Ken Jewell: “Would you rather be happy or right?”

I try to inspire my clients to focus on what’s important in life. My favorite question to a client who is vacillating on an issue is “would you rather be happy or right?” Almost all clients confronting that question will decide that what they are fighting for wish such emotional fervor is not worth the […]

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I try to inspire my clients to focus on what’s important in life. My favorite question to a client who is vacillating on an issue is “would you rather be happy or right?” Almost all clients confronting that question will decide that what they are fighting for wish such emotional fervor is not worth the effort because life has a way of providing justice that the system cannot.

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 Ken Jewell.

Ken Jewell is an attorney who specializes in New York statematrimonial law, and practices in all areas including child custody, child support, divorce, separation, pre/postnuptial agreements, post-judgment, property distribution, and spousal support. He was twice named as a Leader in the Law by New York Magazine in 2018, one of the “Top Attorneys in Metro New York” by The New York Times Magazine in 2016, one of the “10 Best” in terms of client satisfaction by the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys. He was also the 2017 recipient of the Client Choice award that recognizes excellence in client service, and the Top Contributor Award. Mr. Jewell is a member of the New York State Bar Association and belongs to the group’s family law legislative committee, family law section. He is also a former member of the Standing Committee on Civil Practice Law and Rules.

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 originally wanted to be a psychologist but changed my mind when I learned what the program entailed. I was a state supreme court law librarian at the time. My desire was to choose a career that would help people in difficult situations. Since I already had a six-year background as a law librarian, it seemed natural for me to attend law school. Although I never took family law cases in law school, given the NY psychology background from my undergraduate studies, family law cases seemed to come to me naturally.

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

I had a client who came into my office and told me that he had 3 children by 2 women in 4 days. The wife had twins. He wanted me to help him adopted the illegitimate child into his nuclear family and said his wife agreed to the adoption.

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

I handle highly complex divorce cases that have unique issues involving child custody and/or the division of financial assets where parties converted some of their pre-marital money or inheritance into marital property. I also have cases where I’ve had to trace money because the spouse I am not representing diverted it to keep it from the spouse I represented.

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

I had a client tell me that he had 3 children by 2 women in four days. I asked him who had the twins. He said his wife. He wanted to bring the illegitimate kid into his nuclear family which is why he wanted to see me. While he didn’t end up being a client because he couldn’t agree on his likelihood of success given the facts he was presenting me, he did retain another lawyer who he paid $225k only to lose — exactly what I told him when he came in the door.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

George H.W.Bush because he was an example of a by-gone generation that put the greater good over his own personal interests; Dwight D. Opperman, chairman/CEO of former West Publishing company because he taught me how hard work needs to be part of a balanced life; and Michael Bruno, retired chief of medicine at Lenox Hill hospital who taught me about the wisdom of having good judgment.

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

Choose an area of the law that you believe in and are passionate about as it is the passion that will get you through the difficult questions and/or situations a client will present to you.

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

I don’t know if there is anything I would change. While change is needed with the system we have, I don’t know of any alternatives that would improve the overall outcomes of cases.

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

I try to inspire my clients to focus on what’s important in life. My favorite question to a client who is vacillating on an issue is “would you rather be happy or right?” Almost all clients confronting that question will decide that what they are fighting for wish such emotional fervor is not worth the effort because life has a way of providing justice that the system cannot.

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

Helping my clients from difficult, oftentimes, abusive situations into a life of freedom and happiness.

