Skip to main content
LawHub

From Disillusioned to Dedication: Balancing Empathy, Reality, and the Law in Divorce Litigation

Apr 22, 2024
Listen to this episode

Jenn Russoniello is a family lawyer who started as a social worker disappointed in the system. Jenn highlights the emotional and practical challenges of divorce litigation, which often intertwine personal and legal complexities. She emphasizes the significance of client-centered representation, especially as it relates to the nuances of settlement negotiations, the decision to go to trial, and navigating the complexities of post-judgment issues. Throughout the conversation, Jenn emphasizes the role of empathy, practicality, and adaptability in providing effective legal assistance to families navigating challenging circumstances. Jenn Russoniello is a 2010 graduate of the University of Rutgers - Newark.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Jenn Russoniello, social worker turned family lawyer at a small firm who specializes in divorce litigation. Before coming to your current firm, which is the only firm you've worked at after getting your law license, you had a bunch of professional experiences in family matters. What draws you to this field?

Jenn Russoniello:

So I think the dynamics of these interpersonal relationships is just something that's always interested me. And part of the reason I think I was so interested in social work was this concept of being able to help people in some way. And I know that this field can be one that's looked at where that doesn't happen, but I find that you do help people in what I'm doing. In this area of law, to kind of help people get on their feet. I mean, it's an area that kind of is frowned upon sometimes. Like, “oOh, you're just a divorce lawyer. You just, you know, this is what you deal with.”

But really, I deal with things that people have to deal with every day. And while it may not seem huge, who picks a kid up from their football game and who gets to be there at prom or other events? These are big, important things for the people that are experiencing them.

Katya Valasek:

And you started to get that understanding right after you finished undergrad. You started out working for youth and family services right out of college. What did you start to see in that initial role?

Jenn Russoniello:

Most child protective services are through the state. It's a box or it's a form and you just check off the boxes. And there wasn't a lot of room for creative solutions for really looking at each individual family as a family. There were certain rules and boundaries that the state has to follow or the guidelines that left no real ability, I felt, to work with people in a way that actually helps them. So sometimes, 100%, the rules and guidelines are needed. And other times, I would look at it and go, “This outdated concept is putting this kid in more danger or more emotional harm than should be.” And I just couldn't tolerate it. And I think overall, at that point in New Jersey, at least, DCPP, well, what is now DCPP was going through a major overhaul. So, there was kind of a flow down concept where if something was going to go wrong, you were kind of the one on the line. And I just didn't feel like I didn't feel that the services they were providing at that point were actually serving the population that I was supposed to be.

Katya Valasek:

So is that feeling that you weren't serving the right population what then propelled you to consider law school?

Jenn Russoniello:

I was actually going to go to school for social work. And my supervisor at the time had said that I should go to law school. And I debated. I had already taken the GRE. I had already gotten into Montclair State. And I think, frankly, too, part of it was a financial thing. At the time, I had always assumed I would be supporting myself at some point. I always assumed I would have a career, regardless of what happened in my life.

And the scariest part for me was that with social work, I really felt like my biggest financial gain would have been through the state and I did not want to work for them anymore. And so I kind of switched gears and started to explore different areas of the law. And I did that in law school too. I did a special education clinic. So I was always in this kind of dealing with these dynamics of families.

Katya Valasek:

And in addition to the clinic, you did law school part time and you were working as a legal secretary. And that was also at a family law firm. So what was the next level that you experienced being in that legal setting, as opposed to working for the state?

Jenn Russoniello:

So that was a lot more like up close and personal, I would say. I worked as a legal secretary for a solo practitioner who's now a judge in the state of New Jersey. And so that was a lot of picking up the phone and dealing with clients, doing dictation, doing billing. I mean, it gave me a lot of very practical skills. And I was always more about the practical side. I would take a clinic any day over a law school class in some ways. So it gave me a real experience of practicality, but also the pressures. I mean, clients don't stop. And while something may not seem like an emergency to you, or really it's not an emergency to clients, these things are.

One of the best lessons I've ever learned is that when you are in oral argument and you're before a judge and you are winning, it's important to know when to argue and it's important to know when to shut your mouth and be strategic and move on. So it gave me such an overall view, which now also really helps in terms of connecting with staff because I understand their roles.

