Are “men-only” divorce firms a good idea?

Divorce, Relationships, Rights

You might have seen one driving on the highway in Florida or California or Washington. Or heard one on radio or viewed one on TV: an advertisement for a law firm that—pointedly and proudly—represents only men in divorce, custody, or other family law matters.

Men-only divorce representation is not a new concept, but it is one that several successful firms have embraced. But is the concept based on outdated ideas about bias in family law matters? Or does it address a legitimate concern that specialized focus can overcome?

Why men-only?

For a long time, there was a strong bias towards the mother in custody proceedings. In many places, this preference was explicit in the rulings of judges. But according to a study from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, over the past 60 years courts have moved towards more of a gender-neutral standard, focusing on the best interests of the child and working harder to create shared custody arrangements.

Even so, the perception remains that courts are more likely, all things being equal, to favor the woman or mother in family law matters. (In fact, the data from the Wisconsin study does show that mother-only placement still happens more often, but the percentages are decreasing every year.) Family law matters can be some of the most emotional and personal. If, as the saying goes, perception becomes reality, then some men might believe that having an attorney who focuses on the bias, perceived or real, would be a better fit for him as a legal representative.

While no attorneys from the men-only firms contacted agreed to comment for this article, clues to the reasoning behind them exist on many men-only firms’ websites and online marketing. Kenny Leigh & Associates in Florida, for example, states, “Our firm focuses on men only because we believe men deserve to have their rights protected even though the legal obstacles are not in their favor.” Holmes Moore, a California firm that operates the site, notes that in the 30-plus years they have been representing men in family law matters, “The courts have made tremendous progress in this area. Unfortunately, not all divorcing parties have similarly progressed in their thinking.” Goldberg Jones in Seattle puts it simply: “We believe we correctly saw the need for a man’s voice to be heard in family law courts.”

Kim Schnuelle, a senior attorney at McKinley Irwin in Seattle, has been practicing in all areas of family law for over 20 years, a large portion of which was spent as a family support prosecutor. She has ample experience in dealing with clients of both genders. “I think, historically, going back 30 or 40 years, there was a bias towards women,” she says. “That was true. But it has not been my experience since I started practicing.”

The “tender years” doctrine

Historically, courts may have followed the “tender years” doctrine, which presumes that the care of a young child is best handled by the mother. But modern courts, in Schnuelle’s experience, focus on the best interest of the child much more so than the gender of the custodian.

When talking about gender differences, Schnuelle admits that there are “issues that are different…being a man in society or being a woman in society.” But she doesn’t think the legal issues are different in today’s courtroom or arbitration proceedings.

One area where Schnuelle does see a preference, even now, is in custody hearings where one party has been a stay-at-home parent – be it the mother or the father. Courts often prefer the children stay in that familiar routine.

Emotions run high

Some might react negatively to the whole idea of men-only lawyers, but the firms (and the historical data) make a good case that this specific type of representation can work to continue and reinforce the trends towards gender-neutral decision-making in the courts.

Schnuelle emphasizes that people choose attorneys to represent them in the delicate and often contentious matters of divorce, custody, and paternity for many different reasons. She says that one of the most important things is for the client to feel comfortable with their attorney and for the attorney to understand the client’s needs and goals. She represents about a 50/50 split of men and women. “I represent people who need help,” she says. “I craft my presentation and my case to get them as close to what they want as possible.”

Whether a party chooses a firm based on gender-specific reasons or not, the bottom line is that a good attorney is essential in the complex world of family law.