AAML Survey Uncovers Difficulties for Family Law Attorneys During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Q&A With Susan Myres

Macintosh HD:Users:marie:Desktop:Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 11.10.13 AM.pngFamily lawyers are coping with declining business, as are many other professionals, during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).

Susan Myres, president of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

The organization surveyed its members from across the United States and found that even though demand was there, circumstances caused by the pandemic—court closures, income reduction, temporary reduction in the value of property and stock, etc.—make it difficult for clients to pursue divorce right now.

Recently, Texas Lawyer had the chance to speak with Houston attorney Susan Myres, president of the AAML, about her organization’s survey.

Why did the AAML decide to do the survey?

Susan Myres: We thought if we had a better idea how our Academy fellows (members) were coping during the pandemic, we might be better able to provide the information and support that would be of most use to them. That information would, in turn, also be useful to our courts and our clients.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

We were really surprised that family lawyers’ business had decreased in all parts of the country, not just in areas that were particularly hard hit by the coronavirus. We think our survey is a fairly representative sampling, though not rigorously scientific. Almost 40% of our members participated. Also, our members, who undergo a challenging process to gain entrance to the Academy, tend to be among the top practitioners in their locales. If they have seen their business decline, it is likely that others are struggling as well.

What should family lawyers be doing to improve, or just get through, these tough times?

In this respect we Texas lawyers are very fortunate. Our courts are highly advanced in their ability to hold “virtual” hearings covering nonessential matters, and are able to hold these hearings even over the objections of the parties involved. However, if parties to the matter in question cannot be served, that is a legitimate obstacle to a digital hearing.

Glitches do occur in virtual hearings. I heard of one such hearing recently in which one of the parties, a woman, mumbled something about having laundry to attend to, and then left the screen and never came back. Of course, there were no bailiffs available to return her to court. Also lawyers and clients sometimes get so relaxed that they forget the need to dress for court pretty much the same as they would if they were going to be holding forth in an actual courtroom. If you take the time to watch any of the court proceedings currently available online, you will be surprised by the postures and levels of attention exhibited by some participants who appear to be unaware of the image they are projecting onscreen.

Here is where the Academy is helping: Academy members who do have experience with virtual hearings are helping individual lawyers cope with virtual hearings, and even assisting lawyers and courts in other states in establishing their own video courtroom sessions.

Some attorneys who have no experience in the virtual world are concerned that they won’t be able to present their cases effectively in a digital setting. It is—no question—a learning process. Attorneys need to strategize far in advance and make sure that not only they but also their clients present well on camera. Fidgeting that gets a pass in an in-person courtroom setting, for example, can be very distracting on camera.

During this tough period, it’s also important for lawyers to offer as much helpful advice to clients and potential clients as they can, through websites and blogs and, in some cases, virtual mediation. Parents sharing custody of children are running into serious visitation and child support problems and may need more wise counsel than usual.

We had a situation arise at our firm in which one parent lived in Texas and the other in Louisiana, and people traveling from Louisiana into Texas were being ordered by our governor to quarantine themselves for two weeks. Our out-of-court suggestion was that the parents resolve that issue by meeting at the state line to exchange the child.

What about potential clients, what kinds of questions should they be asking if they are considering filing for divorce at this time?

The first question is, generally, “Should I do this now? What are the advantages and disadvantages of filing now in my particular situation?” One consideration is that we expect that the courts will be confronted with a tsunami of claims, once they fully reopen. It might be a good idea to go ahead and file now and get a docket number rather than end up at the end of a very long line of complex cases. The details involving division of property will probably require months of work anyway. In no case will a divorce take place the day after filing!

Everyone should be cautioned not to make this life-altering decision in the heat of the moment without calm and deliberate reflection. Consulting with an experienced lawyer does not mean you are going to file for divorce. It means your decision to file or not to file will be better informed.

What about cases in which there is a danger of domestic violence or abuse, or the atmosphere between spouses has become especially unpleasant?

In these cases, we advise that clients first listen to their instincts and determine if the danger is imminent. If so, they should call the police or sheriff without hesitation. Shelters in the Houston area are creating medically and physically safe havens for victims of domestic abuse. If the violence is not imminent, but there is still a serious potential threat, clients should consult with their lawyers and get an emergency hearing scheduled. Usually this does not require a great deal of time.

One thing we know for sure: when our family courts do fully reopen, they will be extremely busy, as pent-up demand leads to an upswing in divorce filings, modifications of orders and enforcement actions. There will also be parents who share custody, litigating actions taken during the pandemic. Family lawyers’ services will be needed even more than before the pandemic occurred. In these cases, it’s a very good idea to take early advantage of alternative dispute processes to resolve the controversy. Most courts will give deference to cases that have already undergone attempts at mediation before those that have not.

Susan Myres is a board-certified family law attorney at Myres & Associates. She has been practicing in Houston for over 35 years and has served in leadership positions locally, statewide and nationally. She is also the current president of the American of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).

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Reprinted with permission from the March 09, 2021 edition of the Texas Lawyer © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. ALMReprints.com877-257-3382 - reprints@alm.com.