Thinking of entering family law? In this panel focused on helping young lawyers understand the nuances of practicing in this area of the law, listeners get varied perspectives from both judges and attorneys. Rocky Dhir chats with Judge Janice Berg, Judge Gloria López, and attorneys Jacob Cohen and Alicia Palmer about their experiences in family law practice and their favorite tidbits of wisdom from their panel – including their takes on:
- Trusting that your legal education really has prepared you for what you’re doing (Really!)
- Tactfully disagreeing with a judge
- Setting appropriate client boundaries
- And much more
The Honorable Janice Berg is a judge in the 247th Family District Court in Harris County, Texas.
The Honorable Gloria E. López is a judge in the 308th Family District Court in Harris County, Texas.
Jacob Cohen is an associate attorney at The Rainwater Firm in Houston, Texas.
Alicia Palmer is an associate attorney at Kelly L. Fritsch, PC, in Houston, Texas.
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Rocky Dhir: Welcome everybody to the State Bob Anderson: of Texas podcast. We are recording on-site from the 2022 annual meeting in Houston, Texas. This is your host, Rocky Dhir. And joining me now, we have a whole panel of awesome, awesome guests. We’ve got Judge Janice Berg, we’ve got Jacob Cohen, Judge Gloria Lopez and Alicia Palmer. So welcome to the show guys.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Thank you for having us.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: Thank you for having us.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Thank you for having us.
Rocky Dhir: So you can hear it, they’re fun. Can’t you hear the fun in the voices? This is so cool. So you guys had a panel today. We were talking about what every young lawyer needs to know about family law. That’s why we have a couple of judges on here as well, to kind of give that perspective. Before we get into the topic itself, let’s hear a little bit more about each of our guests. So Judge Berg, let’s start with you. Tell us what you do and where you do it.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: I am the Presiding Judge of the 247th District Court here in Harris County. That’s a family court bench and I do family cases all day long. I’ve been licensed since 2008 and a judge since 2019.
Rocky Dhir: Presiding Judge, that sounds very hoity-toity, I’m just telling you. All right, Judge Lopez, tell us about you. Are you hoity toity?
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Yes, we need this.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Presiding Judge of the 308th Family District Court here in Harris County, Texas, board certified in family law. Also with Judge berg went, on the bench on January 1, 2019.
Rocky Dhir: Very cool. All right, Alicia, how about you?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: I’m an associate attorney at Kelly L, Fritsch, PC. I’ve been licensed to practice law in the State of Texas since 2015 and I’m not originally from Texas. I’m from Arizona, so, I am a transferee.
Rocky Dhir: We’ll forgive you, that’s okay. We’ll welcome you anyway.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: Oh, my turn?
Rocky Dhir: Yes.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: My name is Jacob Cohen. I’m an attorney at the Rainwater Firm here in Houston, Texas. I’ve been licensed to practice law in the State of Texas for going on 10 years or so, all exclusively in the area of family law.
Rocky Dhir: So it sounds like, if I’m hearing this correctly, you are all yourselves young lawyers. Even though even we got a couple of judges and you guys are on panels and all big overachievers, it sounds like you guys, yourselves are young lawyers. So was this panel really you giving your own experiences or were you trying to get brand new lawyers to kind of understand why they might want to go into family law? Let’s maybe talk about, so Alicia, you want to start us off on that?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Sure.
Rocky Dhir: What’s the purpose of the panel, really?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: So I think the purpose of the panel and I’ll throw it to my other panel members and see if they agree with me, was to give tips to new lawyers who are interested in entering into the realm of family law on things that they can look out for try to avoid mistakes. And some of the things that we’ve learned in our own practice and I do still consider myself a young lawyer. I know I’ve been practicing for six and a half years now, but I think that’s pretty young still.
Rocky Dhir: Very from my perspective.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Yeah. So just to give some tips and feedback on things to look out for and what to avoid.
Rocky Dhir: We’re going to get to the judges here in just a second, but Jacob, why don’t you maybe walk us through, you know, you said you’ve been practicing 10 years now. You know, what do you wish you would have known on day one that you now know ten years later?
