don’t know why anyone would be opposed to it; it’s just meant to maintain the status quo. Obviously, there would have to be an exception for domestic violence or if a child is being abused.”

The Custody Commission report

Wills’ term as section chair will also coincide with the delivery of the Custody Commission report.

Created by the General Assembly in the 2013, the commission was tasked with studying all aspects of custody decisions, in an effort to make the process more fair and equitable, and less litigious and harmful to children. Wills’ former law partner, now-Judge Cynthia Callahan, chairs the commission.

After holding hearings across the state in fall 2013, the commission delivered an interim report last December and the subcommittees are “working really hard right now,” Wills said. The final report is due out this December.

“I personally would like to see a statutory definition of custody. I think we ought to codify the factors…,” he said. “And on access — it takes too long to get a hearing; I’d like to see that fixed. I don’t think that’s a problem across the board, but in certain jurisdictions, if someone is waiting six months to get a hearing, that’s too long.”

‘Represent’

Wills’ final goal is something of a summary, wrapping up his philosophy.

“Represent,” he said. “Conduct yourself in a fashion that people can’t object to you or your profession.”

A former captain in the U.S. Air Force, he describes himself as “a military guy.” In uniform, he said, “you behave in a dignified manner. You hold your head up.”

It’s a lesson he lives, not just one he preaches. In fact, the first words out of his mouth at the Ocean City meeting highlighted an episode another lawyer might have hoped to sweep under the rug.

“I’m Vince Wills,” he said, “and I’m the guy who invented the BIA.”

Applause and laughter filled the room.

This was a crowd that knew Wills isn’t just the last name on the partnership roster of Dragga, Hannon, Hessler & Wills LLP. He is also the last-named party in Fox v. Wills, the former defendant in a legal malpractice action that ultimately changed the system for representing children in divorce cases.

In a nutshell, Wills had been appointed to act as guardian ad litem for a young child during her parents’ divorce. In 2002, the girl’s mother sued Wills for negligence. Two lower courts found that, as a guardian ad litem, he had immunity from suit.

In January 2006, though, the Court of Appeals reversed. Not only were guardians ad litem not immune, the top court said; there really wasn’t any such status in a divorce action.

The General Assembly quickly responded with the creation of the Best Interest Attorney, spelling out the role and the limited immunity the role enjoys. As for the suit against Wills, court records indicate it was heading toward trial when it finally settled in 2008.

Weeks after his speech in Ocean City, Wills insisted he is not a big fan of lawyer jokes. But his use of humor at the outset of his inaugural address not only set the tone for his speech, it laid the groundwork for his entire year.

“Be positive,” he said. “Go out and treat everyone with respect. Represent your client and represent your profession.”

 

Vincent M. Wills

Partner, Law Office of Dragga, Hannon, Hessler & Wills LLP

BORN:

Baltimore

EDUCATION:

Patterson High; University of Maryland, College Park, 1981; USAF, 1982-1986. Boston University, MBA 1984; University of Baltimore School of Law, JD 1990

FAMILY:

Married, two children: one in college, one a recent Maryland grad.

PURSUITS:

Likes David Baldacci novels. Just got his first dog. (“It may be an empty-nest thing,” he says.)

MOST MEMORABLE CASE:

Brewer v. Brewer, 156 Md. App. 77, 846 A.2d 1 (2004). Why? “Because I lost at trial and felt vindicated on appeal. Plus there were a lot of issues in it — alimony, property; there’s an issue about gifts of personal property. There’s an issue about whether you impute income from an investment account that was a growth account, not an income account. It’s quirky.”

One comment

  1. I believe that family law has had a black eye for quite some time by virtue of the fact that sometimes in order to do what is best for the family, it’s necessary that at least for a time they are not living as a family until some issues are addressed. The depth of understanding that it takes to work in family law is lost to many people but it is an area of the law that is necessary and helpful to society as a whole. Here’s hoping people see it for what it is sooner than later.

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