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“San Diego Discovery Magazine”
Connecting with Family Law Specialist Attorney Sarah Schaffer
By: Citriona Rutherford
Boston strong, having graduated with honors from Stanford University, having served five-years active duty as a U.S. Marine, and having acquired her law degree and thereafter her LL.M. degree in taxation at the University of San Diego, Attorney Schaffer stands ready as an expert within her chosen field of Family Law. With over 220,000 attorneys in California, Schaffer is one of the few, numbering 178 within San Diego to hold the distinction of Certified Family Law Specialist.
[INTERVIEWER’S QUESTIONS IN CAPS]
BEING RAISED IN BOSTON, AND GIVEN THE QUALITY OF IVY LEAGUE COLLEGES ON THE EAST COAST, WAS IT THE WEATHER THAT LED YOU TO STANFORD?
Having attended St Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, I considered attending an Ivy League School on the East Coast, however, when I learned that Jane Stanford insisted that women be admitted upon the founding of the university, I decided Stanford was the place for me. Of course, the beautiful palm trees helped as well.
HAVING GRADUATED WITH DEPARTMENT HONORS IN BOTH SPANISH AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, WHAT CAREER GOALS DO YOU HAVE IN MIND?
While I was at Stanford, I spent two quarters in Salamanca, Spain and considered international relations as my initial step forward from the university; however, being a member of the NROTC, the Marine Corps became part of my career path. My father was a Marine, and I chose to follow that lead.
DID YOU ACQUIRE OFFICER’S RANK AT QUANTICO?
I was commissioned upon graduation from Stanford; then, I attended the Basic School in Quantico, Virginia for six months. After that course, I attended logistics officer’s course in Little Creek, Virginia.
WHAT PART OF TRAINING DID YOU FIND THE MOST DIFFICULT?
The most challenging training included the long distance hikes in Quantico along with the weapons and tactical training.
WHERE AND FOR HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE?
I served on active duty from June 1994, to December 1999, when I joined the Marine Corps Reserve. I was also on active duty at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for most of 2004 and half of 2005.
AT WHAT POINT DID A LEGAL CAREER COME TO MIND?
I first took law classes at Stanford, which required me to research various topics in the law library. This exposure to the law activated my strong interest in pursuing a legal career.
WHAT LED YOU TO STUDY LAW AT USD?
I married another Marine in 1999 and he was stationed at Camp Pendleton. The University of San Diego of Law is the best law school in the area and has an excellent tax program. I am still active with the alumni and my new associate, Jennifer Lee, also attended the University of San Diego School of Law.
UPON GRADUATION, HAVING FIRST JOINED A PRESTIGIOUS ACCOUNTING FIRM IN SAN FRANCISCO AND THEREAFTER JOINING HIGGS, FLETCHER & MACK HERE LOCALLY, WHAT LED YOU BACK TO SAN DIEGO?
My husband’s brother lived five blocks away from Moonlight Beach in Leucadia. I fell in love with Encinitas and wanted to live her.
WHERE IN THE MIX OF THINGS DID YOU FOCUS ON FAMILY LAW?
Because of my tax background, I find I am very helpful for clients with business interests of family owned businesses During a divorce, businesses are required to be appraised and that process involves determining a valuation method (usually either the income of market method), reviewing tax returns, and working closely with accountants. My tax law background gives me a better understanding of the financial complexities of these types of cases so that I can properly protect my clients. Our office also works on cases with complex asset division, including division of pensions and IRAs as well as stock options and Restricted Stock Units, or “RSUs”.
IS THERE EVER SUCH A THING AS A SIMPLE DIVORCE ONCE PARTIES HAVE CHOSEN ATTORNEYS?
It can happen, if the parties are able to work together and the assets are easily valued. However, if custody is at issue, or more complex support and financial issues are at stake it can become a very complicated and contested process, which raises the stakes for the client.
DO YOU FIND THE MAJORITY OF YOUR CLIENTS TO BE FEMALE?
Not at all. Our office usually carries an equal number of male and female clients.
IS THERE AN IMMEDIATE PLAN OF ACTION WHEN RETAINED BY A CLIENT?
Absolutely. In California, the automatic temporary restraining orders immediately go into effect when a Petition for Dissolution is served, so it is important that the clients understand those orders. In addition, we discuss what records are important to gather an overall strategy based on the issues of each particular case.
GIVEN THE LENGTH OF TIME GETTING A CIVIL CASE TO TRIAL IS THE BEST OPTION TO SETTLE?