Atty. Jacob Cohen: Oh man. That’s a big question because there’s — I mean, everything I know now I wish I would have known then, but I would say, the biggest thing would have been right where to start. You know, I wish that I knew then that as important as family layers and as important as civil litigation is, you know, it doesn’t have to be so scary, you will figure it out as long as you have the right mentors to learn from and as long as you have confidence in yourself. You know, you’ve been through law school, they’ve taught you how to do the research and writing. Now, it’s just opening up a book and teaching yourself what the law says and then asking questions from mentors around you.
Rocky Dhir: So mentorship?
Atty. Jacob Cohen: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Effectively, you know, look get a mentor and make it work. So now let’s maybe get the judicial perspective, right? You guys, I’m assuming our judges, did you guys both practice family law before you ascended to the bench?
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Yes exclusively.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. So now that you’re on the on the other side of this, right? What do you think for young lawyers when they come in, what’s maybe a mistake or something you want them to avoid doing. Now that you’re on that side and you can kind of see from the judge’s box, what should young lawyers say, look, I’m never going to do that because I heard from the judges and they’re telling me not to. So Judge Lopez, let’s start with you.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Never forget about your integrity.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, sure.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: It’s really important that your name carry its integrity. That when you have opposing counsels approach you or see your name on pleadings, they think about how positive you are, how ethical you are. There is no client, no case and no amount of money that is worth your integrity.
Rocky Dhir: Fair enough. Judge Berg?
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: Never go into court without reading your pleadings.
Rocky Dhir: That’s happened?
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: It has happened. I would say it happens every day in Harris County, in the 247th District Court. Somebody has not read their pleadings and if you fail to know what it is you’ve actually asked for, you are likely to lose.
Rocky Dhir: Sure, sure. So the writing is important. But what made each of you decide on family law as a specialty? So Judge Berg, we ended with you last time, we are going to start with you this time.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: Sure. I fell into family law. After law school, I began working for a lawyer who had a bunch of family law cases.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: I started working on them and began to enjoy the practice.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: I liked that it was highly rule-based and I liked dealing with the clients, helping clients.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And from there, got into more advanced issues, started doing family law appeals and then I was on a roll.
Rocky Dhir: So you were on the honor roll is what you’re telling. Fine. Judge Lopez, how did you fall into this? Or did you fall into it?
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: I did. I actually practice personal injury straight out of law school. I was doing toxic tour and personal injury.
Rocky Dhir: But the paralegal that was my paralegal at that law firm had a CPS case filed against her.
Rocky Dhir: Oh her personally.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Her children and she was a hot mess naturally. And my boss said this is her work family so you are going to represent her for free. I’ve never done family law before that day.
Rocky Dhir: That had to be scary.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: It was scary, but also very motivating because clearly, we cared about our work family and that paralegal. And when I went into that courtroom, I fell in love with family law.
Rocky Dhir: Mm-hmm.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Which was child welfare, CPS cases and after that, I started learning more about other parts of family and I quit that law firm and I started working at a family law firm.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting? Okay, Alicia, how about you?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: So I actually started off my law practice in immigration,
Rocky Dhir: Interesting.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: And there was a lot of overlap surprisingly. There was a lot of overlap between immigration and family law issues.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: So I naturally had to become accustomed to reading the family code and trying to figure out these other issues that were impacting my clients in Immigration. And when I started to do that and have cases in court, I realized that family law was more of my calling. So I decided to make that transition to be a family law attorney and leave immigration behind. I kind of dabbled in it for a little while after I started with family law, but now I exclusively do family law cases.
Rocky Dhir: Jacob, your turn.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: My mom had gone to law school when I was a sophomore in high school.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: And so, she went into family law. And by the time I was getting ready to go to law school, she had helped me get a clerkship for a family lawyer who she rented office space from.
Rocky Dhir: Got it.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: One of the other lawyers that also rented office space in that office suite who we were friendly with became an associate judge in one of the Harris County courts and when I graduated law school, i sought out his advice, you know, for networking, if he knew of any lawyers that needed assistance and he connected me actually. Then that was 2011 with Kelly Fritsch who’s actually Alicia’s boss right now.
Rocky Dhir: Got it.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: So that’s how I got into family law.
Rocky Dhir: Well now let’s, this is my impression as a non-family practitioner. I’ve dabbled in one or two cases, right? And so what I noticed about it from my perspective was it’s a real challenge not to get emotionally involved in every case that comes into your door. So, if you could look back and you had to advise your younger self or if you’re advising young lawyers now, how do you think they need to kind of create that barrier so they don’t take it home with them? You know, they kind of maintain their professional composure. So Judge Lopez, do you want to start us out on that?
