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FAMILY LAW SECTION OF CONTRA COSTA COUNTY
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A Brief History of the Family Law Section

 

Many of our members weren’t around at the creation. For your benefit, here’s how it all began:

 

In the late 70's and early 80's there had been a couple of attempts to organize a family law section in Contra Costa County. Those failed for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, there was a virtual explosion of the numbers of family law litigants and lawyers.

 

In the vacuum, a small group of family lawyers decided to organize informally. They called themselves the Study Group, and met monthly for dinner. These meetings went on for several years.

 

Then, in the spring of 1988, Paul Bonnar, Gregg Jones and Lee Pearce met in the coffee shop at the courthouse outside Jim Libbey’s courtroom to discuss the need for a viable, officially recognized family law voice under the auspices of the County Bar. Lee brought the idea back to the Study Group. Everyone was aware of the prior failures to create a Section, and the vast time commitment which would be required to maximize the likelihood of its success. We were equally aware that the support would have to be broadly based, the organization would have to serve the practical and professional needs of our members, and the organizers would have to commit to stay around long enough to see that the fledgling organization was successfully launched. No one wanted to be associated with another failed attempt which started promisingly and then fizzled. Lee was able to recruit four other Study Group members to volunteer as founding directors (Stu Goldware, Jeff Huffaker, Marc Hallert and Sue Talia) joining Lee, Paul and Gregg.

 

Lee agreed to organize the group and serve as its first President; Paul agreed to head the programming (recognized as the most important enticement for members to join the section), and Gregg agreed to head the formation of the Bench/Bar Committee to formally create a conduit to work with the judges.  The founding board was recruited to ensure broad representation and commitment to the organization. Great effort was made to balance the board geographically, including representation from East and West County, recognizing the differing needs of new and experienced lawyers, as well as those who represented high end clients, the middle class and clients of modest means. We knew that the key to getting the group off the ground was a strong program committee which could recruit talented speakers on important topics whom the members would turn out to hear. The Program Committee was probably the most time-consuming and critical of the initial assignments.   Paul and his committee did an outstanding job, by starting with topics of interest and then recruiting interesting and knowledgeable speakers with the goal that everyone attending the monthly luncheon, in addition to having a networking experience, would leave having learned something that would improve their practice. The first couple of meetings were relatively small, until word got out about the quality of the programs. After only a short time, no one wanted to miss the meetings, for fear they would lose out on some critical information, especially when the judges were part of the program. The meetings became a time to learn what was going on (and as the section grew in strength, more and more was going on at every level.) They also had an opportunity to share problems and solutions with colleagues, and build a sense of community in the family law bar.

 

Standing committees were established which created a bridge between the family law bar and the bench, Family Court Services, the DA (predecessor to the DCSS) and others. The improved level of communication and cooperation in turn benefitted everyone involved. Family lawyers had a direct channel to the Bench and we were able to have a voice in making the family courts more user friendly. Practice specialty committees were formed, so members with particular interest in custody, mediation, and other practice areas could meet and share ideas and brainstorm solutions to common problems.

 

We soon had about10 standing committees and numerous ad hoc ones. What started out as the mediation and juvenile committees of the Section evolved into independent sections in their own right. Then a mentoring group was established to help newer lawyers build their practice skills and more experienced lawyers to share their knowledge. Within the first year we would average 100 in attendance at our monthly luncheons, and for our regular judges’ lunch (later a dinner) our turn-out would be so large we could take over the entire restaurant (the old Velvet Turtle), with the regular patrons put into the banquet room. We drew committee members and directors from all sectors of the family law bar, providing an opportunity for members to serve according to their talents and interests, and have created a steady flow of new leadership.

 

Some of our programs were at the cutting edge of family law in the country. Under the leadership of Sue Talia, our Section established an unbundling working group, the first of its kind in the country. It became a model first for California and then for similar groups around the country. When the Access to Justice Commission was considering changes to the Rules of Court to facilitate unbundling, it held focus groups around the state. They were stunned when they arrived at the Contra Costa Family Law focus group, where 26 lawyers who had been practicing limited scope representation offered their practical experiences and insight. Many of the problems the Commission perceived had already been worked out over the prior years in our county, and the input of our members, especially Paul Bonnar and Regina Lewis, had a direct impact on the structure of the rules which were ultimately adopted for California.

 

Unbundling is now so mainstream in Contra Costa County, the committee itself is no longer needed locally, but Sue Talia soon developed a national reputation, and began speaking regularly across the United States and Canada.  She still gets requests from other states to share our expertise. As recently as June 2013, a representative of the Texas Access to Justice Commission asked for assistance with their fledgling program and we were able to put them in touch not only with experienced limited scope family lawyers, but judges who could educate their judges on the impacts of limited scope in court. We couldn’t have done this without the combination of an active committed membership, experienced leadership, a pipeline for development of new leadership and a program which evolves to meet the changing needs of its members and allows them to be leaders in the profession.

 

Our Section actually had the opportunity to change the face of California family law in a fundamental way. When Elkins v. Superior Court was being briefed, the Supreme Court specifically asked for input from our section of the county bar. The Board accepted the challenge and responded in a novel way. We knew that other family law groups (AAML, ACFLS) were writing amicus briefs, and saw little benefit in duplicating that effort. The Board recognized that the one thing our Section could bring to the discussion that no one else could was practical experience in the application of the local rules that were being challenged. They voted to authorize a professionally conducted survey of our members. An early decision in the survey design was to put no limit on the length of answers to any of the questions. All of the questions could be answered quickly and simply, but there was also unlimited space for members to add their personal comments. And, wow, did they. Once our members were given an opportunity to tell the Supreme Court what they thought in their own words, the floodgates opened. The sheer number and length of comments demonstrated, in a way that nothing else could, the strong feelings of our members about the system they had been operating under. The results were compelling and persuasive. 

 

Under the leadership of Lee Pearce who committed an enormous amount of his time to the project, the survey results became the basis for the Section’s brief to the Supreme Court. Through no other medium would individual members of the family law bar have been able to speak directly to the Supreme Court about how the courts needed to change to serve the needs of our clients. And the Supreme Court heard us loud and clear, overturning the trial court’s decision and creating what became known as the Elkins Commission, on which our current Presiding Judge, Barry Goode, served. We are aware of no other bar section in any county which was invited by the Supreme Court to file an amicus brief. To the extent that we had an impact on evolution and reform of the law,  it was because we had a strong, effective section in place which listened to the needs of its members and provided a unique vehicle for them to speak directly to those responsible for fixing the family law system.

 

We have a strong and diverse section. The membership and the leadership represent all levels of experience, and a broad cross section of the family law bar. This has been caused, in part, by the commitment of older members to continue to serve and share their experience with younger colleagues, as well as encouraging new lawyers to become involved in the committees and the Board, giving them a path to leadership as well.

 

As family law, the courts, and the needs of our clients continue to evolve in the 21st Century, we are well positioned to continue our history of contributing to the profession in new and innovative ways.

 

Kudos to everyone who has contributed over the past 25 years.