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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 26, 2003 15 years ago

Business of Divorce (Tampa edition)

Most of Jim Knox's divorce cases don't make headlines. But one recent case has been written about as far away as California.

Business of Divorce (Tampa edition)

Most of Jim Knox's divorce cases don't make headlines. But one recent case has been written about as far away as California.

By Bob Andelman

Contributing Writer

The thing is, Hyde Park divorce attorney Jim Knox didn't plan for his client's case to be splashed across the front page of the daily newspaper.

There wasn't much his client or he could gain from the exposure. On the other hand, until the story appeared, Knox wasn't having much luck getting her husband's attention.

That pretty much changed when the newspaper reported that there was trouble once more in the life of one of the Tampa Bay area's favorite sons, former New York Mets pitching ace Dwight Gooden.

"The thing that was screwy about the beginning of the case was that I couldn't get Dwight to come to court," Knox says. "I filed, he wouldn't answer. I had the judge set a hearing; he didn't attend. Then I showed the (court) the pay records, the several hundred thousand he wouldn't share with his wife."

The newspaper reporter read a court file about the impending dissolution of the Gooden's 16-year marriage. It created more questions than it answered, so Knox's phone started ringing.

"I had reservations about talking," Knox says. But Monica didn't want to be interviewed and Knox knew a story was going to run with or without their side, so he took the call and put the best spin he could on it. "We didn't file for divorce; we filed for separate maintenance."

The Nov. 16 story, "Where did Gooden's millions go?" detailed how Dwight made $1.7 million in 2002 but he allegedly cut his wife and children off from funds with which to pay household bills. He also allegedly diverted the $682,000 in profits from the sale of their jointly owned St. Petersburg home to his individual account.

"My client certainly didn't encourage me to talk to the press and did not want to talk herself," Knox says. "But there were some things I wanted (the reporter) to understand. My client does not disrespect her husband or hold him in disdain. She loves him and is sad that he feels their marriage has to end. She filed a motion for counseling; I wanted him to know that. In the representation of a client, within the boundaries of legitimate advocacy, you are on firm ground advancing your client's agenda. And that's what we need to be doing as divorce lawyers. Having made her best efforts at counseling and mediation, it's time for her to move on to something else."

Soon one story inspired a host of others around the country, from the St. Petersburg Times to the New York Daily News to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Dwight Gooden once more became the poster child for star athletes who can't adequately run their lives outside of the sports arena.

Dwight finally responded to Monica - in court. He hired attorneys David M. Carr and Fowler White's S.M. David Stamps III to represent him and filed for divorce. Pre-trial conference is set for March 3; the case in tentatively set for trial the week of March 22-26.

"If Dwight wants to be divorced," Knox says, "he's going to be divorced."

In polite company and formal papers, the specialty practice at the Hyde Park law firm of Knox & Givens PA is referred to as "marital and family law." But everyone knows it's all about divorce. And Knox & Givens, one of the state's largest divorce boutiques, with five full-time attorneys focuses exclusively on family law.

Stann W. Givens, Knox's partner in the Horatio Street firm, likes being on this side of Knox.

"He has really good trial skills; he's a tough person to have on the other side," Givens says. "And I should know; we've been partners 10 years but before that we were on the other side of some cases.

"The best thing that ever happened to me is to hook up with him as a partner," Givens continues. "We went to Florida State University law school together (Givens graduated in '73, Knox in '74). Then he went the military route and I was a prosecutor. When our practices went the route of all-divorce we thought we ought to partner up. Best decision we ever made."

Givens says that his partner stands apart from the field in many ways.

"First, he is the most creative lawyer I ever met. He is kind of a renaissance man in that he thinks outside the box. He has the ability to do that better than any lawyer I've ever seen. He is tenacious when it comes to finding a way to getting a good result for the client. He will always figure out a way."

Back in the 1970s, when Knox started practicing, there might have been three lawyers in Tampa specializing in divorce law. At that time, every judge assigned to the court's civil division had a small divorce caseload. Now there are 50 or more lawyers in Hillsborough County focused on divorce and seven judges doing nothing but family law. Twenty years ago, when Hillsborough County's Family Law Division was created, it became impossible to just dabble in it, although some firms in town will still handle a divorce case for their business clients.

Knox, 50, says he thinks the growth in divorce is a function of the area's population boom, not necessarily that more people are getting divorced.

"The divorce rate has remained constant," he says. "One out of two marriages is going to end in divorce at some time, but I don't accept that the divorce rate is 50%. The thing that keeps the caseload so heavy for the courts is every year you have a batch of new divorces and post-judgment actions. Sometimes there are 1,000 a month, sometimes more. In Hillsborough County, the judges are simply inundated with cases."

The "savior" for family law is mediation, according to Knox.

"Mediation is interesting. People's attitudes at mediation can be mysteriously cooperative. You'll have a case where the parties seem to be at each other's throats and a mediator says a few things to them about this being their last chance to have personal control about how your case ends up. And cases you'd swear would go to court get settled. In Hillsborough County, we have the onerous task of taking every case to mediation before you get a first hearing. But everybody is satisfied it's working."

