Arthur Ettinger: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Young newbie lawyers often do what they are told, often without asking why. When I was a young attorney, I remember often being hesitant on asking questions, as I thought asking questions would seem that I don’t understand the project. The reality is it is okay to ask questions. […]

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Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Young newbie lawyers often do what they are told, often without asking why. When I was a young attorney, I remember often being hesitant on asking questions, as I thought asking questions would seem that I don’t understand the project. The reality is it is okay to ask questions. As the chair of a department of lawyers, I would much rather young lawyers ask me questions before they start the project than spend all their time doing the project the wrong way, without asking a single question.

As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Arthur Ettinger.

Arthur D. Ettinger is widely known as one of the most effective divorce lawyers and family law attorneys in the New York Metropolitan area. For nearly 25 years, he has obtained favorable outcomes in some of the most complex and high-profile family law matters. Mr. Ettinger is a partner and chair of the Matrimonial & Family Law practice group in Greenspoon Marder’s New York office.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

Throughout law school and shortly after I graduated, I worked with my father, who was also a matrimonial attorney in Manhattan. I thought I hated family law at the time. Within a few months of me graduating, my father had a massive heart attack and decided to retire. I took an associate attorney position at a prominent banking firm that, represents all the major financial institutions. I lasted a year there because I quickly realized that I enjoyed family law and missed the work I was doing helping individuals and making a difference in people’s lives. After a year, I went back to family law and have been practicing matrimonial and family law ever since (approx. 24 years).

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

As a family law attorney, I have heard and seen it all. It’s not the funniest story, but I have had the spouse of my client threaten my life and threaten to come to my office and shoot me. I have also had a spouse in the middle of a settlement meeting try to attack me across the table.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

New York recently legalized surrogacy. Effective February 15, 2021, gestational surrogacy is permitted by statute in New York. The new statute, known as the Child Parent Security Act (CPSA), permits compensated gestational surrogacy for the first time. It also repeals New York’s existing statute that declares compensated surrogacy contracts void and unenforceable.

Also, under the new statute, courts will grant pre-birth parentage orders. I am currently working on a matter now for a same-sex couple using a sperm donor. Thanks to the new law, instead of doing a second parent adoption, both intended parents can file paperwork and be declared the legal parents of the child in a pre-birth order. This is exciting and long overdue.

As for other matters I am working on these days, they are not as happy and heartwarming. These are trying times with the pandemic. We are seeing extremely high numbers of domestic violence cases.

Also, the new reality of how cases are being heard virtually by the courts is impacting the divorce process. I often joke — people are getting married in their backyards and divorced in their living rooms. Kidding aside, this poses great challenges, not only to the lawyers and judges, but more importantly to the individual litigants living with each other, both working from home, and with children attending school remotely. Privacy is an issue, especially in New York where people are living in close quarters. I have had to get creative on how to meet with clients since most meetings are done virtually and people are living at home “with the enemy.” Before the pandemic, if people were living with each other during the divorce process, at least they were getting away from each other during the day as one or both parties would go to work. Divorce is stressful as it is. Now telling people they can’t leave their home, go to work, take a vacation, etc, the stress can become unbearable. This is particularly true with divorcing parents that now have to manage remote learning with their children. Divorce lawyers will often tell clients going through the divorce process to see a therapist to manage the stressful situation. How can that client candidly share with his/her therapist when their spouse is “on the other side of the wall” in the room next door listening in on the telehealth session?

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

As I mentioned before, as a family law attorney, I have heard and seen it all, from the most mundane to the most absurd. Many of those crazy stories would need to be censored. If I wrote a book, it would have to be called fiction because most would not believe that that these things actually happened.

I have done things that I never envisioned I would do as a lawyer. As a young matrimonial attorney, I remember sitting with an adversary inventorying a family’s art collection, their Baccarat crystal and even an extensive motorcycle collection.

I have had cases where the parties litigated over pets. In one matter, where the parties had two dogs, the judge punished both of the parties for litigating the issue and actually gave each party a dog, ultimately punishing the dogs for their owners’ inability to work things out amicably out of court.

Most recently, I had a case where one spouse demanded and removed the lamp post after he moved out of the marital residence. In another matter, my client’s wife claimed that the elm tree in the front lawn of the house they owned for 21 years was her premarital separate property and she wanted it uprooted when she moved out.

In one very interesting case, one of the major assets in the marriage were the frozen embryos, at a time where there was very little law on the subject, and the parties had no formal agreement on the disposition of the embryos. My client was a cancer survivor, and she was unable to get pregnant. The husband was demanding that the embryos be destroyed. This was an extremely difficult case for emotional reasons.

I have seen prenuptial agreements that include provisions for intercourse during the marriage. To be clear, those types of provisions in prenups are unenforceable. I have also had a matter where my client received a multi-million-dollar payment for every time she could prove her husband committed adultery. We hired surveillance on behalf of the wife and discovered the husband was having multiple affairs. My ended up getting 10M dollars for that clause alone.