And, it was pretty funny because they all were surprised. I was like, oh, I know how to type dictation or I know how to do these things. So it was really invaluable in that sense, just getting a bird's eye view every day of what it looked like.

Katya Valasek:

And that's such important perspective to have, but it's not necessarily common. Law school is unique in the sense that there is no prerequisite coursework or major or work experience that you need. So not everybody starts with that perspective that you had from your time at the state. And not everyone is collecting that intel as they're working their way through law school. Did you feel like you had a different perspective on what you were doing than some of your classmates?

Jenn Russoniello:

I had a very specific goal. I wanted to practice law. I enjoyed being in that mode, which I think was helpful in also determining my future career points and helpful in knowing when I had those options as to whether to do clinic or take on another course, I knew those roles and I started to learn and focus in on client -based relationships because I knew that my clients would be individuals as opposed to corporations. And client-based representation was a huge part of what I learned in law school, but I think I was also very focused on that point because I knew the kind of types of clients that I anticipated having.

Katya Valasek:

So you collected all this experience before law school, during law school, that really built your knowledge of client intel. After graduation, you wanted to explore the lawyering side of things. And you approached this through a clerkship.

Jenn Russoniello:

I find clerkships to be somewhat invaluable. I think it's like a residency for a doctor. I learned so much about just the inner workings and the process of how the judiciary works, you know, cases come to these judges and they see so many cases every day.

And it gave me this perspective of how to approach the court. But also, you have to remember when you're presenting your case that judges are seeing 10, 15, 20, hundreds of files that look just like yours.

So learning what a file looks like in the courtroom and how their scheduling works and all of their timeframes because they have their best practices as well that they're trying to move along and close cases. So in that sense, it was very eye opening, especially from going from what you think you see on TV to what actually happens in court. Many times court is boring. I mean, it just is. There's case management conference after case management conference, or there's just these procedural levels, but they're all important steps that are there for a reason.

I have been to DV court or domestic violence court a million times, and every time I go, I hear the same speech about what happens when you get an FRO or what your rights are. And as lawyers sometimes, or even in the court, you kind of downplay that. But for someone sitting there, they don't know that. They don't know their capabilities. And the court is really there not only to make decisions, but to make sure that everyone's rights are being respected or their ability for due process is being heard.

Katya Valasek:

The court system in New Jersey is different than in many other states. So you were able to clerk specifically for a, it was a family law clerkship.

Jenn Russoniello:

I was in a family law clerkship under an FM docket, which handled divorces, which is most of what I do now. And the second half of my clerkship, actually, my judge transferred to what's called a Children in Court docket, which then brought me back to my original, job before law school as a worker for DCPP.

But it was a good experience to experience both things. I think sometimes too people, again, judges even in the state or attorneys who practice in this area are sometimes downplayed. And I think people sometimes think, well, this isn't prestigious or it's not. I will never forget my judge would always say that when you are trying cases where someone may lose their parental rights. That is a constitutional right. That is some of the most important work that people do in the courthouse. A judge making a determination as to whether a parent gets to raise their child or not. And I think sometimes it gets brushed a little bit under the rug, the level of importance of these matters. And it was amazing to see them happen and the emotion that goes into it because, we have laws and rules, but these cases are also emotional. And having appeared before many judges, judges all handle that differently. And the ones who can really find that spot where they can show that empathy but still keep hold of the situation are the ones that are really great to appear in front of.

Katya Valasek:

The thing about being an attorney is no matter how small the matter seems to anyone from the outside, the client you are working for has turned to you for help. Something important enough to them that they have sought legal counsel. So I, I agree. There is no trivial legal matter, especially not family related.

Jenn Russoniello:

No, and the reality is too, I can quantify in many cases. If we're having an argument over equitable distribution of assets or over alimony, I can tell you, okay, this is the range, right? We're between X and Y, and this is the difference, and this is what it's gonna cost you potentially to get there. If you have a slam dunk, maybe you're up this much. The part that makes it hard in my job is that what I cannot quantify is custody and parenting time.

