Going Solo . . .



Keys to success for family law attorney are networking and service to others

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of profiles about solo firms in the Grand Rapids area. If you have a suggestion for a firm to cover, please email cprice@legalnews.com.)

Diann Landers says that when she struck out on her own, the main reason she was able to hit the ground running was that her community and professional involvement made her name and capabilities known.

That has stood her in good stead to the present, and now she also benefits from a stream of referrals based on her solid reputation for working hard on behalf of her clients.

To some extent she also attributes her early success to the first job she had out of law school: working for Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM). Initially assigned to general work, she ended up being in the Family Law Division back in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Landers says, “When I started out,  I had a built in clientele — I never had to go out and market or advertise like a lot of people putting up their own shingle.?At Legal Aid there is a high level of numbers of cases, so you become visible. People saw me in court all the time. So when I?transitioned I had that.”

The Chicago native went to Northern Illinois University in Dekalb for her undergraduate degree and then DePaul University School of Law for her J.D. During her time at DePaul, she interned at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, and discovered an affinity for legal aid.

She applied to a variety of legal assistance organizations around the Midwest. When she investigated Grand Rapids, she saw a growing community that appealed to her, so right after graduation she packed up and relocated here.

“This has always been a tremendous area to practice in because there’s so much collegiality, and I think we have a great bench overall,” she comments.
As Landers worked on an increasing number of domestic law cases, she discovered a passion for it. “Every case in family law is different, and I like that, as well as the fact that I do get to go to court a lot,” she says.

After four years at Legal Aid, she left for a small firm which included James Zerrenner — whom she calls “one of the old guard big divorce lawyers” — as well
as Janet Haynes and Nanaruth Carpenter, who both became judges.

When she decided to “go solo,” Landers arranged to share an office space with attorney Joseph Smigiel. Though their practices are completely separate and Smigiel works on a limited number of non-family cases, the arrangement has worked out well for both of them. “We can also cover for each other a little when something comes up,” Landers says.

Their shared office is in the process of being moved from one side of the Waters Building to the other, as the building owners make changes which will include housing units and a hotel.

Landers remains a very busy lawyer, so busy that she has limited her cases to only those within Kent County. She says this saves effort  and stress for her and money for out-of-county clients.

“There are times of the year that are busier than others,” she says. “Around the holidays is slower, then after the first of the year it picks up; tax time is also busier. Summer slows down, but there are always clients.”

Since Landers is also experienced in mediation and arbitration, she is very savvy about what process will best work in the interests of her clients.

“A big change that happened during my career was mandatory mediation in all Kent County Circuit Court divorce actions; the couple is required to do at least one facilitated mediation session. They may not need to go to trial, which brings to the forefront all the negativity, and I see people having a much easier time generally if they’ve participated in the agreement. I don’t think it works in all cases, but I think the advent of mediation has been a great thing. Arbitration has advantages too, but there are still those who want to take their disputes to court,” she says.

Landers also has mixed feelings about the recent State Court Administrative Office mandates for getting cases through the court system quickly. “I understand the need for it, but in some cases I think we’re pushing them too quickly. Some cases just take longer. It puts a lot of pressure on the judges, which is one reason I think we need another judge here,” she says.

She applauds the use of referees to relieve some of that burden — her husband, also an attorney, is a retired referee — but feels that does not go far enough.
Other changes Landers has witnessed over the years include viewing joint custody as truly shared, “not just every other weekend and Wednesdays for dinner,” and an increase in parties representing themselves, which she thinks often backfires in terms of finances. “If you use one word wrong in the court order, it can make a great deal of difference,” she says, citing a case where referring to proceeds of a sale as opposed to valuation meant tens of thousands of dollars lost.

She also humorously says that some of the changes have just been in a more politically correct language — “spousal support” for “alimony,” “parenting time” for “visitation” — though she also sees many more instances in which both parents have been active in raising the children. Another recent trend she has observed is older couples getting divorced, which despite removing the child custody aspect from the case often entails other issues.

“I hear more and more people making claims about separate property,” she says,” and I see that as becoming more of an issue, separate versus marital property. Of course, valuation is probably one of the most difficult things we family lawyers have to deal with, so we often have to collaborate with other professionals. I also do that with psychologists and social workers.”

Over the years, Landers has mentored a number of other lawyers, helping to acclimate them to the realities of the practice. “I’ll talk to a new lawyer who asks, ‘What is motion day?’ and I’ve tried to help them out over the years,” she says. Many of them still keep in touch with her, and she continues to reach out to new mentees.

Another strong theme in her career has been pro bono work, which she does both on her own and through LAWM. She was the very first recipient of the Michael S. Barnes Award for her time given to LAWM?clients. “Michael Barnes was a wonderful person, working with the young lawyers to encourage pro bono, so active on the board of Legal Aid,” Landers says. “The idea of getting an award that’s in his name is one of the highlights of what I’ve done, and I think it means the most to me of any award I’ve gotten.”

Many of her other honors came as a result of that broad commitment to community and professional service which has also benefited her practice. She has been recognized for her contributions as a volunteer facilitator for the Domestic Relations Settlement Program by the Michigan Court of Appeals; for continuing judicial education by the Michigan Judicial Institute; for outstanding volunteer services by the Voluntary Action Center; and for volunteering at and contributing to Paws with a?Cause. Her work on the Michigan Women’s Commission and the Women’s Resource Center has helped bring beneficial projects to fruition.

Landers has also served on and chaired sections and committees through the Grand Rapids Bar Association (including the Pro Bono Committee), and at the State Bar and ABA levels. She is a member of the Michigan Women Lawyers Association and the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association. She is on the board of directors for the ACUS Western Michigan Branch.

She also has participated in Institute of Continuing Legal Education workshops, as well as giving educational sessions for state and local groups.