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Sure. I think it’s important to create a boundary and this goes to just personally, you have to create a boundary, make sure you don’t take your work home with you.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: That way, it doesn’t affect you and it doesn’t affect your family and your children. But also, it’s important to realize that opposing counsel is advocating for their clients.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: They’re not exactly your adversary. They’re not the spouse that you’re fighting against, so try not to take that personally. the minute that you do, then things start unraveling and could possibly become a lot more unprofessional and unkind and that’s not your goal when you advocate for your client.
Rocky Dhir: Jacob, let’s turn to you next,
Atty. Jacob Cohen: You know, I think it’s a tough question because I think to an extent, at least as a practicing family law litigator, it’s kind of helpful to take some of what’s happening to your client personally depending on the circumstances so that you kind of have that fuel and motivation to really do a good job for that person. But at the end of the day, you have to make yourself remember that, you know, you go home to your family. The things that are happening to them are not happening to you. So that, you know, it’s your profession. You’ve got I really be able to turn it on and turn it off. And if that means you’ve got to go before you go home, you’ve got to go run around memorial park for an hour or you’ve got to go, you know, hit golf balls, or you’ve got to go read a book or meditate or whatever—
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: I think it’s important to have some kind of an outlet to help you sort of get that emotion out.
Rocky Dhir: Judge Berg, we’re going to turn to you next.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: Sure. I think especially given how interconnected we are with email and cell phones and in this Zoom world, as a practitioner, I didn’t have to deal with Zoom.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: But I did for convenience, let my clients have my cell phone.
Rocky Dhir: Mm-hmm.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And that was a blessing and a curse. And that I didn’t have to be tied to the office, but I had to remember that my clients were still clients when they were calling me. And one of the things that I did was I changed the name, the contact name. Everybody’s first name if they were my client was client.
Rocky Dhir: Got it. Okay.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And when my phone rang and it said client, I didn’t answer it after a certain hour. I asked my clients when I gave them my cellphone number, I said this is my personal cellphone number, but I’m not going to answer it when it’s not the work, when we’re outside of work hours. I thought that that was important. I know a lot of people want to be disconnected from their office and that’s a good thing, but make sure you keep those boundaries on your devices.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Fair enough. Alicia, you get to round this one out.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Yeah. And I agree with everything everybody already said, but I would also add that it is important like Jacob was mentioning to have empathy. I think that’s an important part of our practice because we are dealing with people who are really struggling and going through difficult times in their lives.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: But leaving your work at home, leaving your work at work and not taking it home, is what I meant to say, is really important so that your family also doesn’t suffer the impacts of what everybody else that you’re working with is going through. So I do think that if a client does have your cellphone number, making sure that they know that you already set out beforehand what the boundaries are and like Judge Berg mentioned, they know please don’t call me after 5:00. These are business hours. Even though this is my cell phone, I have a family as well. So being up front with your clients and at the get-go is really helpful when it comes to setting those boundaries.
Rocky Dhir: Now you guys had this, and I’m sure the panel had a lot of wisdom being — it’s a term bandied about, but it’s, you know, there’s a lot of wisdom that was shared. So, you know, Alicia, we’ll start with you on this. What do you think from the panel that you guys had on what young lawyers need to know about family law? What was your favorite kind of tidbit of wisdom that you took away from that?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: My favorite tidbit was just the professional aspect of the panel and how we were talking about professionalism and reminding ourselves that that is the framework that we need to approach every single case.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Because this is an emotional area of law that we practice in, remembering that the person across from you as opposing counsel is your colleague and you need to treat them with respect, treat judges with respect, treat the court staff with respect is really important and I think that that gets lost sometimes more often than it should. And if we can constantly remind ourselves as young lawyers, that at the end of the day, you may have another case with that opposing counsel and you want a reputation that you are going to be at the call and do the right thing. That’s very important.
Rocky Dhir: Jacob, you’re next.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: I think my favorite topic was not being afraid to have a hearing and you’d asked earlier what’s something we wish we would have known on our first day and if I could answer it again, that’s probably what I would say. Because to this day, it still freaks me out to know that I have to go in front of a judge and ask witnesses questions. Am I going to look silly? Am I going to, you know, whatever.
