As a young associate in a downtown civil litigation firm, Toronto family lawyer Gary Gottlieb learned important lessons about how to be an effective advocate in the courtroom, but he soon realized that his heart wasn’t into litigating real estate disputes.
The epiphany came on the heels of a two-week trial involving a heated dispute over the square footage of a parking space.
“I won the trial. The judge was so impressed he wrote a letter to my boss extolling my virtues,” says Gottlieb, founder of Gottlieb Law Firm, a Toronto family law practice that focuses on high-conflict divorce and child protection matters.
“But I just couldn’t get passionate about a parking space. I knew I would eventually have to move into a more people-oriented practice of law because I have always been oriented to helping people,” he says.
Lawyer finds his niche
Gottlieb tried to float the idea of a family law practice to the civil litigation firm where he was working but he was unsuccessful. He says the impression of family law in legal circles 30 years ago was that it was less important and that the clients were less valuable.
“To that point, I hadn’t appreciated that there was a distinction between criminal law and family law litigants versus everyone else. I believe there’s nothing more important than helping people resolve their issues — as opposed to fighting over easements and rights of way.”
Not long after, Gottlieb Law Firm was born with the mission to help families during some of the most difficult challenges of their lives. The early days were lean and often lonely, Gottlieb says, noting that he didn’t have the benefit of networking with peers over social media the way lawyers do today.
“Those were tough years. I didn’t have any clients, and I had to learn family law on my own because I hadn’t been trained in it. But because I had a good background in civil litigation — experience in court and the ability to negotiate and work quickly — I started to get referrals.
“To have a solid grounding in the rules of civil procedure and know how to litigate statutory authorities was extremely useful; it allowed me to run circles around counsel who didn’t,” Gottlieb says. “Being a mediator has also sharpened my communication skills as well as my ability to negotiate more effectively with other lawyers.”
Three decades: the good, the bad and the ugly
In the more than 34 years he’s been practising, Gottlieb says he’s witnessed significant changes in family law — the good, the bad and the ugly.
On the plus side, legislative changes to Ontario’s Family Law Act as well as the more recent updates to the federal Divorce Act that focus the attention of family law litigants on what’s best for their children, have had a positive impact on families, says Gottlieb.
“There’s so much more social science literature now on the adverse effects of litigious divorce on children that the courts have increasingly focused on their best interests in determining parenting arrangements and decision-making responsibility,” he says.
Another positive development is that decisions about which parent should have primary responsibility for the children are no longer based on the gender of the parent, Gottlieb says.
“There’s been a huge shift from the default of mothers being awarded (custody). It used to be very female-biased, but now it’s much more gender-neutral. The courts recognize the benefits of having both parents involved in a child’s life in most circumstances,” he says.
The bad news is that there are still too many couples embroiled in protracted battles over money, property and children, says Gottlieb. Despite legal statutes compelling spouses to resolve their divorce outside of court where possible — and the promise of a faster and less expensive divorce — he says couples are still fighting it out in court.
“Not only does a high-conflict divorce leave families emotionally drained and psychologically scarred, but it can also take a huge financial toll. Some people spend years going to court, fighting over children, possessions, assets and debt,” Gottlieb says.
The ugly story in family law is the access-to-justice crisis: many people can’t afford to hire a lawyer, but they also don’t qualify for legal aid. The result is a sharp increase in the number of people appearing in court as self-represented litigants. Statistics show that close to 60 per cent of family litigants do not retain legal counsel.
“Unrepresented litigants take more judicial resources, are more difficult to settle with and are often unprepared, causing numerous delays,” Gottlieb says. “Often, they’re working from a place of emotional vulnerability and with the handicap of not understanding the law. Some are challenged with psychological or addiction issues, which can make getting to a resolution very difficult.”
In recent years, budget cuts to Ontario legal aid services have fuelled an increase in those who represent themselves, adding pressure to a system already bursting at the seams, says Gottlieb.
“There aren’t enough judges or sufficient legal aid to support people of modest means. Some lawyers, like us, are willing to help clients with legal aid certificates, but that process has become increasingly difficult.”
Advice for new lawyers
A highly respected member of the family law bar, Gottlieb attributes his success in building a thriving practice, in part, to his laser focus on the issues of the case before him, not the personalities of his client, the opposing side or their lawyer.
“I don’t take things personally, and I much prefer to be on good terms with opposing counsel. Some lawyers try to trash opposing counsel’s client by making accusations about their personality or judgments on their actions. I try to blow away all that smoke and work with the facts as they present themselves. I’m not here to pass judgment on my client or the other side,” he says.
In that vein, he has some advice for new lawyers:
· know the rules
· know the law
· be patient
· take on difficult cases; they will help you learn
· network with more senior lawyers so they can help guide you
· develop a network of peers who are facing similar challenges, so you know you’re not alone.
· don’t shy away from taking children’s aid cases — they are excellent for building advocacy skills
· don’t let your fear of trials stand in the way of doing trials
· don’t wing it in court — be prepared
· don’t worry about spending more time than you can bill.
“The early part of your career is about the learning years; you’re developing skills, and your clients shouldn’t have to pay for that,” says Gottlieb.
More than three decades on, the little firm founded on the desire to give clients strong legal advocacy has grown. Today, the team at Gottlieb Law Firm includes five associate lawyers, three law clerks and two assistants. At the helm is a passionate and respected advocate still fighting the good fight on behalf of his clients.
“I want my clients to feel that I was compassionate, empathetic to their cause, that I heard them, fought hard for them and met their expectations,” says Gottlieb.