For more than two decades Barry Berkman has been one of New York City's most respected divorce lawyers, whose expertise, authority and credibility have helped redefine his profession. Berkman's practice and advocacy of Collaborative Law - the process by which spouses and their lawyers contractually commit to a negotiated settlement, by-passing traditional litigation - began in the mid '90s, and today, thanks to Berkman and a handful of lawyers across the U.S., Collaborative Law serves as an important, sensible and often less costly option for people seeking to end their marriage. He hasn't stepped into a courtroom in a decade, but Berkman - thoughtful and carefully articulate - maintains very much a lawyerly profile: Like all top attorneys he is quick with people and issues, and is bottom-line oriented. His practice is focused now on Collaborative Law as well as mediated divorce cases. Moreover, Berkman, with high-quality credentials rare in the scrappy field of divorce law, has long put his prestige on the line to promote Collaborative Law, conducting seminars and making media appearances on its behalf.
Berkman says he drew "original inspiration" from his father, who built a general practice in their hometown of Hempstead, Long Island. Berkman and his siblings all excelled academically (his brother today is also a lawyer; his sister a psychologist) and he went on to Harvard, majoring in English.
At Stanford Law in the late 60s he was tempted to stay in the Bay Area, he says, but ultimately returned to New York. Back then for a New York lawyer "it was either Wall Street or Court Street" - corporate law or litigation - and he chose the latter. He took his first divorce cases in the early 70s, prior to the passage of equitable-distribution laws, "back when few lawyers wanted to take them." Divorce law then was a legal Wild West: "A joint account -- whoever made it to the bank first got the money. If the title is in your name - in the divorce the property is yours. Find the wife at fault (back then only a wife would receive alimony) she lost her right to spousal support. And if she were awarded alimony, it was for life (or remarriage)."
By his early 30s, and convinced divorce law was his future ("The personal role I played for clients was rewarding") he launched his own practice. His timing was good: The avalanche of social change in the 70s was putting new demands on and legitimizing the specialty. Berkman recalls how in 1980 the new equitable distribution statutes prompted "forensic accountants to take the place of private detectives." Cases grew more complex, more costly -- and more hotly contested. And as the years passed, he came to recognize that old-style litigation was ill-suited to modern divorce: "People were getting wiped out -- not just financially but emotionally as well. Everyone, including children, was left traumatized."
In the early 90s, looking for alternatives, Berkman met with the nation's earliest practitioners of Collaborative Law, including Stu Webb of Minneapolis; in short order Berkman was conducting presentations before fellow members of the New York Bar. Among many of his colleagues, a process that disavowed litigation was met with a range of polite nods to outright derision; but privately many lawyers wanted to learn more. Berkman re-dedicated his practice exclusively to alternative dispute resolution, an arrangement that has complemented the practice of partner and respected litigator Walter Bottger. As a result their firm, Berkman Bottger Newman & Rodd, even with only seven lawyers, is every bit a full-service family-law firm, with a broad caseload, all taking different paths to resolution, characteristic of larger firms. For all his success promoting collaborative law, Berkman maintains a low-key, practical, commonsense approach to the resolution of family disputes.
Today Berkman says Collaborative Law has largely lived up to his own expectations; the process has resolved the legal matters of divorce more efficiently, less expensively, and with much less rancor than traditional legal processes, he says. Collaborative's "consensus for constructive behavior" can have great, positive impacts on the rest of our clients' lives. Now with grown children, Berkman is a lifelong tennis player; he lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side.