Posted: April 01, 2009
Executive edge: Sheila Gutterman & Suzanne Griffiths
Family law firm thrives in good times and in badLynn Bronikowski
As the economy began sinking last fall, phone calls to the Littleton law offices of Gutterman Griffiths PC began rising.
“People who had wide assets were saying, ‘This is a good time to get a divorce because I’d get it cheaper,’” recalls Sheila Gutterman, president and co-founder of the nine-attorney family-law practice. “They wouldn’t have to pay as much maintenance or alimony with assets down.”
Sheila Gutterman (seated) and Suzanne Griffiths
Or as vice president and co-founder Suzanne Griffiths succinctly puts it: “When money goes out the window, love is close behind.” But with continued market uncertainty, the calls leveled off, and today people are more concerned about the cost of a divorce than the days of “I’d rather give the money to the attorneys than to my spouse.”
“We’re getting people who may not want to stay together but will for the time being, so they’re asking for advice but not acting on it,” said Gutterman, 65, who earned an MA in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan in 1967 and 20 years later would receive her law degree from the University of Denver. “So we’re telling our clients to update their financials and be realistic, and we try to be available to them during these tough economic times.”
Gutterman and others have dropped their rates and did a little restructuring to be helpful to clients. And more than ever, Colorado’s “Mother of Collaborative Law” is bringing her mediation expertise to the client table.
“Suzanne is the litigator, but my choice is negotiating and mediation,” said the woman who wrote the book on mediation, “Collaborative Law: A New Model for Dispute Resolution,” and in the 1990s founded the Colorado Collaborative Law Professionals.
Gutterman fanned the mediation movement after her first job at a Denver litigation firm, where she soon realized some cases absolutely had to go to court but others could more easily be handled at the negotiating table.
Gutterman lectured nationally on mediation – even taking her message directly to women at a Canyon Ranch Spa when the movement was young. “They were bringing blankets and pillows to my lecture, and I thought they’d been exercising all day and were really tired,” Gutterman says with a laugh. “They thought it was meditation, not mediation – that’s how new it was.”
Since age 4, the daughter of a suburban Chicago doctor and stay-at-home mom knew she wanted to be a lawyer – and more precisely, a divorce lawyer. “Most women would say, ‘I want to get married and have children,’ and I’d say, ‘I want to be a divorce lawyer,’” said Gutterman, the mother of two, who has been married 43 years to Denver psychiatrist Gary Gutterman and advocates the medical analogy — First, Do No Harm; Informed Consent and Triage – in her practice.
“Most women are peacemakers. Most of us are jugglers, and we know we want things done right. Women are good at problem solving, so that has always been an interest of mine,” she says. “It’s really a stressful job, and the one thing that keeps me in it is that I can make things easier for my client during such a difficult time.
“People often will say to me ‘What’s a good divorce?’ and I always say, ‘When it’s over.’”
Griffiths, 53, who has specialized in family law for more than 25 years, graduated from the University of Cape Town with a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of law degree in 1978, and practiced in South Africa for 15 years. After being granted permanent residency in the United States, she relocated to Denver.
In an interview taped for ColoradoBiz TV last year — when the firm was nominated for a ColoradoBiz Top Company award — Griffiths noted the resiliency of family law firms.
“In good times, we do well … and in bad times we also do well. People get divorced for many, many different reasons,” she said.
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.