New York City divorce lawyer Sherri Donovan is a very nice lawyer. Even when you speak with her on the phone, you can hear the smile in her voice. She is a unique creature in the way she oozes joy for her work as a divorce lawyer. After nearly 30 years of practice one would expect her to exhibit signs of fatigue or maybe even be a little bit jaded. But not her. She waxes poetic about her daughter, her yoga, her work in Senegal and her work as a divorce lawyer in NYC. Sherri seems full of energy, enthusiasm and even hope for the profession and the litigants. This, and other reasons is why Divorce Saloon’s editors voted Ms Donovan one of the TITANS-10 for calendar year 2014. Divorce Saloon’s international correspondent Lawyer X had a long chat with Ms Donovan recently. Below is an excerpt of their conversation:
You have been described as “fearless” and as a “guide through any storm.” How did you get this reputation?
When I was a little girl, I was very concerned about injustice and fairness. I have never been afraid to stand up to powerful forces. I have always been concerned with protecting the underdog. I am good in a crisis. Maybe that is why people think I am fearless. I really fight for my clients. It is what I know how to do.
How long have you been practicing divorce and family law and is this your sole focus? And do you practice only in New York?
Yes I am a divorce lawyer and that is my sole focus in my career. I opened my practice in 1988 but I began to practice in 1986. While I am a New York Divorce Lawyer, I do a lot of international divorce work. I do international family law research. I am involved in international family law eduction. I lecture all over the world on Family Law topics and special needs children. I also handle international family law cases.
In the context of your work as an international lawyer, can you describe a typical scenario that you might handle?
Yes, of course I can. One case I recently handled made new law here in New York. It involved a very affluent Indian couple who had a business here in New York. But the husband filed for divorce in India even though they were domiciled in New York and the wife was basically given a very unfair divorce settlement Under the Indian divorce judgment. It was one of the worst cases of forum shopping I have ever seen. Usually New York gives full faith and credit to foreign divorce judgments. We give comity to these judgments but in this case, I was able to show there was duress. There was a lot going on in the case. A lot of money at stake, nearly $30 million dollars. I was able to persuade the New York court that the divorce judgment from India should not be given comity. It was just so unfair, so one-sided. So we moved to re-open the case in New York and the court allowed it. The husband went on to offer a fair settlement to his wife.
You are the author of a book called “Hit Him Where it Hurts.” What do you have against men? What was your motivation for writing a book with such a title?
I have nothing against men. A lot of my clients are men and I fight for their rights with their children. This book was published back in 2005. It is for both men and women. The publishers chose this title because they felt it sounded more interesting and that people would be more likely to pick it up if it had a provocative title. But this book is for both men and women. The fact is though that after a divorce a lot of women are left in poverty. They are often worse off after the divorce, so I do think that women need to know how to protect themselves. But as I said, both men and women will benefit from reading this book.
So what would you say to critics who say that the title and theme with this “boxing motif” and this “TKO” reference is too combative and encourages fighting and discord?
I would say that a lot has changed since I wrote this book about a decade ago. Indeed these days I am a collaborative lawyer. Half my clients are men. I am very concerned about fathers. A lot of women do what is called “gate keeping” which means keeping the man from the kids. I work against this sort of thing. The book is for both men and women as I said. In the book I use case stories to discuss lessons for both men and women getting divorced. I believe in shared parenting. I do a lot of work with special needs kids. I believe both men and women should get a fair deal in a divorce.
You also do a lot of work with domestic violence clients, is this correct?
Yes. I have written extensively on this subject. Domestic violence is a global problem. It is a New York problem, an American problem, a global problem. It crosses all lines: racial, socio-economic, everything. This is a power issue. A dangerous issue. It is usually men v women but it is happening in same sex relationships as well. Alcohol plays a big role in these cases often times. From a psychological standpoint, I have also been studying neuro-science and family law. We see this connection between the limbic lobe and the frontal lobe in the brain. This anger that paralyzes the frontal lobe and then people are no longer rational. Rational thought cannot penetrate. It is often a repetitive cycle. People who were exposed to violence in their childhood tend to repeat the cycle. So it is very complicated. It has to be worked on from many different levels.
You recently appeared on VHI on a series called “Mob Wives” Talk to us about your role
I didn’t even know what this show was it was my associate who had to explain it to me. But it is about the wives of gangsters. But the larger point is that I saw it as an opportunity to educate women about domestic violence and to do it before an audience of millions of people. That show has a huge audience even in reruns. So I was motivated by the size of the audience which allows me to spread my message about domestic violence to more people.
In New York what would you say is the most pressing issue in Family Law these days?
Same sex marriage and special needs children. There needs to be a Hague Convention for Same Sex Marriages, I believe.
On your website I saw a reference to the Children’s Bill of Rights. Talk to me briefly about that. Are you the author of this Bill of Rights for kids?
This Bill of Rights for Children was authored by many people. In brief, the idea is that children need a voice in their parents’ divorce. Parents need to leave their children out of the fight; they should not disparage each other in front of the children; children need to be protected. This is the main motivation for this document – to protect children. In places like Germany and South Africa, they understand that it takes a village to raise a child. Children need both parents but they also have the right to have other people in their lives who play significant roles in their activities.
Are parenting plans required or optional in New York?
They are required. If the parties can agree, they can submit one joint plan but if there is disagreement, the court will appoint a neutral evaluator. In fact I am a neutral evaluator for a number of cases here in New York.
Are there any laws pertaining to children and divorce that you would change if you could?
I think there needs to be child support beyond age 21 for special needs children. The burden should not fall on one parent in these types of cases. If a child is not self-sufficient, the child support for this child should continue indefinitely. I think this law needs to definitely change.
What terminology would you change? For example many people have started to have a problem with the word “visitation” This idea of a parent “visiting” his or her child seems ridiculous in our day and age. What would you change in terms of family law terminology?
You’re right. Semantics are a big issue. And that word is definitely problematic. Shared parenting is much better than “visitation.” Parenting time is even better.
Who are your mentors? Who inspires you?
I am inspired by my daughter Jasmine, first of all. As a child, I was inspired by people and characters like Margaret Mead and Clarence Darrow. My Grandfather was an activist rabbi who inspires me. Children inspire me. Many people around the world whom I have met during the course of my work and travel inspire me. I also had a few great professors in college and law school.
What drives you?
I love life. I love my work. I think you have to laugh everyday. I do yoga. I bike a lot. I try to contribute something to the world. I feel alive when I contribute. Empathy and sensitivity are so important. You have to reinvent yourself and your life everyday. That is what I try to do.
Interview by Lawyer X
Adapted by Jeannie Goldstein
Sherri Donovan bio
- Member of the United States Supreme Court
- Professor at the Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University teaching Forensic Psychology and Family law
- Divorce specialist for the National Organization for Women since 1993
- Legal Counsel, NYC Small Business Congress
- Member of Family Law Section, New York State Bar Association
- Member of the Matrimonial Committees, Women’s Bar Association, and New York County Bar
- Academy of Professional Family Mediators
- CLE Educator of Family Law
- Association of Family and Conciliation Courts
- Former District leader
- Former Community Board Member
- New York Law School, Cum Laude JD 1985; Graduated number 1 in all civil litigation courses
- London School of Economics
- Bennington College
Sherri Donovan ESQ