Profile of the Month – Janet George
Janet George has been practicing family law for over 35 years and is widely recognized as one of the top family law attorneys in the state of Washington. She limits her practice to complex, high asset and high income cases, including those involving property characterization, business valuations, and the distribution of multi-million dollar estates. She has represented high net worth individuals across different fields, including business owners, corporate executives, legal and medical professionals, and professional athletes.
Janet has received the top honors of her field. She has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) since 1992, serving as President of the Washington AAML chapter from 1997 to 1999. She has also been included in Best Lawyers in Americafor the past five years, Super Lawyers since 2003, and has had a peer-review rating of “AV Preeminent” by Martindale Hubbell for the past 30 years.
Whether cases are resolved through mediation or trial, Janet considers her role as an educator just as important as her role as a legal advocate. “I educate my clients about their rights, their estate, possible disposition of property, and creative solutions for children. I respect my clients’ situations and want them to be satisfied with their decisions, whether six months or six years later.”
Before becoming an attorney, Janet earned a Master’s degree in psychiatric nursing, counseling families in crisis and working with adolescents at Seattle Mental Health Institute as Director of Nursing and also as a Psychiatric Nurse. She considers this experience a natural background for the practice of family law.
Janet continues to take cases that involve parenting disputes as part of her ongoing passion to help children. She is also a strong supporter of organizations that share this mission, including King County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and Treehouse, the latter a non-profit that advocates for foster children.
When time allows, Janet is also an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law and considers working with law students one of her greatest joys.
Following her own advice to live life completely, Janet is a former small plane pilot – flying to and from her getaway in Sun Valley in her 182 Cessna RGTurbo. She has dealt blackjack at South Shore Tahoe, and has shown quarter horses in the Salinas rodeo. She’s an avid skier and ‘wannabe’ golfer, and is currently involved in the world of horse racing. She owns a percentage in five race horses and enjoys spending time at Emerald Downs with the jockeys, trainers, and other owners and breeders.
- How often do you have cases that involve mediation?
In family law, every case in King County is mandated to mediate. The number of cases that are actually mediated is close to 100%. The ones that do not require mediation happen because I have been able to work out a settlement without a third party neutral. With the types of cases I handle, involving high assets and custody disputes, the parties often have a more difficult time working out an agreement without a third party neutral.
- What qualities do you look for in a mediator?
I tailor-make my decision about who to hire as a mediator to fit the needs of each case. For example, some mediators are more patient with parenting than others, so patience can be a key part of of the selection criteria. If the case is primarily about complex high assets, then some mediators are just more knowledgeable working with complex assets. When you have both issues combined—parenting and complex assets— I try to get someone who is good with both issues. In King County, we are fortunate to have a number of good mediators.
Based on my knowing the mediators with whom I’ve worked with in the past, there are three characteristics of good mediators I look for:
Communicators. The mediators I work with need to be good at communicating their observations and thoughts.
Caring.Good mediators must demonstrate that they care. There are some mediators who are stoic and just want the facts. My approach to every case is that I do care. Most mediators are very good. They understand and they do care, especially when there are family issues and children involved. Mediating these types of cases is very different from other types of civil cases.
Closers. Good mediators are basically closers. They do everything they can to get the case resolved.
3.How strongly do you push to have a mediator you propose be accepted by the other side? The mediator has to be acceptable to me. There aren’t many times that I would say, “I would not use a particular person as the mediator.” The person has to be the right mediator for both parties to avoid trial—that’s really important for family matters. Both parties have to agree with who is the right person to do the mediation for mediation to succeed.
4.How important is pre-session communication with the parties?
Most mediators that do family law cases exclusively do not do a pre-session communication. I am always ready for trial at the mediation; discovery is done. Sometimes the other side is not as prepared. One mediator that I like in particular does pre-session communication with a pre-mediation phone call. This helps the mediator to understand what each person wants and what pushes each party’s buttons, so the mediator understands what s/he needs to do. Most of the time pre-session communication is not done, but I think it is a good thing.
