Nancy Shafer: Chicago Family Law Champion
February 19, 2019
Our interview with a Chicago Family Law pioneer.
Late last year, Smokeball had the pleasure of speaking to Nancy Chausow Shafer about her life and career in Family Law. Smokeball is an integral part of Nancy’s practice, so it was a delight to speak with Nancy about what brought her to Family Law and why, after so many years of sustained success and leadership in the field, she continues to work harder than ever for her clients. Smokeball’s Josh Taylor and Jane Oxley sat down with Nancy find out what success means to her in her field and how other Family Law attorneys can replicate it.
Nancy is easily one of Chicago’s most influential and well-known legal minds, and one of the kindest. Nancy is a principal in the Highland Park matrimonial law firm of Chausow Shaffer, PC. She is a fellow of the prestigious American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and has been selected by her peers as an Illinois Super Lawyer. She participates in the Family Law Sections of the Illinois State Bar Association, Lake County Bar Association, and the American Bar Association, as well as the Matrimonial Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association. Nancy often speaks at Family Law meetings and conventions and has authored a chapter in the IICLE Contested Child Custody Litigation Handbook, among other articles. She has served on the faculty for mediation training offered by the AAML, and at the Zena Zumeta Mediation Training and Consultation Institute. She’s a graduate of the Northern Illinois University College of Law.
Josh: Nancy, it’s so great to speak with you today; thank you so much for taking some time to be with us!
Nancy: Well, thank you for asking me. I’m honored.
Josh: It’s obvious from your bio that you have so many ties to the Chicagoland area. I’d love to just hear a little bit more about your ties to the Chicago area and anything about the area that has kept you here all these years. Along those lines, too, tell us a bit more about what drew you to Family Law in Chicago.
Nancy: Well, I grew up in the Chicago area. I did move away for a short time and realized I really like Chicago and decided to come back. It’s a great place to raise kids, and I did that. I have really spent most of my professional career here. And that kind of, as it grows, also keeps you here because that’s where your ties are and your networking.
When I first started practicing back in, a long time ago, (I was 12 of course). When I first started practicing it was the early 80s, and the domestic violence movement was just starting to be recognized as a problem. The state legislature passed a domestic violence act in 1983 that went into effect in ’84. I was a young attorney at the time, and I got involved with the committee working on that legislation and then also with the implementation of legislation. I did some speaking on it at various bar associations, and that led to my involvement in a Chicago Bar Association program providing pro bono or free legal services for domestic violence survivors. When I got involved with that, I learned how to handle those cases and then got involved in training other lawyers to do those cases. And from the domestic violence avenue I started doing more and more family law cases. That’s really how I first got involved in family law.
Josh: You’re such a key figurehead in your realm and a female attorney as well. Do you notice any differences as being a figurehead and a female attorney in this particular area of practice?
Nancy: Yeah, it’s interesting. When I start practicing there was a lot of sexism in the profession, and I don’t think it’s gone away. I think it’s just lessened and is more subtle now, but when I was first looking for jobs in the profession I was asked if I could type. I was offered positions for less money than my colleagues were being offered for the same position–my male colleagues. I was told by a judge at one time when I was a young practitioner and was going to prevail on a motion, “Well, I’m going to rule in your favor because you have such a nice smile.”
I don’t think most judges would do that now. I think people are a little more aware, but in the family law area it’s very interesting because I represent a lot of men. I don’t just represent women. Originally there was this feeling in family law that the women attorneys would represent the women. And it was very gender differentiated and I found myself being hired by a lot of men. Really over the course of my career it’s been about equal men and women that I’ve represented. That has given me a perspective on life and what are the different needs and the different perspectives of men and women. I think that’s helped me.
Josh: Would you mind elaborating on that a bit? How those differences round out the picture for those of us who don’t practice family law or people that may get more of one type of client than another. What is that holistic picture on both sides between representing a male client in a family law dispute and a female client?
Nancy: Well, it all comes down to expectations. Clients have expectations when they come to see your or they enter into this process, and as a practitioner you have to understand their expectations and help manage them, make sure that they’re realistic and in the family law realm, you’re dealing with families that have taken on roles in their lives: the man being the breadwinner, the woman being at home raising the children, and sometimes that’s true and sometimes that’s not. One interesting thing in my practice over the last ten years is I’ve had a lot more cases where the woman is the breadwinner and the man is not the breadwinner.
