The order at Stay at Home and the closure of the court system slowed divorce business for companies like Blank Rome, but partner Stacy Phillips expects things to be "very, very busy" in the coming months.
For 23 years, Barbara Hammers & # 39; Family Law Practice Hammers & Baltazar hummed with offices in Santa Monica and West LA. When a divorce ended, another stepped in and made sure the income was stable.
Then the pandemic hit. "It was really strange," said Hammers. "The phone has just stopped ringing, even from existing customers."
When the Los Angeles Supreme Court chairman Kevin Brazile closed most of the country's largest judicial system on March 23 due to concerns about employee safety during the outbreak, 45% to 50% of her company's annual gross earnings evaporated, said Hammers.
Her experience reflects that of many Los Angeles family lawyers who have been close to closing their offices in the past 10 weeks.
But now that can change.
"I'm firmly convinced that the divorce business will unfortunately be very, very busy," said Stacy Phillips, a partner at Blank Rome's Los Angeles office.
An upturn in cases of divorce and domestic violence after two months of quarantine in Covid-19 should boost demand for family lawyers and mediators in the coming months, lawyers say.
"There will likely be a huge bump (in divorce applications) in July and August," said Thomas Trent Lewis, a former supervisory judge in the Los Angeles Supreme Court's Family Law Division, where he oversaw about 70 family courts from 2016 to 2016. He left the court Bank in December.
"The number of cases of domestic violence has increased," said Leena Hingnikar of the West Los Angeles-based Hingnikar Family Law.
Hingnikar, who also serves as vice chair of the California Lawyers Association's Executive Committee on Family Law, added that "(the ban) has definitely caused some kind of spike."
Demetria Graves of the Pasadena-based Graves law firm, who also serves as the secretary of the CLA Executive Committee, said: "It will definitely open up again regarding divorce petitions. That is the feeling I got from my colleagues."
Ready for a rush
With the reopening of the downtown courthouse on June 15, Graves added: "Part of the population just wants to queue up to hear cases as soon as possible because they realize there will be a rush."
There is a lot at stake for everyone involved.
"Divorce messes up the three most important things in your life – your money, your home, and your children," said Hingnikar.
Lewis estimates that at some point more than 4 million adults and approximately 1.5 million children would have access to the LA Superior Court – the largest family justice system – for custody decisions, domestic violence restraint orders, child support, spouse support, and division of the family Need property.
"These issues span socio-economic strata," said Scott Gordon, mediator and former supervisory judge at the Los Angeles Supreme Court Family Law Department. "As a family judge, you learn pretty quickly that … problems with domestic violence pay very little attention to how much money people make."
For lawyers like Hammers, their livelihood can be at stake. The bar association for family law consists almost entirely of small law firms, often with one to about 12 lawyers. The lockout brought many of these companies into a cash flow crisis, mainly due to the steep decline in litigation – the most lucrative part of their practice – while operating costs have remained stable.
"The entire process lawyers' calendars were wiped out for two or three months," said Hingnikar, prompting some to drop office rents.
The courts have essentially been closed to everyone except for emergency orders since March 23, practitioners said.
However, not all lawyers report a drop in work. Daniel Jaffe, a family lawyer who runs a law firm with eight lawyers in Century City, says his business has remained robust, including defending big athletes and celebrities, entertainment executives, and key law firm partners.
In California, disputants can choose one person, often a retired judge, to resolve their conflict out of court. Wealthy clients like Jaffes can more easily afford to hire private judges to settle disputes so they don't have to wait for public courts to reopen.
"But for many of our members," said Ona Alston Dosunmu, CLA general manager and general manager, "their livelihood depends on appearing in court."
Practitioners say that many victims of domestic violence have delayed filing for fear of provoking their perpetrators during the ban.
"Most customers have decided to postpone submission until the property is closed so they can search for a place to live and move out of the house," said Hingnikar.
Many parents may also choose to suffer tacitly to avoid a separate custody obligation that would require their children to travel between households during the pandemic, Gordon said.
"I hear anecdotally from abusers who are afraid of being infected as a psychological weapon by the abused person," said Dosunmu. "It's a very real problem."
"The people I spoke to made it clear that the pressure is increasing," said Hingnikar.
It is difficult to quantify pent-up demand. Statistics on family courts have not been available for the past few months, but former supervisory judges Lewis and Scott predict that around 90,000 cases will be filed by the end of 2020, roughly as many as in a typical year.
"If there is no pending (domestic violence filing), wait for it," said Lewis. "The straw that breaks the camel's back is in a week, in two weeks."
Phillips reports that divorce work is already under way in her office. "And I know there will be an upward trend if people don't live together," she said.
Even after the reopening, going to court will be slow, both former judges and lawyers said.
In addition to some estimates of 30,000 civil proceedings secured, the fact that many judges are older men who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 requires physical distance restrictions.
And what will court logistics look like when security checks are carried out with escalators and hours in corridors waiting to enter the courtroom?
"How do you show something to a witness," Phillips wondered. "Judge Brazile has just released it: All judges have to wear masks. A judge, she couldn't be heard. You can not see facial expressions. It is hot. It muffles the voice. It affects hearing. "
However, family courts are not prepared for remote proceedings.
"I am definitely considering removing my practice from litigation," said Hammers. "During my ban, I took steps to move my marketing to mediation and collaborative divorce." I don't want to be in that position again. And I find that my stress level is lower if I only do mediation and collaboration. "
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