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. THAT I CAN’T FIX EVERY CLIENT SITUATION THAT COMES IN THE DOOR: I recently had to discharge a client because notwithstanding an order of protection that the spouse obtained against her based upon disturbing texts and e-mails she sent to him, she wanted an order of protection against him for allegations that were a year old (making it impossible to obtain the order of protection) and deny him parenting rights to their toddler. Notably, the order of protection against my client was extended to include the toddler because she threatened to leave the kid alone outside the spouse’s apartment. Notwithstanding the hole the client was in, she refused to focus on the issues that she needed to deal with to be relieved of the order of protection that was obtained against her. To be clear, it was all about getting him with no focus on her own actions. Although her arguments were emotionally appealing, from a legal perspective, there was nothing that could be done concerning her wish to obtain an order of protection against him because the evidence was a year old and that they had continued their relationship for 10 months without incident notwithstanding her year-old abuse allegations and that the spouse had temporary sole custody of the toddler which left her complaint that he was unfit to parent the toddler unavailing on its face without evidence of abuse or neglect as provided under the family court act. Since she refused to focus on what was pending against her in court and, instead, would only focus on her claims against him, I had to ask her to find other counsel.
  2. THAT THERE IS A LIMIT IN WHAT I CAN DO IN ANY CASE: Last summer I had to ask the court to be relieved of a case where the client kept insisting that I pursue actions against his ex-wife that the law didn’t allow. This was an abuse case where the ex-wife had been physically abusing the parties’ 6-year-old son so that he showed up in the father’s care with bruises. While ACS stepped in and obtained an order of protection against the mother preventing her from seeing the child, New York’s policy is to try and rehabilitate the offending parent’s relationship with the child wherever possible. The mother proceeded to go to parenting classes, anger management classes, and see a psychiatrist for some mental health issues she was dealing with. ACS, the attorney for the child (AFC), and the court in seeing this wanted to proceed with rehabilitating the mother’s relationship with the child by starting with supervised visitation which would then proceed to unsupervised visitations when the court, ACS and the AFC thought she was ready. the client tried frustrating the supervised visitation orders by not showing up/ignoring the court orders; refused to pay for his share of the paid supervisor of the visits and not show up in court where he was required to appear at each court appearance. It was at this point that I asked the court to be relieved as his attorney which it granted.
  3. THAT CLIENTS CAN BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY IN WAYS I COULD NEVER IMAGINE: In another case, I had a client come in whose 13-year-old son was kicking him between the legs at the behest of the mother and in front of the other two children. From the beginning, I advised the client to leave the apartment when issues between his son and himself escalated so as to prevent the violence from occurring. The client refused to do so. Thus, of course, the relationship between my client and his son further deteriorated as a result whereby ACS was called and a forensic psychiatrist was called in to analyze the situation. After demonstrating over 10 court appearances very substantial changes I and mental health professionals were able to get the client to do, the court gave the client substantial visitation with the son. The client, however, was so enraged at the cost and time it took to get him the parenting time we did that he wanted to post his complaints about the lawyers and the judge involved in his case and confidential information regarding the litigation on the internet — something which I could not support both ethically and strategically. The client fired me and proceeded to air his grievances on the internet. The client is now defending against a contempt motion for his actions.
  4. THAT MY PRACTICE WILL NOT ALWAYS PROGRESS IN A STRAIGHT LINE UPWARD TRAJECTORY: In my 20 years as a divorce attorney, my business has predominantly been dependent upon a good stock market and low unemployment. My theory here is predicated upon a client’s belief that they can pay for the divorce and recover the value of those assets they had to divide with the person that would become their former spouse. Under this theory, there were mild peaks and valleys but overall the business increased by 2% per year. Then came Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. New Yorkers typically disfavored his election and developed concerns that the economy would become unstable if not “blow up” as it was said in 2017. Because of these fears, notwithstanding the market’s growth in 2017 of 25%, the business was down by 20%. Then came the tax cuts and jobs act of 2017 where everyone believed they would see a tax cut. Business resumed its 2016 levels and continued until the tax cuts and jobs act imposed its effect when tax returns were filed on April 15 and October 15, 2019. Business was down by 11% in 2019. Typically, presidential election years are not good for the divorce business because of the unknowns attributed to the election. Surprisingly, starting in December 2019, the business has exploded and continued to do so until the pandemic shut the courts down. Since the courts have been shut and people have been quarantined, the phone has been ringing non-stop because of a parent’s decision to deny the other parent access to the court or because the cracks arising failing marriage made clear that the marriage could not continue. In sum, the divorce business can be very unpredictable and, thus, it should always be run conservatively to weather any storms that may arise.
  5. THAT IT CAN BE EMOTIONALLY DRAINING TO HELP SOMEONE WITH CERTAIN CONVICTIONS GET TO WHERE THEY NEED TO BE FROM A LEGAL PERSPECTIVE: In another case, I had to convince a client to move out of the marital home because the fighting between him and his wife was out of control and affecting the kids. To be sure, although there was no physical violence, the screaming matches between the parents was affecting the kids in a really bad way. The client, understandably, didn’t want to move because it would limit his time with the kids. As he put it, he would no longer be able to see his kids whenever he wanted. He kept asking me why we could make the wife move out. The wife was as if not more stubborn than my client. Ultimately, I was able to convince to move out because the court would view him as the person who was making the case move forward while the wife was holding up the case because she was righteous. I was also able to convince him that his kids would look at him as the champion because he was putting an end to the non-stop fighting between him and his wife. To get him there, however, was a constant discussion for over 1.5 months as we went over the same things over and over and over. While it was worth the effort, the psychological handling of his emotions and effort needed to convince him to move was very draining.

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. 🙂

Not sure how to answer this one! So many choices!

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