Family Law Specialist Attorney Sarah Schaffer
Leads Her Team To Ongoing Success
Family Law Specialist Attorney Sarah Schaffer
Leads Her Team To Ongoing Success
By: Jonathan Livingston
Serving 5-years on active duty as a U.S. Marine, having graduated with honors from Stanford University, and thereafter acquiring her law degree and an LL.M. degree in taxation at the University of San Diego, Schaffer is one of the very few attorneys to hold the distinction of a Certified Family Law Specialist. Meeting with Schaffer, we discussed the many aspects of family law within the State of California.
Having worked for a prestigious tax accounting firm in the Bay area, and having practiced family law here locally with the firm of Higgs, Fletcher and Mack, when did you begin your own practice? I opened my own family law practice in 2011.
Must one be an attorney to offer consultation on divorce in California? While it may be possible to negotiate a divorce settlement on your own or with a mediator that is not an attorney, if you own a business, have significant assets or some other complex situation, hiring an attorney is the best way to ensure your interests are protected.
How does being a Certified Family Law Specialist distinguish you from other divorce attorneys? The State Bar of California awards the designation of Certified Specialist in Family Law, also called a Certified Family Law Specialist to attorneys who have “gone beyond the standard licensing requirements.” An attorney may apply for such certification after demonstrating proficiency in the area family law through years of experience and education. In addition, the attorney must pass a written examination in the field of family law.
After becoming certified, Certified Family Law Specialists must continue to demonstrate a high level of experience and skill, fulfill the ongoing legal education requirements and be evaluated by other attorneys and judges. This is a rigorous process and as you might imagine, there are not a lot of family law lawyers who are Certified Family Law Specialists.
Choosing an attorney who specializes in Family Law is crucial
Is it ever wise to allow one attorney to represent both sides of a divorce? Actually, attorneys are prohibited from representing opposing parties in California. In a divorce, the two spouses are opposing parties in a legal action, and this is true even if you remain amicable. If the parties attend mediation however, one mediator can facilitate a disillusion. Most experienced mediators recommend that each party hires his or her own consulting attorney to help facilitate a resolution and file all the required paperwork.
How important is a decision to select an attorney who specializes in Family Law? Just like you wouldn’t go to a general practice doctor for open-heart surgery, neither should you go to an attorney who doesn’t focus his/her practice on family law matters.
What common mistake will a party make when deciding that a divorce is inevitable? Even though it is often a very emotional time, it is important to remain calm and communicate in a civil manner. Another important task at the beginning of a divorce is to gather your tax and other financial records. For example, if one party contributed separate property to the purchase of a community residence, he or she can receive a reimbursement. However, evidencing such a claim is much easier with the appropriate documents.
How large has your firm grown over the years? When I started my firm, I employed only one part-time assistant. Today we have four attorneys and six staff members.
Mediation is an effective tool if both parties can agree to participate
You offer mediation as part of your services. Both sides must agree. How is the mediator chosen? When both parties are aligned, mediation can offer a more private, less time consuming, more collegial, and lower-cost road to divorce. When choosing a mediator, comment you want to look for someone who will remain neutral and treat both parties with equal fairness and respect. The mediator should be trained in divorce mediation and have experienced mediating divorces. Check references and determine if the mediator’s style is what you’re looking for. Some mediators are highly directive while others offer a more facilitative approach. Both styles can be effective so just make sure the style suits you and your spouse.
Once committed to mediation, is there a right to appeal the ruling? There isn’t a “ruling” per se in a mediation. Typically, a mediator listens to the interests of each spouse, explains how the court would likely rule any disputed issue, and helps the parties draft a settlement agreement. A mediator does not have the ability to decide on an issue if the parties cannot agree. If his spouse changes his or her mind after a divorce decree has been entered, the person who wishes to make a change would need to ask the judge to set aside or modify the divorce decree.
Covid certainly must have impacted divorce proceedings across the board. Have you seen a rise in the divorce rate since the pandemic began early this year? There is no question that the pandemic has caused a strain on many marriages. Sick family members, and managing virtual schooling for children, working from home and being unable to engage in many recreation activities has taken its toll on many marriages. We know that external stressors have a worse effect on couples with pre-existing vulnerabilities, and COVID-19 has certainly presented many stressors. Couples whose relationships were already rocky may have finally reached their breaking point. Since March, we’ve seen a surge in marital dissolution cases as well as an increase in domestic violence. In addition, COVID-19 and state law restrictions on traveling have caused additional custody disputes.
Are most hearings now held by video-conferencing? Currently all family law court appearances are conducted via video-conferencing.
Given the priority assigned a criminal cases, is it even possible to receive a court hearing at this time? Yes, family law matters are being heard; however, there is a delay in processing paperwork and receiving a hearing date
Has there been any silver lining in adjusting to Covid compliance? COVID-19 has helped us facilitate a hybrid working environment, which provides options for our team and helps create positive attitudes for our team members. In addition, for some of our clients, co-parenting relationship seven improved because of increased communication and problem solving for “remote schooling,” and the cooperation required has created an environment for success for their students.
If it appears that it will become a contentious divorce, what 3 major steps should a party take to protect their interests? First, it is critical to hire a Certified Family Law Specialist. Second, if there is an issue of domestic violence, it is critical to have a safety plan – this usually involves having a “go bag” and a plan to leave the house if necessary. Third, if you are not the spouse that is in charge of the finances, it is important to have a reserve for the necessities of life.
Do you handle both men and women seeking representation? Absolutely. We represent both men and women in all areas of family law. We are adept at working with high net-worth clients or those who own their own businesses or are involved in a family business. In addition, my military background provides an inside perspective on the particular needs of military families. Ms. Leslie Ryland, another attorney with our firm who is also a certified specialist, is known throughout the country as an expert in contentious custody litigation.
Have you found your stellar background in tax law a powerful tool in deciphering complicated business resolutions? Yes. My Masters of Law degree and experience as a tax consultant are very helpful in matters involving high-value property, stock options, pensions, family businesses and other assets. Not only am I able to understand and assist clients with their tax and financial planning needs, but I am also able to ensure their assets are protected in a divorce situation.
Having overseen a vast multitude of cases, what important features stand out that you feel distinguish you from other firms? Schaffer Family Law Group is comprised of aggressive yet empathetic advocates who have experience in nearly every area of family law and who specialize in handling sophisticated, highly complex and multi-faceted cases. And, although we are always prepared to litigate when it becomes necessary, we also work collaboratively towards favorable settlements through mediation whenever possible. Our honesty, integrity, professional ethical standards, thorough understanding of all facets of family law and our sincere desire to help families find a way to successfully move forward are the cornerstones of our firm and the values that are embraced by every attorney in every single matter.
Knowing the impact that divorce can have on children, are you supportive of certain charitable giving groups that provide support to the children? Yes. Giving back to the community is very important to me. One of the organizations we support is Kids’ Turn San Diego. Kids’ Turn is a nonprofit organization for children and parents experiencing family separations or military transitions. They help children discover their voice to communicate their thoughts and feelings about their family situation and give parents the daily tools they need to be able to communicate and understand how to put their child first and their relationship, without conflict. We also assist Casa Cornelia with their mission of humanitarian immigration including pro bono cases for Special Immigrant Juvenile Petitions. Also, Ms. Jennifer Lee, one of the attorneys with our firm, is the Treasurer of the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego, an organization that also does pro bono volunteer work and other community outreach.