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When family feuds reach the court of law
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When family feuds reach the court of law

Lawyers and rabbis discuss the challenge of difficult clients

Moderator Jeff Greenfield, standing, in discussion with panelists, from left, retired judge John Bissell, lawyer Nancy Erika Smith, and rabbinic judge Rabbi Daniel Rapp at the Sept. 22 Jewish Law Symposium in Whippany.
Moderator Jeff Greenfield, standing, in discussion with panelists, from left, retired judge John Bissell, lawyer Nancy Erika Smith, and rabbinic judge Rabbi Daniel Rapp at the Sept. 22 Jewish Law Symposium in Whippany.

Some 750 attorneys, rabbis, and law students gathered at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany on Sept. 22 for “Why Can’t We All Get Along? — an exploration of how lawyers should handle difficult clients and feuding families.

In three separate panels moderated by author and television reporter Jeff Greenfield, a retired federal judge, a rabbi, and a rotating set of trial lawyers debated thorny issues they face when they try to resolve disputes, often among family members.

The annual Jewish Law Symposium was sponsored by the Chabad of Southeast Morris County. Some 37 law firms and private individuals cosponsored the forum.

Three half-hour discussions, punctuated with video clips as varied as a Seinfeld episode, a scene from The Godfather, and a Volkswagen commercial, focused on lawyer-client disputes, family business conflicts, and bitter quarrels over inheritances.

Greenfield asked employment attorney Nancy Erika Smith of Smith Mullin in Montclair how she would handle someone who retained her to “hurt” her adversary in a lawsuit.

“I have to say to them, ‘That’s for the Mafia, not me.’ All I can do is work within the bounds of the law,” she said.

“There may be something going on in the background of a client’s desire to exact pain on the other side,” said John Bissell, who retired as chief justice of the United States District Court of New Jersey in 2005. 

As a judge in the Beth Din of America — a court of Jewish law — Rabbi Daniel Rapp said he does not normally engage with attorneys who represent aggrieved parties. Nevertheless, “there is still a lot of psychology involved. We allow people to blow off steam.” 

“If one party is really, really difficult to deal with, should that affect your judgment of who is right and who is wrong?” Greenfield asked Rapp.

“It shouldn’t, but it does,” the rabbi replied.

“Maybe you should try to talk to them about core values and mutual respect, at least for a person if not for a position,” said Judge Bissell.

A second panel focused on disputes in family-owned businesses.

“In some cases it really is about search and destroy,” said H. Glenn Tucker, managing partner at Greenberg Dauber Epstein & Tucker in Newark. “In some families, when they litigate, because of the emotions released, they try to destroy the business.”

“If you can put the family back together that becomes a simpler fix. If you can plan ahead, that solves most of the problems,” said Rapp.

A third panel on family members who quarrel over inheritance included Robert Margulies, managing partner at Margulies Wind in Jersey City.

“We are seeing a lot more cases now where, while the parents are still alive, their children are fighting over the spoils,” he said. He advocated “a lot more mediation and litigation to have the fight ahead of time, especially if the parents are weakened by medical conditions.”

“The time to set up trusts is when times are good,” he said. 

The panelists also discussed clauses in wills that revoke the inheritance of a Jewish heir who marries a non-Jew.

Bissell said courts “have considered it a legitimate realm of choice to promote marriage within the faith.”

“OK, here comes the slippery slope,” said Greenfield. “What happens if they do not keep a kosher home or marry somebody of a different race?”

“There is a perception of right as we might hold it in our society that might not necessarily be served by law,” said Bissell.

“When you find a family who is suffering, whether through a dispute over inheritance or family business, there is a lot of opportunity as a judge or a lawyer to make the world a better place,” said Rapp as the evening concluded. “If we can show our clients that we can bring them a step closer toward settlement I think that is a tremendous opportunity.”

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