“Marital breakdown is undoubtedly one of life’s most stressful events. Adversarial divorces, in particular, can permanently damage the family members, causing great financial and emotional hardship. Fortunately, litigation is just one end of a wide divorce resolution spectrum”, says attorney Fern Topas Salka, a Certified Family Law Specialist in L.A. and proprietor of the Law Offices of Fern Topas Salka. Although she is a skilled litigator and former fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Ms. Salka now favors dispute resolution options that avoid courtroom intervention. She takes a progressive, eclectic approach at her Brentwood practice, offering a sophisticated menu of methods and skills for resolving disputes, including mediation, Collaborative Family Law, coaching, limited representation, consulting, and negotiation. “The shift in my practice didn’t happen overnight,” she explains. “It’s an outgrowth of 30 years of practice, personal experiences, my role as a former president of a large synagogue, and my position as the Chair of the Family Law Section of the Los Angeles County Bar. I never thought litigation was a very good answer, but the longer I did it, the less of an answer it became.”
Ms. Salka has taught and written extensively about the psychological and financial benefits of mediation and other alternate dispute processes. She has been named SuperLawyer for the past three years by Los Angeles Magazine, an honor reflecting the respect of her peers, and is a founding member of LACFLA, an association formed to advance the practice of Collaborative Family Law. With this new, hybrid form of dispute resolution, the parties each retain legal representation, but they and their counsel agree that they will not litigate; instead, they work together with the appropriate experts towards a mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable resolution.
With shared processes like mediation and Collaborative Law, Ms. Salka says clients gain a greater sense of control over their own lives and destinies. Her many high-profile, high-asset clients increasingly opt for this approach because it provides for the well-being of their children while protecting the family from costly, public disputes. Regardless of income level, shared processes provide a deeper understanding of what’s at stake because the real players are all involved, she says. “If you have a judge make the decision, all you have is a finite decision for a fluid problem. It doesn’t solve things, ultimately.” Ms. Salka also believes out-of-court resolutions are much more sensitive to the needs of children. “It’s clear from my experience as well as studies that children do the best when their parents do not go to war over them.”
Ms. Salka also offers “unbundled” services to assist clients who cannot afford or may not wish full representation although she does not make court appears or serve as an attorney of record. Her services include reviewing settlement options, running support schedules, coaching for settlement discussions, drafting documents, and conducting research. In addition, she offers expert second opinions to counsel and to clients who need the assurance of a “second impartial look” or help in getting unstuck. For cases that do not lend themselves to these non-adversarial approaches, Ms. Salka will act as a settlement officer.
She begins the initial discussion with clients by asking them about their goals. “When I’m the mediator, I will ask that of each of them and look for overlapping goals. They almost always exist! When I am consulting with an individual client, we look at the client’s goals and try to anticipate what will motivate the other side.” Then she talks to them about the different procedural options she offers. “It’s an educational process,” she admits. “Most people have heard about mediation, and that’s it… they think they can either litigate or mediate. But there are so many more variations that can be tailored to each case.”
Ms. Salka also gives advice about how to make the process work better. Among her many suggestions, she urges her clients to focus on long-term goals, not just short-term positions. For example, she tells her clients, “You want to constantly ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m doing today going to make it better or worse to stand at my child’s graduation or have a good relationship with my grandchildren?’” She also offers extensive bibliographies, written materials, training, and other forms of coaching in how to keep this focus while going through a difficult time.
Reflecting on her long, successful career, Ms. Salka speaks of the personal rewards it brings to her: “The most satisfying aspect is that I feel I’m doing good and important work. I serve families in crisis, mothers, fathers, stepparents, children, stepchildren, even grandparents.”
Fern Salka has written several faqs and articles that can be read on DivorceMagazine.com, including:
- “Does Consensual Dispute Resolution (CDR) Provide Protection for Clients?”
- “I used to hear mediation described as ADR. Now, I hear it is called CDR. What’s that and why the change?”
- “I have a fairly uncomplicated divorce case – is it possible or even advisable to hire an attorney just for certain parts of the case? How would that work?”
- “How long will my divorce take?”
- “What if I don’t like my lawyer’s tactics and strategies? Can I get a second legal opinion without firing my lawyer?”