Attorneys Larry and Nick Rice of Rice, Admundsen & Caperton on divorce litigation and the digital difference.
photograph by Brandon Dill
If a wedding day is the best day of someone’s life, then Larry Rice sees people on the worst day of their lives — the day the marriage ends.
Now in the digital age, the divorce process is more complex than ever for clients and attorneys alike, both in terms of emotional realities and legal logistics.
“Sometimes I believe the old adage that criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, and divorce lawyers see good people at their worst,” says Rice of Rice, Amundsen & Caperton.
“I remind my staff that we see people at the most difficult point of their lives,” he says. “The relationship that they were committed to has fallen apart. Divorce is what you do because you have to do it.”
Rice is the second of three generations of lawyers, having grown up in his father’s law practice. His son, Nick, is now an attorney with the firm as well.
From a wood-paneled office with the feel of a natural history museum exhibit — a massive buffalo head glares down over his desk, and a five-foot-tall bear rears up in the corner — Rice produces the trophy of which he is most proud, the 900-page third edition of The Complete Guide to Divorce Practice: Forms and Procedures for Lawyers.
It’s one of three books and numerous publications Rice has penned and lectured on over the years with the intent of helping attorneys gain efficiency in their sometimes messy practices.
“Nothing has made more progress in terms of being more difficult and complex than divorce practice,” Rice says. “In my father’s day you could master multiple areas of law. This book would have been 100 pages.”
Rice got the idea for the book after reading a similar book on probate law. The publishers were interested in a book for divorce lawyers, and Rice had his material ready. The book was first published for Tennessee law, then modified to cover other states and jurisdictions. He traveled to half of the states in the country lecturing on it.
So how exactly has divorce law changed in his 35 years of practice?
“The level of economic analysis has risen exponentially,” says Rice, a graduate of Rhodes College and the Cecil C. Humphries School of Law at the University of Memphis.
“The understanding and sophistication of the analysis has grown that much,” he says. “When you go to trial and a lawyer on the other side has some economic analysis that you don’t have, in the next trial you’ve got that one too.
“In significant cases, a forensic CPA is almost a standard of what we do,” Rice continues. “When I started practicing, use of a CPA was extraordinarily rare.”
What’s more, information on the Internet fuels many of the suits brought in by clients, specifically incriminating photos, videos, and statements posted on social media websites. Rice says that even though a litigant may have enlisted privacy settings, it doesn’t mean all of their “friends” did.
“Divorce lawyers love Facebook,” says Rice. “It delights us to no end.”
In one case in which Rice represented a husband, the wife had posted a video on Photobucket, an image-sharing site, of herself smacking their child in the back seat of a car. It was used against her in court.
Even text messages and emails opened on company computers where litigants work can be subpoenaed because there is generally no expectation of privacy there.
“The new digital age has changed things significantly,” says Rice. “One of the requirements we have for our clients is that they open a separate email account. They sign a contract saying they have to open an email account with a unique password that they only use for communicating with us. That’s about the only way they preserve the attorney-client privilege.”
Styles of litigating have changed from one generation to the next, says Nick Rice, who started working for his father in the seventh grade pulling weeds in the parking lot and pulling case law. He joined the firm as an attorney in 2003.
“Dad’s more of a throwback to the way you’d envision lawyers standing there in a three-piece suit, telling the story and getting everyone involved,” Nick Rice says. “My style is clear-cut — these are the facts, this is the law, let’s get this thing settled or tried and over with. Dad was always big on telling me to develop the style that works for me.”
Part of that style change is due to changes in the law, which emphasize getting things done as quickly and painlessly as possible. Couples are required to go through mediation outside of court, a process developed in Tennessee by attorney Jocelyn Wurzburg, with the goal of avoiding trial.
In mediation, attorneys represent both sides, but no judge is present, though a judge signs the settlement later.
That hasn’t necessarily made divorce a less lucrative business. Currently Rice and his team handle 12 to 20 divorces a year and are currently on a client freeze.
Nick Rice — who is engaged to be married — notes that marriage rates are declining and many people are waiting longer to get married, but he sees no decline in business on the horizon.
“I think that if divorce stops being a profitable business, it’ll stop being a profitable business here [in the South] last,” says Nick Rice. “People get married younger here, before they’ve matured and developed. I see a lot of a mindset now that people go into a marriage thinking there’s still the option of a divorce. They may not acknowledge it, but it’s there.”
Larry Rice notes that he and Amy Amundsen are the only two certified Family Law Specialists in the Memphis area. Nine attorneys work for the firm in total.
Larry Rice also reports that his own marriage is doing just fine. “One of the things I learned about being married and being a divorce lawyer is when a man would come in and tell me the ways he was mistreated by his wife, I would tell my wife that I love her and how lucky I am,” says Larry Rice.
“I did find out though that when a woman came in and told me all the mean things her husband did, it did not work for me to go home and say ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’”
For more information, go to aboutdivorce.com.