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Divorce lawyers seeking an edge in a crowded legal marketplace have found a niche they say pays off in good times and bad: appealing to men who fear getting a bad deal.
With sports magazines in the waiting room and radio and TV spots that promise to put men first, "divorce for men" law firms position themselves as the best defense a soon-to-be-ex-husband could have in the struggle to keep his kids, his house and his money.
They say their expertise lends firepower in situations where other lawyers might cave, and they coach men on how to avoid certain snares. For instance, if you want to stay in your house, steer clear of confrontations—especially in front of witnesses—that could provide fodder for a restraining order.
"We have experience swimming upstream," said Bill Goldberg, co-founder of Goldberg Jones, a Seattle-based men's divorce firm with offices in Portland and San Diego. "We don't pretend that we are going to pull miracles for men. But we are very, very familiar with the biases and challenges."
Such firms charge about the same hourly rates as other family-law practices—generally in the range of $200 to $350 an hour, plus a retainer.
Getting divorced isn't cheap. An amicable separation that doesn't end up in court could run in the low thousands of dollars, while custody disputes or battles over property can cost many more thousands, or even millions, by the time a divorce is final.
The "divorce for men" pitch has proved a durable one. Some lawyers have been working this angle for decades, since men's rights groups began pushing back in the 1970s and 1980s against divorce and custody laws that they said favored women at the expense of their former spouses.
Now it's easier than ever before to find such lawyers as firms expand their online profiles with Web sites and blogs laden with keywords designed to boost them to the top of Internet search results.
When Mark Faulkner of Round Rock, Texas, was looking for a divorce lawyer last year, his sister emailed him a link to the website of Cordell & Cordell, which says it is one of the country's largest family-law firms specializing in male clients.
The firm maintains three separate sites: one promoting the law firm, one for divorced dads, and a third focused on men's rights that features headlines such as "Child Support When Paternity Is in Doubt" and "Are There Laws to Protect a Man From an Ex-Wife's False Report?"
They struck a chord, said Mr. Faulkner, who runs a repair shop that fixes parts for high-end private airplanes. "Even the marriage counselor said, 'Make sure you get a good attorney because the system is prejudiced'" against men.
Not everyone is convinced of the need for such specialists. Some family-law practitioners say the outcome of a divorce depends largely on state law, what judge you get, and whether you have competent representation.
"Look at the marketing for men saying, 'We're going to help you keep the dollars you've earned.' Wait a minute—you can't change Missouri law," said Ann Bauer, a St. Louis family-law practitioner and past chair of the Missouri Bar's family-law section. "Pretty much we're going to divide the property down the middle."
To be sure, some men do get the short end of the stick in divorce proceedings. But attitudes—and divorce statutes—have shifted in recent decades.
"In this day and age, fathers have lots of rights," said Ken Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "We have shared custody, and the law in most states is really gender neutral."
Some states are moving to cap spousal support so that recipients, who are often but not always women, no longer get lifetime alimony. Mothers are increasingly paying child support, according to a recent survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. And as women's earnings equal or, in some cases, outpace those of their partners, some ex-wives even end up paying alimony.
"I always see judges wincing when they order women to pay alimony," said Mr. Altshuler. "But it's a trend.... Now we have so many families where both parents are working, the whole 'man takes care of the woman' syndrome has diminished."
Despite those changes, some lawyers who specialize in representing men say their clients still encounter discrimination from judges who are reluctant to view men as equally capable parents or deserving of spousal support. Joseph Cordell, the co-founder of Cordell & Cordell, said women may also resort to a tactic few men employ: accusations of domestic violence. "It could be as little as a shove or a raised voice," said Mr. Cordell. "The cascade of events triggered by that affect property distribution, custody, attorney fees."
Other firms focus on educating clients on the rights they already have but may not be exercising.
"Men don't know what they need to know," said Santa Monica divorce lawyer David Pisarra, who said his firm, Men's Family Law, "is about empowering men, not bashing women." He and his partner focus on making sure their male clients don't unwittingly sabotage their own goals—for instance, by moving 35 miles from their children's school, then seeking joint custody.
Mr. Goldberg started his firm in the mid-1990s after his father, who worked in advertising, devised a campaign for a Detroit men's divorce firm known as ADAM, or American Divorce Association for Men. "He had always thought that as a business-opportunity concept, this is something that would work well on the West Coast, in Seattle," Mr. Goldberg said.
The angle has also been fruitful for Mr. Pisarra's firm. "In the giant ocean of data on the Internet, you've got to become as niche-focused as possible," he said.
Marketing seems to be key. When Cordell & Cordell decided to focus on a male clientele in 1996, the firm invested heavily in its websites—a bet that Mr. Cordell said paid off a few years later and helped fuel the firm's expansion to more than 60 offices across 24 states. The firm also runs radio spots and tasteful, high-end TV ads.
The pitch certainly resonated with Taylor Myers, an electrical technician who lives in Memphis, Tenn. When Mr. Myers's wife served him with divorce papers last year, he opted for a Cordell & Cordell attorney after hearing one of the firm's radio spots.
"From the first time I heard their ad—that they cater to men and put them first—that's how I felt through the whole process," said Mr. Myers, 36 years old. "I don't think it's a ploy. He's hit on something right."