Post Authored by Jason A. Pica II
What is life without divorce? It’s a question I will never be able to answer. My parents divorced around my first birthday. This wouldn’t be the first time either of my parents divorced since my biological father divorced his second wife six years before my mom divorced my stepfather. But I was always at the center of these divorces.
As a child, I thought I caused my parents’ persistent arguments and eventual divorces. My parents would also badmouth each other in front of me, which confused me. I could not understand why they made such cruel statements and forced me to pick sides. When I could sleep at night, I dreamt of how my life would be different if my friends’ parents were my parents instead. It goes without saying that my emotional and mental health was affected by my parents’ divorces. They did not consider how abrupt transitions, such as living in two households and having two of everything affected a child. I was very cautious about dating for a long time. When I first started dating my girlfriend, I tried to avoid arguments as much as possible by setting clear expectations. Judges often order parents to attend parenting education classes. One important lesson those classes teach is to not use your child to send messages to the other parent. Asking children to “tell your momma I said…” is mentally exhausting. I remember filtering my parents’ requests and making the message nicer for the receiving parent in order to lessen further disputes. A child should not have this burden or mental anguish.
Childcare issues only made my biological parents’ already-contentious divorce worse. As a result, the Court appointed a guardian ad litem (“GAL”) to represent my and my sister’s best interests. As an infant, I had no idea what a GAL was, how important it was to have an advocate, or even how my GAL helped me. It was only years later that I realized the importance of a GAL, and the care and ability it takes to represent an infant. For example, when I externed for a judge, I saw a GAL being cross-examined after recommending that the child relocate with the mother to another state. Even under intense pressure, she held firm, and strongly recommended against the father having access to the child. Using a comprehensive list of resources, she focused on maintaining the best interest of the children. Then, when I worked at a law firm, I helped one of the partners serve as a child’s representative and a parenting coordinator in another case. When she met with the parents, she gave them the opportunity to vent in a safe space. But she wasn’t a pushover. She was stern when necessary, and always had the parents focus on the big picture. But most importantly, she was never afraid to bluntly tell them how their decisions would affect the child in the short-term and the long-term. Thanks to her efforts, the parties reached an amicable agreement hours before trial. Her actions showed the importance of GALs not only on children but also on the family as a whole, which solidified my continued desire to become a family law attorney.
My career in divorce and family law began when I worked at a law firm called Hostak, Henzl & Bichler in high school. I was confused, but also amazed, by my colleagues’ dedication to their clients. One attorney would carry a banker box of files home each night and work long into the night. Others cared for their clients as if the clients were their personal friends. Before, I wanted a career that would involve easy work. That all changed after this internship. Despite the extended hours after traditional working hours and the taxing nature of the job, these family law attorneys reminded me to always be optimistic, even during tough times. After that experience, nothing could stop me from being a family law attorney. Not even the large number of banker boxes carried to and from the car.
Between my sophomore and junior year of college, I applied for an opportunity to shadow attorneys at Chicago Advocate Legal (“CAL”). CAL is a non-profit law firm that provides flat-rate legal services for individuals who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford traditional hourly legal services. At the time, I did not intend to intern there. One week later, I was offered an internship. During the internship, I copied documents and wrote simple memos. Over time, my supervisors saw my passion for the work, so the attorneys allowed me to attend court and draft pleadings. This allowed me to observe several judges in the Domestic Relations Division. But one judge stood out from the rest; Judge Regina Scannicchio had complete control over her courtroom. Despite having a long court call, she was able to remember nuanced details about every case on the call and had a complete mastery of the law. Nothing seemed to phase her, which stunned me. If I had the opportunity to learn from her in any capacity, I would have considered it an incredible privilege.
That dream became a reality a few years later when Justice Frossard, a former Illinois Appellate Court justice, referred me for an externship position in Judge Scannicchio’s chambers. As a second semester 1L, she allowed me to observe court, conduct legal research, and draft court orders, which would have otherwise been unthinkable at that stage of school. Judge Scannicchio also taught me to always prepare a case for trial from the start, to make direct and concise arguments, and to answer the judge’s questions. I learned that there is no winning or losing in family law because the parties and the children have already lost their families in some capacity. An unintentional perk of the position was the exposure to other attorneys. I saw several attorneys in court, and Judge Scannicchio even introduced me to a few. What started as simple informational interviews led to other internships, meetings with their colleagues, and scholarship advice. To this day, I still ask many of the attorneys I met through Judge Scannicchio for advice.
One of the attorneys I met was Lindsay Margolis, a partner at Beermann. Our relationship started as a simple phone call. But I decided to prepare for it like a job interview, and thoroughly researched her biography. The call itself was a typical informational interview. She told me about her day-to-day life as a divorce attorney and the different issues arising in family law when representing high asset clients. Unlike more typical informational interviews, we kept meeting. After a few meetings, I was curious to learn more about opportunities at the firm. Lindsay asked me for my resume and forwarded it to the head of the family law department at her firm. I soon received an invitation to interview at the firm. It seemed too good to be true. After all, I was only a 1L. Walking into one of the biggest divorce firms in Illinois and, presumably, the nation would be intimidating for anyone at any experience level. But for someone with less than a full year of school under their belt? The nerves were palpable. To calm them, I conducted mock interviews and thoroughly researched the equity partners, founders, and the history behind the firm. During the interview, my interviewer made it clear that the firm did not hire 1Ls. While I was disappointed, I was glad the interviewer was upfront and honest and decided to use this experience as a learning opportunity. To my complete surprise, I received a phone call only a few days later. I got the offer to work as a Summer Associate at Beermann.