More women have been more career-oriented. So, it’s an interesting twist that I’ve dealt with in the last, I would say about ten years. So you really have to understand where people are coming from, what their expectations are, and help them to understand how that fits into what we do in family law and what divorce law looks at. Okay, yes you’ve been the breadwinner but so what? It doesn’t make all the money yours. Yes, you’ve been stay-at-home mom but it doesn’t mean that dad isn’t going to be parenting the children after divorce at least some of the time. So, it really gives a very good holistic perspective on families and on people’s personalities and expectations.
Josh: So you have to be an educator in your own cases.
Nancy: Oh definitely. You have to always be educating your client because there’s a difference between educating your client and telling then what’s going to happen. Just telling them doesn’t make them feel like they’re in control. One of the big things about family law, about divorce, is that whether it was your decision to get divorced or partner’s decision or whether it was a joint decision, things are changing and you’re a little bit out of control and people often don’t like to feel like they’re out of control. By educating them and helping them to understand where they need to be and where they’re going, they feel more control and it helps make the process smoother for the client.
Jane: You’re obviously involved in a lot of different things. I’m intrigued as to what gets you out of bed in the morning these days; what motivates you?
Nancy: Paying the bills (laughs). My practice, my professional life in family law is really many different things. I am doing traditional litigation, both pre-judgment, people going through divorce for the first time, and post-judgement, they’re already divorced and they come back for modifications or changes to child support or custody or alimony or enforcement actions. That’s about half my practice; but, I also do mediation and I do collaborative practice, which is about a quarter of my practice. That allows me to exercise the more touchy-feely side of my personality and really feel like I’m accomplishing something with people, helping them through a process that could be painful and making it a little less painful.
And then about a quarter of my practice is representing children. I get appointed by the court to represent children whose parents can’t agree on the parenting arrangements for them, and so in representing the children I can be an advocate but I also use my mediation and collaborative skills to help the parents to be able to reach agreement. I try to help them see that their actions are not helping their children and are actually hurting them. Between all those areas, I’m doing a lot of different things, and that’s what keeps me excited each day.
Josh: You’re also a software expert to a certain extent! You represent Family Law Software all over the country, but you’re also always learning about the latest legal technologies. Where did that tech drive come from, Nancy?
Nancy: I don’t know. I’ve just always found it really interesting. I started early on in the era of word processors before there were actually personal computers. I remember working with an estate planning attorney very early, my first job out of law school, and I suggested that we get a word processor because he was doing estate plans, he was doing wills and trusts which are very long documents that have to be typed up and if you make a change on page three it can change the spacing and the whole rest of the document needs to be retyped. And I said, wouldn’t this be cool? And he didn’t see any need for it. He just didn’t see how that would be useful to him and refused to go in with me on purchasing a word processing system. This was 1982, and I went ahead and bought it myself.
I’m just always thinking there’s a better way to do things. One of the reasons why I got into collaborative practice was it’s a better way to practice law. And it’s the same with technology. It’s a better way to practice law. There’s nothing hard about it to me. It’s all about, okay, I’m going to do this, and these processes will be much easier.
Jane: Are you surprised that so many attorneys still don’t leverage even basic database software?
Nancy: Yeah, it’s crazy! It’s really crazy. Lawyers are so resistant to change, so they really don’t like to change. They say, “This is working, I don’t want to change it,” and I have those tendencies as well. But, when I see something that is actually going to help me, I’m all over it. I think for sure in the context of adding new software there is a training element, there is a phase in that you have to change your procedures, change your processes to accommodate the software and at first it may seem like it’s more work. But if you can see what the benefit is at the tail end, it’s all worth it.
Jane: So our last question is, if you could have spoken to yourself when you were setting out, plotting your own law firm, if you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself?
Nancy: I think it would be that this is a business, and don’t ignore the business aspects of it. Learn about it and treat this as though you’re running a business because in the first 10-15 years of my professional life, I didn’t get that, and I would be in a better financial position now if I had known that then.
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