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It’s Men vs. Women in Two Virginia Family Law Firms

When Jason E. Swango began practicing law in Virginia nine years ago, he had the distinct impression that males were an underserved commodity in the family law arena.

“It was obvious men were getting taken to the cleaners,” says the owner of The Firm for Men, which also does business as Swango Law. The firm, with four full-time attorneys, all male, are supported by a staff of four paralegals and a legal assistant, all female. Business has been so good that Swango is looking to hire both another full-time lawyer and a paralegal.

If the legal matter is domestic relations-related, Swango and his firm represents only men. Swango himself also handles traffic and DUI cases, and even then, most of his clients are males. “The system is swayed towards women so I decided to even the playing field,” he says. He estimates that at any one time, he and his team maintain a caseload of between 400 to 500 open files.

As it happens, Swango’s firm is not the only gig in town that caters to only one sex in domestic relations cases. The Hofheimer Law Firm, a group that’s been in existence since 1992, represents only women in such matters.

Although a mere 20-minute drive separates the two law firms, their approaches to practicing domestic relations law are as different as their clientele.

When It All Began

When Kristen Hofheimer’s father first began practicing law in the 1970s, his practice focused on business and tax law. However, his daughter says he found the work “boring” so he switched careers and toiled as a financial advisor. It happened many of his clients were women who were uninformed about their finances. A healthy percentage of those females were also involved in some stage of divorce, which led Charles Hofheimer to believe women were in sore need of appropriate legal representation.

“They didn’t understand their financial situations and how to protect themselves, so he went from financial advising to representing women,” in divorce, Kristen says. Kristen’s mom, who had up to that point been a homemaker, earned her paralegal license to support her husband’s fledgling law firm.

Although both of her parents were firmly ensconced in the world of law as she grew up, Kristen says she never aspired to become an attorney and join the family firm. While she did work there as a paralegal while attending college nearby, it was her own divorce that caused her to rethink her future.

“Being an attorney was not a lifelong aspiration, but my divorce gave me the impetus to do something," she says. "I knew I would have to support myself.”

The Hofheimer law firm employs five female .and two male attorneys supported by four female paralegals.

Siding with One Sex

When Swango embarked on practicing law nearly a decade ago and informed people of his vision of representing males only in domestic relations matters, the response was not positive. “I was told, when I started, that this would never work out," he says. "So, I realized there was only one way to go. Men were the losers and I wanted to change that,” he says.

He must have been on to something because when he began his solo enterprise, it was in a 10x10 square-foot office. Today, his law firm is housed in a 2,700 square foot building, and Swango is looking to move it to a space that’s at least 4,000 square feet. In addition to Swango Law’s main location in Virginia Beach, the firm also has satellite offices in Norfolk, Hampton and Chesapeake, to name a few.

His calendar is usually stuffed with appointments. While he generally spends mornings in court or administering to the law firm’s needs, the hours between two and five are filled with client meetings. On any given afternoon, Swango meets with eight to 10 potential new clients for 15 minutes each; he claims to get hired by 90% of those men.

“Most attorneys see men as financial commodities, but we don’t believe in the ‘every other weekend babysitter’ called dad. Our responsibility is to take the emotion out of the situation so we can put things in place to even the playing field,” Swango says.

For her part, Kristen Hofheimer enjoys representing women only in divorce, custody and support cases. She’s also noticed a distinct trend in her clients in the 15 years since she joined her father’s firm, where today she is both its lead attorney and CEO.

“Our clientele has evolved," she says. "When I started out, we mostly represented housewives who relied on their husbands and now I have clients who have been the primary caretaker and main bread winner.” In fact, some of her client’s soon-to-be-ex-husband’s are seeking spousal support, a domain of financial assistance once considered designed for women only.

“I like representing women because I like to empower them," Hofheimer says. "As a mother who has been through divorce, my heart goes out to moms who try to parent through a divorce.”

Over the years, the Hofheimer firm has grown in physical size as well as in the number of personnel. In addition to its main offices in Virginia Beach, it maintains satellite locations in Chesapeake and Newport News. At any given time, the firm carries a caseload of approximately 350 cases, Hofheimer says.

Supporting Their Cause

Both Hofheimer and Swango admit a “friendly rivalry” exists between the two law firms. For example, once someone from the Swango firm wrote a Facebook post inviting Hofheimer’s female lawyers to serve coffee to the male attorneys at Swango’s.

“We responded the only thing we serve men are divorce papers,” Hofheimer says.

In addition to representing their gender-specific clientele in the courtroom, both law firms have initiated different programs aimed at supporting their clients as they toil through their divorces.

Among other things, the Hofheimer firm organizes a monthly Girl’s Night Out. Clients are encouraged to come out and socialize with one another while getting to know the firm’s lawyers on a more personal basis.

Other offerings include a “Do It Yourself Divorce” web site featuring workbooks for calculating various financial matters relating to a divorce. Topics include determining assets and liabilities and calculating child support, to name a few. Firm attorneys are also available to answer questions that may arise as a client toils with the various workbooks. This service costs $197 a month.

The “Weekend Divorce” is a premiere service currently in the marketing stage, Hofheimer says. The goal of this service is to facilitate the “entire process of resolving divorce issues in a weekend,” she says. On Friday, a settlement conference between the attorneys and parties is held, followed by mediation for any unresolved concerns on Saturday. Arbitration is held on Sunday. The cost? A cool $50K.

A program called 'Second Saturday Monthly Seminars' provides attendees facts about divorce in Virginia while the firm’s Custody Boot camp for Moms Seminar has helped countless mothers successfully obtain custody of their children.

While the Swango law firm does not offer seminars to its clients, per se, it is actively involved in endeavors aimed at supporting men enmeshed in divorce or custody issues. For example, the firm is “working on an online webinar to educate men about the process of divorce,” Swango says.

Another effort is a non-profit Swango is starting that is aimed at men with custody who, for whatever reason, have lost their homes. “We are trying to assist men maintain custody of their kids” despite some difficult hurdles thrust at them. “We provide stability for men who have custody, both personally and financially," he says. "We don’t want fathers and kids out on the street.” He hopes the endeavor will officially kick off by the end of 2015.

Swango is also spearheading a non-profit aimed at one-time military men. A former Army vet himself, Swango says the organization would “help guys who have been overseas and come home.” The endeavor will have two components. The first will involve lawyers who will mentor the children of the veterans, while the second will offer educational assistance to vet’s offspring.

The effort, entitled Lawyers for Warriors, will be “aimed at the children of warriors who were maimed or killed in battle overseas,” he says.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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