Law Practice Today introduces “New Law,” a column profiling innovators in the legal industry whose projects or ideas have already changed the way law is practiced and who continue to seek ways to improve the profession. These trailblazers will answer questions on topics that keep our readers awake at night as they plan how to develop their practices in a rapidly changing world. Our goal in spotlighting these thought leaders is to help our readers predict the future of law and become first adopters of visionary ideas and techniques that will set them apart from their competitors.
Sheri Atwood is the founder & CEO of SupportPay by Ittavi, and a former Silicon Valley executive. Atwood went through divorce a few years ago, and created SupportPay when her search for a better way to exchange and communicate about child support payments with her ex-husband proved fruitless. SupportPay is the first-ever automated child support payment platform, poised to transform the complex, time-consuming, and stressful process that impacts nearly 300 million parents exchanging more than $900 billion in child support and child expenses worldwide. Before starting SupportPay, she was a successful marketing and product executive with Fortune 500 companies, and was named a “Top 40 Under 40 Executive in Silicon Valley.”
What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently?
My primary focus has been looking at the impact of family law on our society and the well-being of our children. As a child of a bitter divorce, I witnessed my parents fight constantly and it all stemmed from money. When I faced my own divorce several years ago, I swore I wouldn’t put my daughter through the fighting I had witnessed. Despite having an amicable divorce—which I did myself and for only $350—I was shocked to learn that no tools or technologies were available to help parents manage the finances after they are no longer together or living in the same home.
How can we help parents raise children together when they choose to not be together? Every study done on this topic has proven that the criminalization of child support has not helped the financial position of parents and has only increased the likelihood that both parents won’t be involved in their children’s lives. Is there a way to reduce the conflict that occurs between parents who are no longer together, yet still need to raise their children together? Is there a way to keep parents involved in their children’s lives—because 97 percent of parents who are involved, pay child support? Are there ways for parents to get credit not only for the monthly payments they make but also for the other financial contributions they make?
Given the changes to the “modern family” over the past few decades, new ways are needed to manage the new definition of a normal family. Current family laws assume there is a working father, a stay-at-home mother and 2.2 children in the home. However, everyone knows that this isn’t the case. In fact, 33 percent of parents have multiple children with different parents and 46 percent of new babies born in the US are born to unwed mothers (specifically with the age range of women 35 and older significantly increasing each year). With fewer parents getting married and more babies being born, our current system is not set up to handle the financial implications that these new families will bring to our society.
What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?
What happens after your client is done with their case? How do the contracts, orders or agreements get managed when the client is no longer actively meeting with you? When I developed SupportPay, I realized the biggest conflict and issue divorcing parents face actually arrives after the divorce is finalized, when there is little to no legal assistance. Everyone seems to talk about how painful and expensive a divorce is, yet no one talks about how painful, time-consuming and expensive it is to raise children together after a divorce or separation is complete. Lawyers can recommend tools and resources to their clients to use after the client is no longer in an active case.
What is one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?
Legal professionals should be embracing the new and current technologies instead of defaulting to older norms. In law offices and courthouses, there always seems to be outdated systems that no one bothers to modernize because they’re worried about losing time to the learning curve of implementing something new. There’s an “if it ain’t broke” mentality that you don’t see in other professions, and it’s certainly not reflective of those seeking legal services who don’t understand why they’re paying premium prices for antiquated business practices.
What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?
When it comes to family law, I believe most people recognize the current system is broken and needs to be fixed. Supporting legislation to push a collaborative, focused divorce or separation, instead of a conflict-ridden one, is important. Parents need to continue to work together long after the divorce, and it benefits everyone—especially the children—if parents learn early how to work together.
What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?
Self-service. People today want to do things on their own and do their own research. This means they want access to their information, their files and have immediate and direct contact with their legal team. It’s imperative for lawyers to understand how their clients like to be communicated with and support these communication channels. With the information and tools available online making it easier for people to file their own paperwork and more, lawyers will need to offer premium value and time to continue to grow their firms.
What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?
Of course I’m biased on this one, but I truly believe SupportPay is helping to change the family law system, and helping to achieve my main goal, which is to help separated parents focus on the most important thing – their children! I usually says it’s the “almost so obvious its stupid” idea that has come to light in the past few years. Helping parents end financial conflict so they can spend their time and energy on raising happy and healthy children, which will only benefit our society!
About the Author
Nicholas Gaffney is a partner and director of the San Francisco office of Infinite PR, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.