We usually follow a two-tracked course with our cases. We are always prepared to litigate; however, at the same time we are trying to obtain an advantageous settlement on behalf of our clients. It is uncommon in family law for matters to go all the way to trial. Usually, clients will ultimately explore settlement options, but only under the right circumstances.
HOW OFTEN IS AN OPPOSING ATTORNEY A GREATER PROBLEM THAN AN OPPOSING SPOUSE?
We have a good relationship with most of the Family Law Bar, although conflict with counsel can happen when an attorney is deeply involved in a Family Law Case.
With over 220,000 attorneys in California, Schaffer is one of the few, numbering 178 within San Diego to hold the distinction of Certified Family Law Specialist.
HOW DOES BEING A CERTIFIED FAMILY LAW SPECIALIST SET YOU APART?
Being a Certified Specialist gives me a greater understanding of the complexities of family law matters and because of the educational requirements, I am constantly attending seminars to ensure that I am up to date on all pending matters and new law. Family law is a practice area that encompasses so many other areas of law, and it’s one of the few areas that has its own set of laws and statutes. That’s why it’s important to hire an attorney who focuses his/her practice on family law rather than a general practitioner who might simply dabble in family law.
DO YOU FIND THAT BEING A SPECIALIST CARRIES WEIGHT WITH JUDGES AND MEMBERS OF THE BAR?
It certainly does. I believe it helps because the preparation for the exam is quite extensive and Specialists are required to re-certify
every five years.
DO YOU OFTEN FIND YOURSELF IN TRIAL?
Last year, I had four multi-day trials. However, the majority of family law cases do ultimately settle.
HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A JUDGE PRO TEM FOR THE SAN DIEGO SUPERIOR COURT PROVIDED SOME UNIQUE INSIGHTS ABOUT LITIGATING?
It certainly has shown me both sides of the process. As a Judge Pro Tem, I try to assist the parties and counsel to reach a resolution. Acting as a neutral party gives me excellent perspective on family law issues that help me in my own practice.
IN COMPLEX CASES, DO YOU FIND IT’S THE MONEY, THE CHILDREN, PERHAPS EVEN THE PETS THAT COMPLICATE THE RESOLUTION MOST OF ALL?
Family law is very personal, and it is rarely ever one specific singular thing that complicates the resolution. The emotional challenges that come with every case can cause bumps in the road to resolution. However, we are here to support our clients during this difficult time in their lives.
HAVING OPENED A MEDIATION PRACTICE, ALLOWING THOSE SEEKING TO DIVORCE AN ALTERNATIVE PATH, AVOIDING THE PUBLIC COURTROOM, HAS IT MET WITH SUCCESS?
It truly has had some very positive results, and we have four attorneys in the office who all practice mediation. Mediation allows the clients to have more control over the process and the end result. In addition, mediation allows for privacy and timing dictated by the
parties as opposed to the Court. My mediation practice seeks to provide another conflict resolution option for clients and it helps
me to see pathways to settlement that litigation-only attorneys may miss.
IS YOUR APPROACH TO SPEAK SOFTLY AND NEGOTIATE CALMLY, KNOWING FULL WELL THAT YOU ARE CAPABLE OF DRAWING ON SOME FIREPOWER IF NEEDED?
We find that the Court responds to calm and well-reasoned arguments. Professionalism is an important tenet of my practice. Parties need a fierce advocate during this process, which we present in a well-researched, powerfully worded presentation in court.
HAVING SEEN HOW TRAUMATIC DIVORCE CAN BE FOR CHILDREN, DO YOU HAVE OUTSIDE INTERESTS THAT HAVE LED YOU TO SUPPORT THEIR CAUSE?
We are very involved with Kids Turn and are part of their Leadership Circle. Kids Turn provides a safe place in offering counseling services and workshops for children and their families that are going through a tough family situation such as divorce. In addition, we work with Casa Cornelia, whose mission is to provide quality legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations.
WERE YOU NOT RESOLVING CASES IN FAMILY LAW, WHICH PATH WOULD YOU HAVE FOLLOWED?
I really enjoyed working as a tax consultant and would probably be working in that field. If I did not have my business, I would continue to utilize my skills as a judge advocate. Service has always been an important part of my life, whether that has been through the Marine Corps or as an attorney.
Attorney Schaffer will share her expertise on Family Law in forthcoming issues of Discover Magazines. 858.509.7907 sandiegofamilyattorneys.com