- How important is it for the mediator to follow up if the mediation doesn’t result in a settlement? Follow up can be critical. In the last few years, it seems harder to get people to settle. It can take more time than one day. Often if the mediators don’t follow-up, then the case could be headed for trial. It’s important to keep tying to get the parties to work together.
- What ADR topics would you like to see discussed at an ADR-related CLE?
There are mental health CLEs which attorneys attend. These CLEs are usually held on Saturday morning at 8:30. I like to know what the mediators think is important toward settling a case. Judges are often limited from telling what they think about settling the case. Many mediators will tell you what is helpful from the participants. For example, a mediator might want everyone to be together and to meet in one room, then later to split up into separate rooms. Some mediators read all of the material, and some do not. In those instances, then I know what I need to tell them to fill them in. Some mediators apply pressure to the parties. Other mediators have been family law attorneys or judges who heard family law cases while on the bench. Knowing the background and the philosophy of the mediator is important to me.
- Tell me more about your practice…
My cases involve high net worth individuals who have complex assets. I can only take on so many of these cases at a time. Often they are document intensive and involve several experts. I also like to have other types of Family Law cases mixed in that might involve less complex parenting situations, less conflict, and fewer high assets.
Before law school, I obtained a Masters in Nursing and background in psychology and taught psychiatric nursing at the University of Washington. It’s natural for me to help people to get to a good place in their divorce without doing therapy with them. I like to know the dynamic of everyone involved, and to help achieve a good, agreed-upon result. I had credits going toward a Ph.D, but then became interested in both legal and medical areas. I decided I’d like to go to law school. Following law school, I was a public defender for a summer, and then a prosecutor. When I hit that area involving litigation, I loved it.
I was a solo practitioner and had an office in the Columbia Tower for 30 years. In 1985, I was the sixth tenant in the building. Last year, I decided that I wanted to take a different approach and was seeking some back up. I went from being a solo attorney to joining McKinley Irvin, a firm with 40 attorneys located in many different offices. Being in a large firm has advantages that I didn’t have as a solo practitioner. It’s a different world and I love it! I used to be located two blocks from the courthouse and now I’m two blocks from Nordstrom.
- Are there any issues or trending topics that you would like to discuss?
I’ve been practicing family law since the 1980s and there wasn’t so much ADR happening back in the 80s. I’m an ex-prosecutor who left the courtroom, as I know the courtroom is not the best place to solve family law issues. King County requires the parties in a family law case to mediate. Fewer cases go to trial and more cases are resolved by the parties, rather than having a judge telling the parties how to settle the case. A trial takes the decision-making out of the parties’ hands and into a third party’s hands who decides what will happen with their money or their children. Even though some of my cases are very complex and have many issues, most of them reach agreement out of court.
Today, people hang onto more. Now getting down to the nitty gritty takes longer. People just take longer to reach an agreement. The cases I often involve so many issues that they can’t be resolved in one day.
Social media is also a problem. Whenever I have a new client, I ask: is your phone, iPad and computer secure? I advise my clients to get a separate phone. Staying on a family plan means everything they do may be available to the other side. You can trace people’s whereabouts on GPS or phone. More than ever, the parties have to know more about electronics. A second problem with social media is that parties may post inaccurate facts. They might say they’re divorced, but won’t say that they have children. I have to counsel people—do you really want to share that much information? On the other hand, Social Media is often a great way to gain information about what’s really going on behind the scenes. My associate can go online and find out so much information. When I grew up privacy was important. Younger people don’t seem to care so much now about privacy.
In Family Law, we’ve come a long way. Fathers used to not have the right to their children’s school or medical records. One person was the custodian. Now there is a focus on the kind of residential schedule the kids need and the fathers are involved. Children handle divorce better if the father is involved. 50/50 is not best for every child and depends on each family situation. My case files used to fill up one bankers’ box. Now cases can take up to 100 bankers’ boxes. There is much more information available now than there was before. This makes all of us who work in Family Law much more informed and shows that it is much more important that mediation is available and mandated in King County.