Family law attorneys are often tasked with preparing net worth statements with our clients. In one case that I remember, I represented the wife. I was reviewing her monthly expenses and noticed she had included 3,500 dollars per month for creams and drug store items. When I asked how she arrived at that figure, she replied, “You have to keep the trophy polished.”

In one of my most interesting hotly contested custody cases, after a 13-day trial I successfully obtained custody for a father of not only the parties’ 7-year-old son, but also guardianship of the mother’s daughter from a prior relationship.

Over the years, I have had some custody trials where the other side’s family members testified on behalf of my client instead of my client’s spouse. This doesn’t happen often but when it does it certainly gets the court’s attention and a successful outcome.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

The people that inspire me the most are my two sons, Dylan and Jac. They make me the best version of myself. Whether I am having a great day or bad day at work, when I see them at the end of the day, they make the day better.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

Make sure this is what you want to do. Law school and a legal career is a big commitment. Instead of rushing to law school from college, take some time off from school and take a job in a legal position to see if you truly want to be a lawyer. Get a job in a law firm for a year or two to see if it is right for you. Either way, you will benefit. It will give you a better perspective on your future legal education or spare you a great deal of time and money.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

  1. More judges appointed — there is a major backlog on family law matters. Judges were inundated before the pandemic. COVID has not helped. It has only gotten worse. Judges are now even more overworked. More judges or the use of would help move matters to resolution more promptly.
  2. Mandatory mediation sessions in all jurisdictions. In many states, there is mandatory mediation. I believe if we had that across the board, with seasoned practitioners volunteering a set number of hours as mediators, we could remove many simple “contested” matters from the overworked judges’ caseloads.
  3. Improved efficiency through the process. What this pandemic has shown us is that the divorce process can be much more efficient and effective with the use of technology. Electronic court filings are no longer the exception, but the rule. Not every court appearance needs to be in person. The court can and should continue to utilize virtual court appearances even after the pandemic for conferences and motions. That said, I firmly believe trials and hearings are best served in person.

I also believe that there should be some uniformity on custody matters and the disposition of motion practice during the discovery process should be resolved simply and quickly.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love to give back. I take on several pro bono cases each year to provide legal representation to those who otherwise can’t afford an attorney. I also recently started a podcast titled, Close To The Vest With Arthur Ettinger, where I provide, through interviews with experts and thought leaders, support and guidance to individuals going through or contemplating divorce.

I also enjoy running sports equipment donation drives where I collect gently used sports equipment and clothing for children in the Dominican Republic.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

I am motivated by helping others. Being a divorce lawyer has more stress than most jobs and most areas of law. But, it can also be very rewarding. Over the years, I have been instrumental in obtaining custody of their children in some very contentious situations. Helping transform lives and making a difference for people has me love my job.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Young newbie lawyers often do what they are told, often without asking why. When I was a young attorney, I remember often being hesitant on asking questions, as I thought asking questions would seem that I don’t understand the project. The reality is it is okay to ask questions. As the chair of a department of lawyers, I would much rather young lawyers ask me questions before they start the project than spend all their time doing the project the wrong way, without asking a single question.
  2. Make Time For Yourself. Lawyers work hard. If you’re looking for a 9–5 job, the practice of law is not for you. That said, it is still important to take some time for self-care. Law is stressful. Find some time to exercise. Take a vacation, at least once a year. (I am still trying to follow that advice. It is not easy). I have cancelled so many vacations throughout my career because of work. The reality is if you don’t take time for yourself, you won’t be able to bring your “A” game.
  3. Less is More. A good set of papers does not need to be long. Judges don’t want to read stacks and stacks of papers. Court submissions now have page limits for a reason. Be clear and concise and you will be successful.
  4. It’s okay to say “No.” As a young associate, I was concerned about appeasing all the partners and always agreed to take on new projects, even if I was busy. I always said yes. Big mistake and a recipe for a disaster. A supervising attorney would much rather hear that your workload is too full and that you can help in the near future (after you clear up some current projects) than agree to do something that won’t get the attention it deserves.
  5. Mistakes are Good. Lawyers are perfectionists. We have to be, as we are required to focus on the details in our profession. However, we are also human. We will make mistakes. And that is okay. As my six-year old son says, “Daddy, mistakes are good because we learn from them.” Mistakes are inevitable. The key to success is learning from those mistakes and moving on so they don’t happen again.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

The first person I would choose to “break bread” with if I could would be my father. My dad, who passed away 17 years ago, was the reason I went to law school and became a family law practitioner. I would bring my boys so he could get to meet them, make them laugh and give them a big hug, even if just for one time.

I would love to meet Paul McCartney. I love the Beatles. Wherever we go, they better have a piano or a guitar so we can do a sing-along.

I would also love to meet Gary Vaynerchuk. I love his positive energy and drive. His success story is inspirational. I also admire and respect his direct approach. He is blunt and pulls no punches. That is how I try to be in my work. Sometimes, to a fault, and, notwithstanding all of Gary V.’s success, he seems like a genuine and down to earth person, who is extremely interested in helping others and seeing those around him succeed. That is refreshing in our society.

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