Jeanann Khalife of Alternative Divorce Solutions: “Informal Etiquette is a key”

Informal Etiquette is a key. As you progress in your career you learn that providing informal extensions of time or holding informal discussions with the parties involved can lead to resolving the majority of the issues. If you are litigating, you need to learn about how that particular Judge and his courtroom like things and […]

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Informal Etiquette is a key. As you progress in your career you learn that providing informal extensions of time or holding informal discussions with the parties involved can lead to resolving the majority of the issues. If you are litigating, you need to learn about how that particular Judge and his courtroom like things and present accordingly. It amplifies the success of your matter and the cooperation of everyone involved.

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 Jeanann Khalife.

Jeanann Khalife is a partner, attorney-mediator and case manager at Alternative Divorce Solutions. While Khalife began her legal career in litigation, she sought a less contentious way to resolve conflicts and attended the Alternative Divorce Solutions Institution for Best Practices in Divorce Mediation leading her to join Alternative Divorce Solutions in 2015.

Khalife herself is Muslim and experienced a painful divorce, which gives her a unique perspective and deep empathy for clients experiencing a divorce of all backgrounds. She is also one of the only divorce mediation attorneys in the U.S. fluent in Arabic.

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?

I swore off family law during my law school career and boy did I prove myself wrong. My best friend from law school, Lani Baron and my now business partner had already started a career in Divorce Mediation. We often talked about her work and Lani used every opportunity to gently encourage me to join the field. I was reluctant to do so because of the stereotypes associated with family law. I had been practicing as a business and employment litigation attorney for a couple of years, when Lani randomly called me. She knew that I am fluent in the Arabic language, and her client’s Arabic outweighed their English. She asked me to assist with my Arabic skills and so I did. By the end of the mediation, I knew that this was the right field for me as I would have the ability to provide constructive support to clients in a very destructive event. Once the mediation concluded Lani and I looked at each other and agreed this was the right move for my career. Fast forward 6 years later and here I am a Divorce Mediation Attorney.

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

There is never a shortage of funny stories in the divorce realm. However, one that has stuck with me through the years is when a couple was negotiating on life insurance policies. The wife wanted a guarantee that husband will continue to maintain a life insurance policy with her as a beneficiary. He wasn’t keen on the idea. After a few minutes the husband blurted out “what are you going to follow me to my grave and ask me to pay for it then?” and the wife instantaneously responded “No, I will spit on it and dance!” She was very animated and I couldn’t help it but laugh. Thankfully, it lightened the mood.

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

We have a vision to change the world’s view of divorce. So, the majority of our projects revolve around this movement. The biggest project we are working on is expanding into different parts of California and into other states. We just launched an office in Bakersfield, California, and we are in the works for locations in Utah, Texas and New York. Another project we have focused on is our podcast, Divorce Demystified, which is continuously evolving! We provide raw truth about the world of divorce and how it touches every aspect of an individual’s lives, while providing lifestyle insight and guidance. Essentially, it is a holistic approach to you as an individual and as a family.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Omar ibn Said. I would really like to understand more of his time in Senegal before he was brought to the states and how he stayed strong in his faith through all the hardship he faced. Also, Amelia Earhart. History is known for the gender roles assigned to both men and women. It is intriguing to read about women who would go against the grain in their era. Amelia Earhart showed determination, and I would like to speak to her about how she managed social expectation vs. her personal goals.

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

A career in law is not easy, so make sure this is absolutely the path you would like to embark on. Sign up for an internship at a firm or apply for a job in the field. The process from the moment you start law school is grueling. So, make sure this is what you want, because if it is, no matter how difficult it is you will always find the light at the end of the tunnel. Always note, you do not have to be an attorney to hold a career in law.

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

  • Pro Mediation Campaign– Mediation is often perceived as the unwanted stepchild in the legal world. Most attorneys do not understand what mediation is, especially within the practice of family law and divorce. Oftentimes this lack of understanding is projected onto their clients, and clients are scared away from this platform. However, if there was an educational campaign that is supportive of the mediation platform, more individuals would be open to using this platform. Ultimately more individuals will be able to resolve their matters in a cost effective and efficient manner, and the court system will be alleviated from the backlog in cases.
  • Pre-Marriage counseling- I think completing pre marriage counseling before being issued a marriage license is crucial. It is so easy to get married, but it is difficult (not to mention time consuming and costly) to get divorced. If a couple is given the right tools prior to marriage, then there is a greater chance of success. Or at least, a greater chance of exercising all options before calling it an end. We often rush into marriage, without understanding one another’s communication styles, understanding love or understanding that it is okay to have disagreements and different opinions. I believe these are large contributing factors to our divorce rates.
  • Reconciling attorney fees with client’s best interest- I see this issue plenty of times in divorce matters. There is no denying that some divorces need to be litigated. However, most cases do not, and plenty of times attorneys use a run of the mill approach with unnecessary hearings, filings and paperwork. All of which add up to higher attorney fees. It always makes me wonder, was this in the best interest of the client or the attorney?

