No Girls Allowed?

No girls allowedRecently a Florida lawyer has been getting attention because he refuses to represent female clients. Kenny Leigh built his practice, now employing ten lawyers, with the slogan: “Men only. Family law only.” Mr. Leigh does not have anything against women, he says. The problem is that Florida family law is systematically biased against men. The Florida bar association, which must approve legal advertising, has asked him to drop the “men only” slogan, but it won’t take action against him unless someone files a discrimination suit. (Ontario lawyers who advertised their refusal to represent clients based on sex would likely run afoul of the Ontario Human Rights code, not to mention the Law Society of Upper Canada).

I can’t comment on the fairness of of Florida family law. All too often when someone claims that the law is unfair or that a particular judge is “biased,” what they really mean is, “I’m unhappy that I didn’t get what I wanted.” Some of Mr. Leigh’s critics were particularly upset by his admission that not all of the fathers he represents are “good dads”. He explains, “If I had to base my practice on just good dads, I’d be broke.” It strikes me as misguided to criticize Mr. Leigh for his willingness to represent “bad” fathers. We don’t expect criminal defense lawyers to represent only the innocent. Anyone in family court who needs a lawyer, “good parent” or not, should have access to one.

Mr. Leigh may be a particularly assertive “single sex” lawyer, but he isn’t the only one. David Pisarra is a California lawyer who also focuses on male clients, but for different reasons. Pisarra noticed that men and women approached legal issues differently. When he represented female clients in family law cases he found that they required a lot of emotional support. Meetings would go on for hours because he spent so much time discussing his clients’ personal problems. He found it uncomfortable to be pushed into a therapeutic role. Men, in contrast, didn’t expect their lawyers to be a source of emotional support. Pisarra found he could be blunt and direct with his male clients, and focus on legal tactics. And that is how he prefers to work.

I think that there are good reasons why a lawyer (or other professional) might want to create a niche for themselves working only for a specific clientele. Both Leigh and Pisarra claim that their specialization allows them to be more effective at what they do. What I found more disturbing about Leigh than his sex discrimination were the attitudes he conveyed about family law: “It’s gloves off. It’s nasty stuff.” So divorce and family breakdown – already very difficult times in the lives of families and children – are characterized as a sport and (worse) as a violent contest. Now, I can imagine situations where family law disputes call for aggressive tactics. But we’ve seen again and again that hostile legal proceedings can make bad situations worse. They make it difficult or impossible for divorced couples to co-parent their children, they cost families a great deal of money, and they prolong emotional turbulence. Aside from the lawyers, does anyone benefit from drawn-out and antagonistic court proceedings? These are just some of the considerations in favour of mediating rather than litigating family law disputes.