I cannot tell you what an overnight is worth to you. I cannot tell you what getting to have sole decision making or not is worth to you. Those are things that are just not quantifiable, which is where my job gets harder. It is much easier in the realm to say to people, “Listen, this is a $15,000 issue. And while you may be right about it, it's going to take you X amount of dollars to get there. So let's negotiate or let's strategize.” It is much harder to do that when you are talking about kids and parenting time.

Katya Valasek:

Okay, so I want to continue down this path of what it is you do day to day. Let’s talk about a case that is going to settle. What are the different scenarios that may present prejudgment?

Jenn Russoniello:

So I will tell you right off the bat that a majority of matrimonial cases settle. And the system is really built to put in stop gaps to help you settle. My main tool that I always go to, if we're trying to resolve something, is mediation. Mediation is something we use all the time. We have a third party, whether it be an attorney or a judge come in.

And when I have cases where people come in, my job is not to not make you settle. My job is to advise you of what the law can do, what the law is, because most of the time, your creativity comes in settlement. There are a million things that I can do in settlement that are totally legal and totally fine, but the court can't do them. The court cannot just decide to offset assets. The court can't say, “Oh, we’ll buy out your alimony.” There are just things that can't be done because that's not how the law is written and that's not what the law is prescribed.

The way I look at settlement is almost a two -step process. The first one is many times we have assets, liabilities, incomes. What does everybody say they are? Do we agree on what they are? Do we not agree? Sometimes you'll agree, okay, accounts are kind of easy. Someone may have a business. Maybe we disagree on what that business is worth. So step one is what are the assets and liabilities and do we agree on the values of those? If not, we need experts, appraisals, other things to help. Once we have that view and we have whatever discovery we need, I try and get in a room and whether it be with a mediator or a four way to try and resolve it.

Katya Valasek:

When you have a client who is really eager to go to trial for whatever reason, how do you counsel that type of client?

Jenn Russoniello:

So actually, I think pre -COVID, it was much easier in some ways because we would have to go into court. And going into court is an experience unto itself. And you're not at home on Zoom. So you think this is like law and order. And you're just going to go in. And you're just going to tell the judge, “Hey, I want XYZ.” And the judge just waves a magic wand.

And the way that I explain to clients who want to go to trial now is, first of all, you're about two to three years from a trial date at any county in New Jersey, even if they are doing trials. Many are not, especially not in family. Secondarily, if you want to argue certain points, you need to get your proofs. If you don't even want to do discovery for me, you're not going to trial because every document, every account, needs to be put into evidence. And so then you really say to people, what are we trying? What are the differences? A lot of times that stems from emotion more than the reality of the situation. Sometimes people will come and say that and I go, okay, well, what are we going to trial over? And when we get down to it, I go, so we disagree about one or two things. You're not going to try a case over this. And I tell people a lot of the time, you can be right and you could spend a lot of money to have someone say you're right. But judges they don't know your life. They don't know the ins and outs of your life. So you really are ceding control to someone else to make these decisions. And you have to be comfortable with that. And judges change all the time, so you may have a judge you love one day, the judge you don't love the next.

There are no guarantees. The only guarantee is a settlement that you come to or that you make. And frankly, I'll be honest, sometimes the cost of it, a trial retainer is $15,000. And that's not going to get you through trial.

Katya Valasek:

So, I think it's interesting because you say trials are rare, but also that you spend a lot of time in court. So, what is an issue that would convince you that you needed to take the issue to trial?

Jenn Russoniello:

Okay, so I think there are two different points to that. The first one is a case where the other side is being so unreasonable that I know that I will succeed at trial. I can give you an example. In New Jersey, we are not a 50 -50 state per se, but we have a statute for equitable distribution. In long -term marriages, barring other things, but in most of my long -term marriages, retirement accounts, for example, are shared equally. Okay? If I have a case where someone is refusing to share their retirement in a marriage that's over 20 years, it is almost a no -brainer because I will succeed in that. And if there's no other asset that could potentially, make up for that, then it makes sense to go to trial. Those are some of the situations where it is just so blatant that it wouldn't make sense not to. The other times usually are regarding either custody and parenting time, which again is non-quantifiable. People will have experts – they disagree about parenting time or they disagree about how to medicate their children. They disagree about vaccines. They disagree about other issues. Or a lot of times when it comes to valuations of businesses. Those are big ones that will sometimes get tried because you're dealing with two different issues there. You're sometimes dealing with what the actual valuation of the business is, the value of the business, and then you're also dealing with the income that flows from that business. So in those situations with experts, you're usually headed toward trial, but you're also in those situations usually talking about big dollar figures where the cost of trial is usually not eviscerated by what could potentially be lost.

