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Gregory Mott: His practice is anything but second class

Most people get gavels to commemorate their service chairing Monroe County Bar Association sections.
Gregory Mott said he would rather receive a battle ribbon. He got it.
Mott had served in 1986 as chairman of the Family Law Section for the county bar. When he asked for the Blue Max, the decoration given to top German flying aces in World War I, other section members understood.
Veterans of some of the toughest trenches in law, family-law practitioners (aka divorce lawyers) suffer their bad reputations, if not gladly, at least good-humoredly.
Family law has long been considered “a second-class area of law,” Mott notes. From the 1950s on, divorce lawyers were right up there with mothers-in-law as standard targets of stand-up comics.
Even now, at a time when bar leaders huff mightily at the popularity of lawyer jokes, one sure way to get a laugh out of a lawyer when telling a joke is to put “divorce” in front of “lawyer.”
Q: What’s the difference between a divorce lawyer and a spermatazoon?
A: The spermatazoon has a one-in-4 billion chance of becoming a human being.
Maybe divorce lawyers take their bad reps so cheerfully because they are used to it. Or maybe it is because they know that, sooner or later, the joke-tellers have a 50/50 chance of needing a divorce lawyer’s help.
“You would be surprised how fast these great big law firms that find it beneath their dignity to practice family law move when one of their big corporate clients wants a divorce,” commented David Siegel, professor of law at Albany Law School. “They are only too happy to hire a “second-class citizen’ and keep their fingers crossed.”
Siegel taught Mott at Albany Law School. His former student, he says, “has the buoyant personality to bear the sensitive burden of cases where the emotional content is at least equal to the cash content.”
Results of a secret poll among his colleagues rank Mott one of the “Best Lawyers in America” for family and divorce law, according to the book by that name. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, having demonstrated his expertise by special examination.
And he can take a joke. “Family law is a boom field, has been for 15 years,” Mott says. “I keep waiting for it to slow down, but it’s picking up momentum.”
Mott’s family-law grounding is not psychology or social work or even anthropology. It is accounting.
Good family lawyers, he says, are all good business lawyers. But not all good business lawyers are good family lawyers.
Too often, he notes, the lawyer who innocently handed a spouse 50 percent ownership of stock in a family business years back also unthinkingly handed over a key negotiating point in a divorce.
“A simple divorce is a contradiction in terms,” Mott says. “The parties may think they have agreed to a property settlement, but they usually haven’t considered the tax consequences or bankruptcy-law implications of their agreement.”
Even no-fault divorce is not a no-brainer, especially when property to be split lies in the tricky area of pension and deferred-compensation plans, Mott says. Or when the property at issue is an advanced degree or license, an asset that can be tough to price accurately.
“A lot of divorce is inventory and accounting work,” Mott explains. “Anyone who practices in this area knows divorce law has almost nothing to do with the reasons the marriage did not work, and everything to do with tax planning and business valuation.”
The firm Mott manages, Davidson, Fink, Cook & Gates Esq., focuses on family and business law. Six attorneys do almost exclusively divorce and family law. Ten others concentrate on business, particularly tax assessment and real estate work, including municipal zoning and planning. Mott is deputy town attorney for Pittsford.
Part of the firm’s duality, Mott says, is good marketing. And part of it is good law.
Companies today shop their legal work around for the best price. This gives midsize firms like Davidson, Fink a chance to outbid the big firms on work that falls in a specialty area.
Once firm attorneys have landed a business project, more work is likely to flow from the same client, Mott says. That work may roll out of a specialty field and into personal injury or construction litigation, or even criminal defense.
Specialization draws the clients, but range keeps them, Mott says.
“Clients typically misidentify their problems. It’s rare when a client has a problem contained within one field of law,” Mott says. “Lawyers have to foresee as many consequences of a given case or project as there are areas of law.”
Small and midsize firms give lawyers wider experience, he says, honing diagnostic skills.
“We have some of the giants as clients,” he adds, “but our mix of clients and cases is one that exposes lawyers to every facet of law.”
As Mott tells it, his route to the vale of tears that is family law was paved with more than a few laughs.
To start with, he never studied family law at Albany Law School. Almost no one did. The school discouraged the study of family law, which was viewed as the snake pit of law.
Then around 1972, at a small firm in Webster, demand for someone to handle divorce cases was up, but none of the partners wanted to touch them. And there sat Mott, a year out of law school and on his first job. Into the snake pit he went.
Six divorce-heavy years later, Mott was a partner. And he ran into Gerald Davidson in court.
Recalls Mott: “Gerry made a general announcement–to anyone within earshot, really–that he was looking for someone to help him with divorce work.”
That someone became Mott, who now manages the firm Davidson helped found.
True to its midsize mold, Davidson, Fink keeps layers of management and administration at a minimum. Its lean-and-mean stance also goes into the bidding calculation, and helps keep the big firms on the run.
Born in New York City and raised there and on Long Island, Mott has spent his entire professional career in Rochester, except for a one-year stint on the legal counsel staff of the Speaker of the State Assembly.
Coming from the city, where “people would go to the Catskills and tell everyone they had been upstate,” Mott says the cautious pace of growth in Rochester firms suits him and Davidson, Fink.
“It’s no accident that Davidson, Fink’s steady progression in size matches what has been happening in the business world,” the firm’s managing partner says. “We are right-size to react to business needs, without carrying any more overhead load than necessary.”
All 11 partners join in major decisions, while Mott fields day-to-day responsibilities. Firm management is informal; the job changes hands at irregular intervals and it takes a back seat to practicing law, Mott says.
Here is what he says about working with divorcing people: nothing. Here is what he says about child-custody issues: “very difficult.” Good divorce lawyers dodge even hypothetical gossip.
But after 20 years crawling from the wreckages of various alliances, Mott is eager to discuss the need to practice preventive law.
“Just doing legal work without educating the client is a disservice,” Mott says. “Lawyers need to put their clients on notice of all the ramifications of their decisions, get them to take into account the possibilities of divorce or disability when setting up a business deal, for example.”
He takes a good news/bad news view of divorce-yourself kits.
“Those kits are a great way to destroy yourself financially,” Mott says. And that’s the good news.
And the bad news? The courts will enforce contracts that come from the kits. Even when the only winner is the Internal Revenue Service.
“It’s great for people to settle issues between themselves and then get lawyers to put them in the right forms,” Mott says. “But in that process, the lawyers will be pointing out the angles that people don’t even suspect are there.”
Mott has been married to wife Ann almost as long as he has been a divorce lawyer. His daughter, Laurie, is a training facilitator for a software company in Fairport.
Son Ryan is in seventh grade, and is the reason Mott is winding up a seven-year tour of duty as a Little League coach. Ryan also is involved in Vince Lombardi Football and is branching out into lacrosse and soccer. So is Mott, in his spare time.
He admits to doing his “fair share of sighing and complaining” about family law, but says he has never second-guessed the series of occurrences that led him down that path.
“From time to time all lawyers who do a lot of divorce work come to the conclusion they are where they are for a reason,” Mott says. “Maybe there are easier ways to make money and maybe King Solomon wouldn’t touch some of the cases we have to take.”
Despite that and despite the flak, Mott says, there are enough decent humans practicing divorce law full time–“not just when things are slow in real estate”–to convince him he is right where he should be.


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