Rocky Dhir: Right, sure.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: But at the end of the day, if your clients can’t agree or the parties can’t agree–
–or your opposing party is taking an unreasonable position that you know in your gut is not the right outcome for your client or you know it’s not in the best interest of the child or you don’t know what’s going to happen so you need a judge, you need to put it on the judge.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: You just have to go and rip the Band-Aid off and do it. And the other thing is, you’ll learn a lot. You will be more confident the more you do it and it will — because as family lawyers, you’re going to have to go to court eventually one way or another.
Rocky Dhir: Sure. Right. Right. All right, Judge Lopez, let’s maybe try to see what was your favorite tidbit or your favorite piece of advice.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: I think my favorite point or advice was it’s appropriate to tell a judge that they’re wrong, but you have to do it in such a way that it’s not offensive.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: And that it’s productive. You can’t just approach a judge and tell him how incredibly dumb they are and it’s impossible to understand how they do not know that portion of the statute or the law.
Rocky Dhir: Do the voters not know this when you, yeah, right.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Exactly. How did you win? But it is important for your clients – it’s important to know that you as a lawyer, don’t know everything. We have so many statutes we have to take into account. The family code on its own is so large, it’s so complex as well.
Rocky Dhir: It’s huge, isn’t it? There’s a whole O’Connor’s on it, yes.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: Exactly. We have Texas rules of civil procedure, the Rules of Evidence. So as a judge, it’s also important to know that we’re not always right or sometimes, evidence is presented in such a way or an argument is presented in such a way that I didn’t receive it as you intended it.
Rocky Dhir: Hmm.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: So file your motions to let me know that I was wrong. File your Motion to Reconsider. If you don’t believe that you were eloquent because you’re not an orator, you don’t speak as well as you write, then take that into consideration. That way, I can get it right. The judge’s goal is to get it right, not to prove that you’re right as an attorney or prove that you’re wrong as an attorney. It’s to get our rulings correct based on the law.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, that is very good to hear. Judge Berg, how about you? What was your favorite?
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: My favorite aspect of our presentation was how many lawyers were in the audience who are not young and who are not new at this, who seemed really to appreciate going back to the basics.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And remembering the things that we all know or wish we knew as young lawyers that really are the same things. We need to remind ourselves about every day that we practice, whether it’s looking at the Lawyer’s Creed when you feel frazzled or being upfront with your clients or with the judge. I liked that it wasn’t just for young lawyers.
Rocky Dhir: I’m kind of wishing I could have been in on that because it sounds like a great panel. I guess one final question for everybody before I wrap up and again, we could talk for a long time because you guys are fun. But you know, I think there may be one question that’s always– and is not just family law, this is lawyers in all practice areas, anybody who litigates. You know, we’ve talked about the Lawyers Creed, we’ve about civility, your reputation. What do you do though when your opposing counsel is violating all of those things? They’re not living up to the Creed. They’re taking their case too personally. They’re doing all these things that we’re told not to do and yet, they’re winning, they’re getting ahead. You know, there’s been no consequence. You know, they’re making sidebar comments during closing argument. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience, but you know, they do these things and there’s no consequence. How do we as practitioners kind of keep ourselves centered when something like that is happening? And I’m going to ask the judges for their perspective, but I’m going to save the judges for the end. So you know, Alicia, let’s start with you. How do you keep yourself grounded and focused when something like that happens?
Atty. Alicia Palmer: That’s a really tough question because that’s a very difficult thing to deal with.
Rocky Dhir: It is.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: Especially when your client is looking at you like they are getting away with murder, what are you going to do?
Rocky Dhir: That’s precisely true, yeah.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: So I always remind my client that the facts are the facts in the case and my job is to present the facts in such a way that we can get a favorable ruling. So even if opposing counsel is being underhanded or not doing what they’re supposed to do, I’m still going to go into court with my integrity and present the facts in such a way that hopefully, we have a positive outcome and I really try my best not to stoop down to another person’s level if I don’t feel I’m being treated with respect. But at some point, it is important I have no problem the opposing counsel out if I don’t believe that they’re behaving in a manner that is respectful really because we all are colleagues and I will pick up the phone and have a conversation with that person or ask if we can meet for lunch or just try to have a dialogue and try to figure out what the underlying issue is.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all just doing a job and if we can be human with each other and just get on each other’s level, sometimes those disputes can be resolved.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, good, good. Jacob?
