Kelly Leighton is a partner at Barnes & Leighton, where she focuses on all aspects of domestic relations. Prior to entering private practice, she was a Senior Attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services and spent thirteen years representing low-income victims of domestic violence in family law cases. Kelly serves on the BBA Council and Nominating Committee; she is a past Co-Chair of the BBA’s Family Law Section and the Section’s Policy and Legislative Subcommittee. She was the BBA’s liaison to the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Task Force, which produced the bill that ultimately became the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. Kelly is a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Family and Conciliation Court’s Massachusetts Chapter, and has long served as a trainer and mentor for the Family Law Project of the Women’s Bar Foundation. She also is a frequent panelist and author on domestic relations topics.
1. From your work on the Alimony Reform Task Force, you’ve helped shape policy that represented a huge change in the law. What are some key pointers you have about reaching group consensus?
All of the members of the Task Force were faced with the possibility that what we produced would become a dramatic shift in the law and present a huge change in the culture of how we viewed alimony, and we recognized how difficult it possibly could be reaching consensus, because there were many people at the table who had different points of view. At the beginning, there was a tension between the interests of recipients and payors. Both sides had legitimate good-faith concerns about what the end product would be; the interests were so different and there were definite tensions in opposite directions. But during that process, what encouraged me was that people had a willingness to listen and be open to whatever issue was being discussed on both sides of the issue, and to be creative as to how to address the concerns. The end result was a negotiated compromise: by the very nature of having two opposite sides and coming to the middle, not everyone gets everything they want or be completely happy with the end result. We reached an agreement that acknowledged concerns people had and addressed them in a way that was acceptable. It was a very cooperative, respectful environment, and we had a very successful process. I think what surprised me was how well that process worked. Participating in a group that was working to achieve compromise, just on a larger scale, was not foreign to any of us, but at the beginning of the process I didn’t know if we’d be able to reach a consensus! As we worked through, both sides’ ability to come together to reach the middle ground and come up with any kind of end result was impressive.
Once we had that result, it went out to the family law bar, and we knew that, depending on the perspective, there were going to be criticisms and the possibility of one side or the other having suggestions. What was helpful for me was letting go of any feeling of ownership; when you have that, it can lead to defensiveness, and without those feelings, it allows for an openness and acknowledgement that the product wouldn’t 100 percent please everyone. It was fair to hear feedback because it represented such a huge change in the law. Because I was able to step back, the criticisms didn’t upset me; hearing those reactions, both positive and negative, was part of my duty on the task force. There needs to be a willingness to listen, explain, respond, and be available to people to talk about this really major shift in the direction of the law.
2. On the topic of being emotionally charged: by all accounts, family law can be challenging in that respect and it’s very personal; how does an effective leader achieve conflict resolution in that kind of context?
In terms of my approach in my practice and how I conduct myself, I think something that can very much affect the ability to reach resolution is the level of professionalism that attorneys exhibit during the process. I firmly believe that a high level of professionalism is key to diffusing the emotion, in terms of exhibiting professional courtesy, upholding civility, keeping emotional distance between the attorney and client’s interests, and maintaining respect for everyone – including opposing counsel and parties. You can effectively represent a client and at the same time treat everyone in the room with respect. That is a baseline that’s necessary and makes it possible to diffuse the conflict, seek a resolution to all of it, and attempt to have everyone step away from the emotional aspects.
If you find yourself in a situation where the counsel is less than civil, and uses nastiness as a tactic, it can really create a downward spiral of conflict. As lawyers, we should at least make conditions present that make it possible to reach a resolution. We’re dealing with clients who are at many times at the worst points in their lives, and if attorneys inject behavior that makes it worse than it already is, then it can fall apart. Years ago I had a case where my client had been in a very high-conflict marriage. I was in court, and the opposing attorney attempted to physically take a court file out of my hands. I was just in shock that he would treat me that way! After the incident, my client turned to me and said, “He treats you the way my husband used to treat me.” There’s no room for that in the profession.
I remember those cases where the attorney was simply not professional, but I also remember the cases that were very difficult, but in which I had a huge amount of admiration for the opposing counsel for their professionalism, which helped the parties reach agreement. When there’s incivility present, it can very much inflame a case that’s emotionally charged. Being respectful can go a long way at helping the parties along to resolve their case.
3. How did you approach starting your solo practice after your time working in legal services? What preparation was necessary, and what did you learn along the way that contributed to your success?
In hindsight, there were many things about my 13 years in legal services that did prepare and help me while starting my own practice. The nature of legal services wasn’t that I could bring clients with me, but what I did bring with me was that I had the great opportunity of practicing with very experienced family law attorneys, and what I learned from them helped me immensely. Over those years, I also built a lot of relationships – not just in legal services, but outside it in the private bar, often through the BBA. After I launched my practice, people were supportive in referring clients to me and answering questions about the private practice of law. I was able to reach out to people who gave me information, guidance, and advice about how to be a businessperson, which you end up having to be. That was incredibly important.
Another great thing was that I had the opportunity to be involved in drafting legislation, such as the work of the Alimony Task Force, as well as a family law bill that would change terminology people use when they talk about the parenting of children. That’s been an idea that’s been floated for years, and I sat with a group from the BBA’s Family Law Section that came up with language agreeable to everybody. I was able to work on projects that helped me form relationships and have had a real impact. I find this type of impact work – work that has had aneffect on law itself, versus work on just individual cases – very gratifying.
I look back to when I started my practice in 2010 and I think, “Was I just so brave to jump off that cliff, or was I just blind?” Sometimes I really don’t know, and I can’t believe I did that! The first 6 months were incredibly challenging and would be for everyone – it’s so frightening in that you don’t know where it’s going to go and whether it will be successful. Thinking back, I am so grateful for the referrals made to me. I have faith now that my practice is working because I was able to build from there. For me, it was the right move at the right point in my career; I think about young attorneys now who are launching practices just out of law school and don’t have those years of experience and collaborative work behind them, and I do everything I can for those who I know, because I know how important it is to learn from other attorneys.
4. Is there anything else about leadership and the law that we haven’t covered yet?
I do want to stress that there is a crisis in legal services funding and there has been for years. At the time I left, there was a serious crisis with my organization and they faced downsizing. I was safe from a layoff, but one of the concerns was that cutting back people meant cutting the staff hired last, who were the youngest and often lawyers of color, and were perhaps the future generation of legal services attorneys. That was the context in which I decided to leave: the forced choice to cut out the newer diverse attorneys with a lot of enthusiasm for the work. Unfortunately, in legal services there is never the staff to meet the demand, and it’s very concerning as it affects access to justice for the people most in need.