Michael Lundy shares his views on family law, domestic violence and one crazy divorce story
Michael Lundy is co-founder and managing partner at the Older Lundy & Alvarez law firm in Tampa, which was established 15 years ago.
The firm now has 12 full-time family lawyers and several more lawyers practicing in other areas. There isn’t an area of law someone at the firm can’t handle. The firm is on track to exceed $10 million in revenue in 2019 and is expanding.
Bridgette Bello interviewed Lundy in front of a live audience at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The transcript below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
One of the reasons I believe you are the best divorce attorney in town is because, well, I spent thousands on mine, and all they wanted to do was litigate and fight and drag me and him and our child through the mud … and that’s not your philosophy. So, I’d really like for you to talk about how you differ from most divorce attorneys when it comes to that.
One of the things that is interesting about our world is that people only talk about the cases that are complicated and difficult and heavily litigated. No one ever sits around and talks about the last great compromise they made, or the last great deal that they made, or how they encouraged somebody to keep a cooler mind in a stressful situation, and I think what’s really separated us since day one from all the others is to always find a solution, even if that solution doesn’t feel good or requires a lot of compromise.
I think because we have given that kind of honest advice to people, we built an amazing team. And we’ve grown very rapidly and greatly in a fairly short period of time. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you say I’m the best divorce lawyer in Tampa Bay and that’s an amazing compliment, but we really have the best team and it’s not just divorce. It’s all aspects of peoples’ lives. What we realized pretty early on is that family law touches almost every aspect of a person’s life. Whether it’s your property, estate planning, your other litigation needs, your personal injury type issues … any type of legal advice, we find it in family law cases.
When we interviewed you spoke about how the system needs reform. I want to know what the system looks like when Michael Lundy waves his magic wand and fixes it all.
We approach a lot of things in a way that a lot of people would say is counterintuitive. I’ll be the first one to tell you that the family law court system is about the worst way to resolve a problem. And that sounds counterintuitive, obviously, because we get paid by the hour to fight inside of that system. But what we have found is that by trying to keep people out of the system and by getting our cases resolved without a lot of litigation-style, conflict-style resolution, that actually has helped us to grow.
We get more referrals because our clients tell their friends, “They’re going to give you straight advice.” Now, of course 90-95 percent of our cases are resolved totally outside of the court system. The other 5 percent are the stories we spend 100 percent of our time talking about, because the stories are insane.
So really over the last few years I’ve had a major philosophical shift. It’s probably not a coincidence that I have a 5 year-old and a 4 year-old and have thought of some ways to get some conflict resolution processes that are totally divorced from the divorce system. I haven’t figured it out – I’m pretty sure it’s a billion dollar idea – but I do know that the idea of some very significant training for our judiciary system is an absolute starting point.
I think if there was a lot more predictability and if we knew that our judges had a much greater understanding of the issues, the psychological issues, the financial issues, child development issues, people would not want to go to court. I think one of the reasons you have unfortunately, a lot of lawyers push their clients to go to court, it’s not just because it’s lucrative for them to do that, but also because they know that it’s like a gamble.
I probably have this conversation twelve times a week with people where I tell them that the idea of letting a judge decide how you and your soon to be ex are going to parent your children is about the worst idea I can think of.
I’m not ready to disclose all the secrets yet, but I’ve been working with a couple of people to formulate some ideas, maybe an online approach that really is a holistic approach to addressing family law problems.
Something that’s got a huge educational component that primes people. Before they have to run in and start making big decisions and thinking through these complex problems, they start with an educational process. Right now what happens is the education you get is from a person who is paid to fight on your behalf – and I do not think that is working. And the other problem that we’re having, more prevalent than any other – is that they are putting judges on the bench who have never practiced family law. They don’t know anything about family law. They’re not psychologists, they’re not doctors. They don’t have financial expertise. And these people get elected or appointed to the bench, the first place they usually go is to the family law division. Where they have, what I think, is more power as a judge than any other seat inside the courthouse. And something has to be done about that. And so I think before a judge takes a family law seat, they need to go through a very extensive training process to understand what they’re going to be looking at, and how they’re going to be decisive and then be measured on how they make these decisions.
Let’s talk about the firm a little bit. You’re growing and adding attorneys. We talked about when it was you and Ben in a little office and shopping at Staples. There’s a lot of business owners and CEOs in this room. What advice do you have for them as they start to grow or try to grow?
We are growing pretty fast. We’ve gone from two employees to about 50 employees in the last fifteen years.
