Azita Avedissian, Marc Lerner, Stacy D. Phillips, and Ram F. Cogan
Divorce is a challenging process for any family, and in California it’s now that much more difficult.
Years of spending cuts implemented as a means to reduce the state’s growing budget deficit have left California courts reeling, closing down more than 50 courthouses and eliminating hundreds of positions. As a result, there have been delays in hearings, trials, and even record processing.
And family law courts have certainly felt the effect of the overburdened system: a 2013 report by the Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee found that the waiting time for mediation in child custody disputes rose in at least 19 counties and that family law assistance services have been reduced or closed in courts throughout the state.
Stacy D. Phillips—the founder and managing principal of one of the state’s premier family law firms, Phillips Lerner—recalls how in 2010, she and Ram F. Cogan, a principal at the firm, met with Charles W. "Tim" McCoy Jr., the then Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, to discuss the budget crisis’ impact on the court system. When the judge showed them projections for how court closures would affect California businesses and the economy generally, they were stunned.
"We walked out of there shell-shocked, because it was more than the trickledown effect in terms of businesses leaving the state and a corresponding decrease in our tax base; it was a deluge," Phillips says. "And it’s only gotten worse since then."
Even more troubling than the economic aspect of the crisis, Phillips adds, is the disproportionate impact court closures are having on the most vulnerable members of society. "In the family law arena this is a particularly urgent problem because we’re dealing with children and victims of domestic violence," she notes. "So while this crisis certainly affects lawyers, it most importantly hurts children, and that can’t continue."
In response, the members of Phillips Lerner have authored articles on the crisis for legal publications such as the Daily Journal
and the Century City Bar Newsletter
. They have also spoken about the issue in several venues, including the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts’ Statewide Conference and at an educational fundraising event for Levitt & Quinn, a non-profit family law center that provides affordable legal representation in family law matters to low-income families.
"Our view is that justice delayed is justice denied, and justice overburdened is no justice at all," Phillips says. "As officers of the court and advocates for our clients, we have an ongoing obligation to work cooperatively and find solutions to this problem."
Within the practice, the firm’s attorneys help clients navigate these new legal obstacles, such as by explaining how court delays could impede a resolution in their case. "When we sit down with clients and go over the issues and their options, we emphasize that if they go to the courts with a matter, the wait to be heard might be as long as three months," says Azita Avedissian, a principal at the firm. "And because of that, clients are sometimes forced to make compromises. Simply put, these new developments have deeply affected and changed the family law practice."
Cogan adds, "It can become very expensive and wearing for clients when they have to endure the delays imposed by these court closures, but I think we’re very good about discussing with our clients the potential impact of these delays so that they can balance the pros and cons of the various options available to them when deciding how to proceed."
Beyond advising clients, the lawyers of Phillips Lerner volunteer their time in ways that serve to address the fallout from the court closures. For example, attorneys offer their services as mediators with the hope of settling cases before they go to trial—thereby relieving court congestion. They are also active in their local bar associations, with Cogan serving on the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Family Law Section and Avedissian sitting on the Executive Committee of the Beverly Hills Bar Association Family Law Section.
Above all, Phillips Lerner is dedicated to protecting those individuals who have limited access to the courts. As part of that philosophy, Cogan and senior associate Robyn C. Santucci handle cases pro bono for the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, an organization that assists victims of domestic violence and provides free family law assistance and legal education to the poor. Cogan also volunteers for the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Project, which assists self-represented litigants who have been the victims of domestic violence in obtaining restraining orders. In addition, the firm has created its Adopt-A-Center program, through which attorneys, paralegals, and staff members contribute time and financial resources over a 12-month period to a particular local not-for-profit that provides services to families and children.
"Our philosophy is if you do well, you have to do good, so we make a point of investing our time and money in improving the community and, more recently, doing all that we can to ensure the protection of those children who have been put at risk because of court closures," Phillips says.