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

I enjoy participating in different mentorship programs both on a formal and informal level. I am a Muslim-American, and my community has been under scrutiny in recent history. I do not come from money, but I do come from a good value system, that has taught me to appreciate my challenges and individuals from all walks of life. My success has allowed me to serve as a mentor to young aspiring minds. I have been fortunate to have the ability to share my experiences as a Muslim- American at different speaking engagements, which has allowed me to identity and break down some personality stereotypes.

We also participate in law school externship programs. It is so fascinating to see people learn and grow. More importantly, to give them the tools they need to have a realistic and successful start to their careers.

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

I am fully aware that I am blessed and fortunate to have all of these opportunities. Mediating a divorce gives you a front row seat into people’s lives and their pain. We are dealing with two perspectives and two personalities that both find the divorce, and the divorce process to be daunting. Walking my clients through this daunting process, while providing them with the tools they need is ever so rewarding. Especially, when you see them shift into a mindset that “everything will be alright”. It’s that glimmer of hope within my clients that drives me to continue what I do.

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. I wish I was told that litigation was anything but glamorous. In reality, there is so much paperwork with a hearing and the majority of your time is spent on that. Hearings are so slow and do not flow the way they are portrayed. More importantly cross examination, openings and closings are rarely delivered with the finesse portrayed on the screen. For example, I was a two-year practicing attorney and I was assigned to an employment matter, where I had to prepare for several hearings and trial. I was super excited and imagined myself to be a rock star from Law and Order, with a clever examination of the witness and killer openings and closings. Uh, that didn’t happen. I had to spend around 10 days of solid work before the hearing. By the time it was time to attend I was exhausted. Finally, the judge was short and to the point, which threw my whole game plan out the window.

2. I wish I was told that the practice of law is completely different than the study of law. I graduated law school thinking I had all I needed to be a rock star attorney. I was super wrong. There is a lot of formal procedure involved that you learn about conceptually but you have no idea how to apply when it comes to specific cases. I remember I had to draft a demurrer, I had a sample, I knew what it consisted of, but to connect it and draft the document into a manner that flowed with the case was the big question. Surprisingly I got through it successfully!

3. Opposing counsel is not your enemy. This was a big lesson that I had to learn. Communication with opposing counsel is like a dance, a give and take. In order to have the most productive experience for you clients you cannot take what they say or do personally and you cannot treat them as though you are in the front lines of a war. More importantly, if they treat you as the enemy, do not return the favor. Last year I was representing a client in a settlement matter. I was glad that the Husband had also hired an attorney because I assumed it would make the communication and process smoother. Wrong! Every email or correspondence I received from the attorney was a personal attack to myself. So much so, she refused to set meetings with me to discuss the matter. I felt horrible for my client and hers, but I had to keep my professionalism.

4. Informal Etiquette is a key. As you progress in your career you learn that providing informal extensions of time or holding informal discussions with the parties involved can lead to resolving the majority of the issues. If you are litigating, you need to learn about how that particular Judge and his courtroom like things and present accordingly. It amplifies the success of your matter and the cooperation of everyone involved.

5. You won’t know everything and that is okay! Clients go to you for answers. They expect you to be able to address all of their concerns and questions. They also expect your answers to pretty much fall within a Yes or No format. Well, the law is primarily gray, so the majority of your answers will not be absolute. You also cannot remember every nuance in the law. It is okay to tell your clients the truth about the law and it is certainly okay not to have an answer on the spot. I was dealing with a matter that had a very complex issue with classifying funds as separate vs. community. My initial thought was “Oh gosh I have no clue” and I internally panicked for a second because I did not want to look like an idiot. I took a breath and I told the clients that I would have to do some research and follow up with them. I was able to take the time I needed to give them a constructive answer and answer any other follow up questions they had. Clients appreciate honesty more than you realize it.

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would like to sit down with Michelle Obama. Yes it sounds so cliche, but it’s true. I want to know more about her as an individual. We have seen her as the first lady, and I would like to get to know her on a more personal level. What was her driving force to success? What are her hobbies? Types of food?. How she deals with challenge internally and externally? How did she balance motherhood with her career? How did she process the transition to being the first lady and what were some of her fears going into that and then leaving the role?

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