Our plans are to continue to grow, and pretty aggressively – but that comes with some challenges. We really only want to recruit people who fit into our culture, which has become increasingly important to us as time goes on. I feel like we have the best team assembled that we’ve ever had right now. And it’s interesting because as you add new people, it kind of begets or attracts more great people. We just added an attorney named Amy Stoll, and shortly thereafter she helped us recruit Jennifer Murphy and so we’re just kind of off to the races with that.
We will probably open a Clearwater office in the first quarter of next year. We opened a Dade City office this year. I think a downtown St. Petersburg office makes a lot of sense for us, and then after that, probably Sarasota, where we’re already doing a significant amount of work.
I feel like people don’t really look at a law firm as a traditional business, it’s just a service business, but we’ve always run ours from a very business-minded perspective. If I was going to give advice to an entrepreneurial person who was opening a new business, it would be: Get creative.
Tell us about the 5 percenters. Tell us about the “crazy” divorce brings out. I always say you never really know someone until you divorce them.
I went through some cases in my mind. But my partner will know which story I’m going to tell because we always tell this story. So this was early on. It was the initial test to see if we really were going to stomach this. Ben and I were working in that little office. And we had a client come in and she was complaining about a burning sensation in her private area. And we’re like, ‘We’re divorce lawyers, not gynecologists, so there’s limited amount of help we’re going to be able to give to you about this.’
We finally told her look, you should probably see a medical professional about this if it’s continuing. I’m sure there’s a commercial that offers some medication or ask your doctor about it. So she went to the doctor. She went several times. She tried changing soap, she tried changing deodorant. I don’t know why she had to change her deodorant. She tried changing her detergent.
One day she came in and said she decided she would try not wearing underwear one day, and the burning stopped. So the next thing I know my partner comes into my office with a bag full of her underwear and says, ‘Smell these.’ And I said, ‘Uh, just tell me what they smell like – that’s good enough for me.’
Ultimately, we figured out that there was something on the underwear and we sent someone out to find a chemist and to analyze the underwear immediately.
We figured out that the husband, in that case, had been growing habanero peppers in his backyard and rubbing them in his wife’s underwear. We literally took habanero peppers and the underwear out to this chemist’s lab and he did an analysis.
So just to give you a sense of the terrible psychopathology that we sometimes see in people.
The Spring luncheon was today. Tonjua Williams was our keynote – the president of St. Petersburg College – and she was amazing. Even after eight years on that board, I had no idea that you dedicate a tremendous amount of space in your building to the attorneys that are the ones who go to court with those of us who are domestic violence survivors. So I think that’s pretty amazing and I want you to talk about where that passion came from and how that differentiates you and the decisions you make and the 5 percenters that you have to deal with.
I think early on in my life – I can’t tie it to a specific moment or event – but I think early on in my life I came to have very strong feelings about when one person has a lot of power and another doesn’t and the power is used abusingly to inflict wrong after wrong after wrong. I think this is probably why I gravitated from what I was doing early in my career into family law because I wanted to right the wrongs.
Domestic violence is far more prevalent than people know. It’s something we see very often in family law cases. And it goes on for far longer than people understand. They do not understand the psychological dynamics of an abusive relationship. About 35-40 days ago, I was hired by somebody who, and I’ll tie this into The Spring, was in an abusive relationship. It was a very affluent family and the manner in which she would describe her husband would make your eyes roll back in your head.
I joined the board of The Spring five or six years ago – mainly because I had a connection to Mindy Murphy, who was at that point the interim CEO, and is an incredible, incredible human being and has done an amazing job there. But I contacted her and got her in touch with this woman. And the speed in which they got involved I believe saved this woman’s life. I believe this woman was on a crash course toward being killed. I don’t think people realize what a problem this really is. Not only is it a serious problem for the person who is being abused, but think about children who are around it, who are watching it, who are learning it. Every single one of you was screwed up by something that one or more of your parents did, just like me and all other adults. If that’s the thing you were observing, you’ve got a lot of work to do to heal yourself from that. So I joined the board of The Spring because I think it’s one of the most incredible charitable organizations in Tampa Bay. I have personally seen them do so much charitable work in Tampa Bay. Helping people turn their lives around and give them a sense of empowerment. It’s something that we all strive to say we’d like to go to zero. The goal is not to reduce domestic violence – the goal is to eliminate domestic violence. And it is hard work. So we remain as passionate about that today as ever.
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