Working at Beerman was a fantastic opportunity, and almost a dream come true. Over the course of a year, I learned the importance of professionalism, developed extreme attention to detail, thought proactively, and, most importantly, learned to love where I work. I was also given the opportunity to participate in trials, mediation, parenting coordination, and collaborative divorce. My writing and research skills improved by performing extensive legal research and drafting motions. So too did my ability to understand how other areas of law intersected with family law by attending by in-house presentations about family law updates. Overall, Beermann is not only filled with attorneys at the top of their profession but, rather appropriately, is also like a family. When I think of the attorney I want to become, I have my colleagues at Beermann in mind. They know how to prioritize certain aspects of their life, create a sterling reputation in the legal profession, and develop close relationships with their clients. But most importantly, they are skilled negotiators who are able to settle the most difficult disputes before trial, but also skillfully present their clients’ stories at trial, if necessary.
I later returned to CAL. Unlike before, I was a 711 licensed law student. Along with the change in work title and responsibilities, I also better understood the challenges of representing clients, and how those compounded if the clients were low-income. For example, CAL clients often need to obtain a fee waiver and conduct a cost-benefit analysis of missing work to attend court. One particular client I worked with was a father trying to obtain parenting time. When I began working with him, the Judge ordered a child representative to be appointed in the case. The child representative would not perform any work until the father paid the retainer, which he could not afford on a minimum wage salary. The court therefore gave him no parenting time until he was able to pay the retainer. The judge could have appointed the Public Guardian’s Office to represent the child but decided to appoint a GAL charging $600 per hour instead. While I had seen a wide variety of cases with Judge Scannicchio, nothing could have prepared me for that level of injustice.
In some ways, my family’s situation growing up was similar to my client’s. Neither of my parents graduated from college. Further, no one in my family is a social worker, therapist, or lawyer. I am the first in my family to walk several professional paths and educational pursuits. After seeing the success of my coworkers at CAL, I found out that this success was based, in part, on a supportive and encouraging professional network. While I did not have such a network before law school, I realized that I was slowly starting to build one now.
While I had learned a lot from others over the years, I soon realized I was missing a crucial perspective: my own. No matter what, being a mixed-race, African American man would have an impact on my practice, so I wanted to find an esteemed African American mentor. Kimberly Cook, a Partner at Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck, was that person. The first African American partner at her firm, Kimberly was also recently named as a Fellow in the American Academy for Matrimonial Lawyers. Made up of the top matrimonial lawyers in the country, the Academy required Kimberly to complete a rigorous application, including interviews, exams, and both professional and judicial evaluations. Embodying the phrase “grace under pressure,” Kimberly frankly told me how I am and will be perceived as an African American divorce and family law attorney. While it could make my practice more difficult, she also told me that my background would allow me to connect with minority clients on a deeper level and understand their perspectives throughout litigation. Representing well-known celebrities, athletes, and business executives, Kimberly is a shining example of excellence. But she has never let this success get to her. Even though I was only a law student, she treated me as an equal, and reminded me how my background can be used as a strength. As both a child of divorce and an African American man, life has not been easy. But I want to use those experiences to fight for others experiencing these situations, and comfort them. As I realized throughout my life, the best way to do so is to be a family law attorney.
About the Author:
Jason Pica II is a 711 Licensed Law Student and serves as the Vice President at Chicago Advocate Legal, NFP (CAL). He represents clients in divorce, child support, paternity, orders of protection, property division, maintenance, parenting time, and enforcement proceedings as well as guardianship of minors in probate. Jason believes in negotiating and settling cases to achieve the best results and litigating zealously when necessary.
Jason is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor at the University of Illinois-Chicago John Marshall Law School. Previously, Jason was a judicial extern for the Honorable Judge Regina A. Scannicchio of the Domestic Relations Division and a Court Appointed Special Advocate in Cook County’s Child Protection Division, where he advocated for the best interests of foster children. In addition, Jason was a Summer Associate and law clerk at Beermann LLP, one of the largest divorce and family law firms in Illinois.
Jason also holds a Master of Social Work with a specialization in clinical work with children and families from Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Psychology of Crime and Justice from Loyola University Chicago. In graduate school, Jason was a counselor providing free psychotherapeutic services to disadvantaged youth in Chicago. He also has presented research at national academic conferences around the nation for the psycho-educational civic education after-school program he helped co-create.
After law school, Jason plans to practice all aspects of divorce and family law, while developing a specialty in complex family law cases involving mental health disorders and the representation of high-asset individuals. Beyond this, Jason plans to earn a PhD in Social Work sometime in the future.