Katya Valasek:

So you just gave two examples where a situation does not end because a divorce is finalized. Parents will have to continue to raise their kids. Businesses will continue to run.

You also mentioned that emotions are involved in a lot of these issues. So what happens if emotions take hold and someone is not playing nice after a divorce is finalized? Do you have to get involved after the fact?

Jenn Russoniello:

Many times. So whether you have a divorce judgment, meaning a judge made a decision about your case, or an agreement that is incorporated into a judgment they hold the same weight.

There are sometimes issues after the fact whether there's enforcement issues, so someone's not complying, in which case you can come back and go to the court and say, "Judge, we made this agreement or you made this order and it's not being followed, I need enforcement."

Or the second part of that is life circumstances change. People lose jobs or if things happen with kids or parenting changes or life changes. But post-judgment is something we deal with often. In that, the interesting part is, and this is why agreements are so important when you write them, is that the agreement is what controls. That becomes quote unquote, “the law of your case.”

It's funny because you'll have these cases or clients sometimes and they go, this agreement, I can't believe it's taking so long or it's so many pages or it's costing so much. And you can't explain enough the importance of what this document is because the goal is that, if there's an issue, you're able to look back and find a solution. Or if not, it is understandable enough where if I bring it to court, I can be very specific. “Judge, this provision was violated. I need enforcement.”

Katya Valasek:

Does anything change in the work that you do if it's not a divorce per se? So if a couple isn't married, but there are children involved, does that change the lawyering you need to do?

Jenn Russoniello:

Ha! So that's very interesting. When you are not married and have children, it's called an FD proceeding. And typically those are summary proceedings, meaning there is no discovery. I've had a few cases where there's been discovery because you have parents who are, again, business owners or you need to deal with income beyond normal tax returns. The parenting plan can still be difficult, but it is a lot less cumbersome because the statute is going to be looked at for child support. But it is a very different view. I think the complexity that we see now going forward is there are a lot of unmarried people who have children. Children aren't really the complication because we do that all the time, but it's what happens when these people do have joint assets and you're stuck in a docket that really doesn't allow discovery. You have to petition the court for those things. So when I have people come in who are unmarried, I ask them a lot of questions about what they hold together or what they don't. If they don't hold anything together and they just have children, then it is a lot more simplified. But if not, you're pretty much looking at a divorce without it being a divorce.

Katya Valasek:

Interesting. I want to talk a little bit about the other side of your practice area, which is domestic violence. Do you represent both plaintiffs and defendants?

Jenn Russoniello:

So I do represent both plaintiffs and defendants. I probably do more plaintiff work only because I do my pro bono work through the Battered Women's Legal Advocacy Project, which is through Jersey Battered Women's Shelter. And so I take on pro bono, DV matters, probably once a quarter. So through that, I end up representing more plaintiffs, but I have, and I do represent defendants in domestic violence matters. You know, the domestic violence statute is meant to be a shield and not a sword. And I think it matters when it's used inappropriately. So yeah, I take on both roles.

Katya Valasek:

How does the domestic violence docket differ from the divorce docket?

Jenn Russoniello:

A domestic violence docket is a summary proceeding, meaning there is no discovery and you're expected to be prepared to try your matter on the day that you go to court. You have three options: You're either dismissing, you're asking for an adjournment, you're resolving it, or you're trying it. So, you know, I do a lot of trial work in domestic violence cases.

Katya Valasek:

How much work do you do with your clients ahead of time to prepare for a summary proceeding?

Jenn Russoniello:

That will depend on the level of what has occurred or the history of the relationship. Most of the time, that comprises of looking at their initial temporary restraining order because you're confined to the testimony around that. So sometimes we have to amend the restraining order. And then the judge only has to find two things to grant an FRO. It's whether there was a predicate act of whatever sort, harassment, criminal mischief. You prove the points, that's step one. And step two, is there a need for an ongoing restraining order, which looks at the history of domestic violence.