Atty. Jacob Cohen: You know it’s the question — sort of a similar question came up during the panel and it was what I had said then was and what I still believe is that you’ve got to take the high road as hard as it can be at times when your opposing counsel is acting a fool and spouting off all these unreasonable things and rude things and you’ve got to remind your client and remind yourself that these litigations, especially the ones dealing with higher net worth estates and a divorce are our marathons, they’re not sprints. Like Alicia said, the facts are the facts and especially judges like Judge Berg and Judge Lopez, when they’re doing things like that in front of them, they’re not going to let that go on for very long because they’re very student knowing wait a second. And they also know what the law is, so some of that will only get you so far, a lot of it is posturing, I think and a lot of it is also could be your opposing counsel may not really know what they’re doing, so to make up for it, they have to act like a big tough person and show out for their client. At the end of the day, you just have to stay the course, try your case, work up the file the way you know how to and don’t lose your head over it.
Rocky Dhir: Judges, what do you want to see when something like that happens? And Judge Berg, we’ll start with you.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: It may seem like there are no consequences, but karma’s a bitch. No, I guess what I would say is a lot of this comes up when we’re dealing with self-represented litigants.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And as the judge what Jacob said is absolutely true. You have to take the high road and there’s nothing that makes your case more difficult for the court when you come in harboring your grudges against counsel on the other side. Just remember that it is a long game. Your reputation is your career and there ultimately are things courts can do. I like to think that in my court, when you’re not following the rules, you will have a consequence. I’m a big believer in applying the discovery rules equally to everybody and actually relying on those policies to make sure that justice is done.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: And you shouldn’t leave court thinking that there were absolutely no consequences for bad behavior. And hopefully, the court that you’re in will help to guard against those sorts of injustices.
Rocky Dhir: Sure. Judge Lopez, take us home.
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: My answer is twofold. Outside of the courtroom, especially in circumstances with self-represented litigants, sometimes it’s best not to respond at all. It’s not necessary to respond or to reply to a lengthy email for somebody telling you how terrible your client is or complaining about certain things especially if it doesn’t help your case. Silence is best at times. But in the courtroom, there are consequences. While your clients may feel like there isn’t in that moment, but the court is very astute. It is your responsibility as a lawyer to make sure there is dignity within the court and the justice system and as a judge, I make sure that everybody carries that dignity and addresses the court regardless of who you are and what the problem is in a respectful manner. And I’ve told people and lawyers as well, it’s not about you liking me or disliking me personally, it’s about you respecting this court because it’s not my court. You know, I’m presiding over this bench, but you have to respect this process.
Rocky Dhir: All great advice, all of it. But it does look like we reached the end of this particular program. I want to thank you all for joining us today. But before we close out, if anybody wants to get in touch, anybody has questions, they’re curious about family law, you can tell us quickly how they can get a hold of you and maybe reach you, hat would be great. So Jacob, let’s start with you.
Atty. Jacob Cohen: Sure. So it’s Jacob Cohen at the Rainwater Firm and if you google the Rainwater Firm and I’m saying it that way because the actual web address escapes me, don’t tell my boss. Don’t let her listen to that. I don’t know the web address. But you google the Rainwater Firm and you’ll find this. It’s Charlotte Rainwater and Jacob Cohen and our office number is Area Code 713-337-5000 and my personal email address is [email protected].
Rocky Dhir: Nice. Okay, Alicia.
Atty. Alicia Palmer: So I am with Kelly L. Fritsch, PC and our office number is 713-869-2900.
And my personal email address is Alicia, it’s A-L-I-C-I-A at Fritsch and I’m going to spell that because everybody always spells it wrong. It’s F-R-I-T-S-C-H familylaw.com.
Rocky Dhir: Wonderful. Judge Lopez?
Hon. Judge Gloria E. Lopez: You can email me at [email protected].
Rocky Dhir: And Judge Berg.
Hon. Judge Janice Berg: You can email me at [email protected].
Rocky Dhir: I’m seeing a pattern between these two. That is all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, brought to you by LawPay. Thank you again LawPay, you’re awesome. Also, thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you like what you heard, please rate and review us in Apple podcast, Google podcast Spotify, Amazon Music or better yet, your favorite podcasting app. I’m Rocky Dhir. Until next time. Thank you for listening.
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