So I try to be very succinct and meticulous with it. Judges appreciate that. There's a lot of cases sometimes with domestic violence that go on for days that don't need to. So I try to be very honed in. If there's one very bad incident of the predicate act, then we make sure we have all of our proofs together. We make sure we have the past history and we review the testimony and we go in. Sometimes it requires having a police officer testify, depending on what they've seen. Clients come in and they say, well, I have all these witnesses. But witnesses can only testify as to what they have seen.

So I find myself asking a lot when I'm preparing these, OK, you want six people to come testify. Were any of them actually in the room? And most of the time, the answer to that is no. And judges who do this well when they talk about these domestic violence matters, they say most of the time, there really only are two witnesses. So it is a lot less preparation, but it is a lot more emotional preparation because, domestic violence courtrooms aren't closed.

You’re in a room full of people sometimes. The defendant is sitting there. Sometimes they'll let the plaintiffs sit next to the attorneys to testify, which I think makes it easier. But I have a lot more discussions with my clients about focus on me, breathe in and breathe out. And a lot of the times there's fear that if the defendant is representing themselves, that there's going to be some kind of awful cross-examination.

And I just remind them that, you keep your eyes on me and no one is going to let you get abused in the middle of a courtroom. But I think it's a lot more emotional. They actually have to say the things that have happened to them. They have to say what's occurred, some of which it takes me a few phone calls for them to admit certain things that have happened. Or, when they tell me things, they don't realize that that is domestic violence because it's become so normalized. When he uses curse words or she uses curse words, you have to say those. So it's a lot more in getting the client comfortable to get up there and say what they have to say in a room full of people, which is really very hard.

Katya Valasek:

How did you learn to manage the emotional weight that your clients often carry?

Jenn Russoniello:

Some days I do that better than others. There is a point where I have to remind myself that, I am here to guide them, but I myself cannot just wave a magic wand and change their life. I have to present them with options and they have to make decisions. And sometimes they don't make the decisions I want them to make. And I find myself sometimes with certain cases more than others, my anxiety will ramp up or I'll be like, they're going to move this money or they're going to do this. And I, and I just try and breathe and remind myself that my job is to give them advice. It is not to live their life for them. I can't change their circumstances, but I can assist in the best way I know how to help them get out of them. Some will listen, some do not. In thinking about it from the professional perspective, when I feel those feelings, sometimes what I'll do is I'll write an email.

I mean, some people will call it like a CYA or a, but I say, you know, “These are your options. This is what I believe is the best option. These are the reasons why.” And it's pretty funny sometimes when they don't take your advice and then they come back and they're like, “So you told me not to do this and I did it and exactly what you said was gonna happen happened”. But that's your job too then to say, okay, well now I told you and this is how we deal with it.

Katya Valasek:

You pivoted from a career in social work because you felt like you couldn't serve your clients in the way you wanted. Have you found what you were looking for in the practice of law?

Jennifer M. Russoniello:

I did, I really do enjoy it. I think I like it just in general. I mean, I would try cases every day if I could. I enjoy it, I like the speed of it, I like the momentum of it. But overall, I think I feel like I help people out of situations, some worse than others, but in any event, situations that just aren't serving them or not serving their children. And... you know, to see people and I say this to them in consults when because it's scary. This is scary. It is scary to come in even when you're unhappier, even an abusive situation, sometimes more to actually say, okay, I'm going to separate and get this out. You worry about not seeing your kids. You worry about how you're going to survive. You worry, what if I sell my house? Where are my kids going to go to school? All these things. And it's a lot of saying to people, you know, everybody has their own limit, but at some point, when you don't want to live like this anymore, this will be an awful experience. It is not fun. I say this all the time. It's not a fun experience. You are not going to get any revenge out of it. This is not the right forum. I tell people to go to therapy all the time. I go, that is where you need to find your peace. But you will find your voice in this process. You will come out on the other end, and you will feel better, and you'll be better for your kids. I mean, that's the hard part. A lot of people stay together for their kids, which is admirable at some points, but also, I think at some point they start to realize that my kids are absorbing a lot of this, and I don't want them to.

Previous episode Next episode

Related episodes