Forensic accounting is another path that Knox finds beneficial for many of his clients. In fact, when both parties engage their own forensic accountant, an independent professional who assesses the value of their joint property, settlement may be achieved much faster. "Forensic accountants have been a boon to our work," Knox says. "They are irreplaceable, and, candidly, settle lots and lots of cases."

Also coming into vogue is the certified divorce planner, typically a person who is primarily a certified financial planner. They see this opportunity to help clients they've had in the past or attract new business by offering their services in a non-confrontational way for both parties. Many men and women heading for divorce go this route now even before seeing lawyers. "If I know I'm going to represent the spouse of a business titan or the business titan's spouse and we know there will be a dispute about assets, sometimes the best service you can do for that client is have them engage a forensic accountant before anybody files suit. Sometimes it results in complete settlement. It's a field that's ripe for advocacy," Knox says.

Knox himself handles mediation cases "because I'm old," he says, chuckling. "I'm not certified. I'm old in the practice. I've got experience that people rely on. All five of us in this firm are advocates of mediation. We're as mean and nasty as necessary in resolving disputes. But mediation is always helpful. You have a relaxed setting. It's typically done by caucus, one client and lawyer in one office, one client and lawyer in another, the mediator going between them."

It isn't hard imagining Knox slipping into his "mean and nasty" mode. A man of imposing size, he still has the short spiky hair of an Air Force hardass, although the color is now salt and peppered. After graduating from law school, Knox spent 1975 through 1979 in the USAF judge advocate general corps (JAG). Some of that time was served abroad in Turkey. He was a captain when he left active duty and spent the next decade in the reserve, eventually leaving with the rank of major.

The first divorce case that Knox ever handled was something of a credit operation, meaning that the balance of his services to a farmer from his hometown of Plant City were paid off when a crop came in. "The crop was honey," he says. "I got paid my bill in cash, plus I got a nice jar of honey. And I was pleased with both of those things."

And while he doesn't encourage doing business that way, it happens to this day.

"I think of myself as representing a relatively well-to-do set of clients," he says. "Yet I find myself with regularity waiting on the sale of a property to get paid. Rather than have someone liquidate an asset to pay me, if they've got something next month that will pay me, that's OK sometimes. In the early '90s I got a Cadillac for a fee. It was an older model. But from the client's perspective, he could've traded that for next to nothing. But I was willing to take the vehicle as payment. And it was his idea, not mine. I've had people pay us in jewelry. A lot of time the opposing client has property and they are ordered to pay us. They're willing to part with it in lieu of a fee. I've been paid in artwork; I've also been tipped in artwork, or a carving or painting."

Those lighthearted moments help balance a field of law in which Knox, asked for examples of personally satisfying divorce cases, can't think of any.

"They don't come along every day," he says. "This area of practice, in divorce, there are never happy or grateful clients. It's unusual for clients to just be grateful or express gratitude for services rendered for good reasons. I don't have an unreasonable expectation that I'm going to have happy, pleased clients that want to hug my neck. But when it happens, it's appreciated.

"Almost everybody who goes through the system ends up with disdain for the other side. And some dislike for their own lawyer. There is something psychological there; I don't pretend to understand it. But they blame us because the result wasn't perfect.

"One of the hardest things about our practice is taking our client into the hallways and saying, 'You won.' Because they don't see it that way," Knox says.

In a recent case involving alimony payments, Knox represented a client who didn't want to pay it. After 18 months, Knox's client prevailed on the issue and didn't have to pay. But the client lost on property issues and wasn't happy with Knox as a result. "You would think the client would be pleased or satisfied. Not a word. There aren't any 'Attaboys!' in this business. If you're in this business for thanks for a job well done, you need to find another profession.

"I don't mean to sound cynical," Knox says. "But if you're in it for that warm fuzzy feeling, it doesn't come to pass."

Then why do it?

Knox says he draws strength from his peers, within the firm and without, who know the work he does and give him his props.

"You end up believing that you have a facility for the work," he says. "You have the recognition and respect of your peers, that is, others think you're doing a great job. There is also judicial recognition. You earn the respect of your contemporaries by making the best presentation in court of the facts and circumstances of your case. When you do that, it's not possible for the person across from you to dislike you. They may dislike the client. But as long as you don't get emotionally involved in the case itself, they will respect you."

Respect isn't really an issue for Jim Knox among the people who toil alongside him.

With his Air Force history and MacDill Air Force Base just a five-minute drive from his office, Knox gets more than his share of military cases. In one many years ago, he and Joe Hood represented the wife of a career officer. She was a victim of years of spouse abuse according to Knox, and her husband attempted to heap one more indignity on her by having his retirement income treated by the courts as disability, thereby not subject to alimony claims. The case started in 1987 "and may be still going," Knox says. "It was property settlement vs. alimony. We were able to show it was still payable, even though he was receiving it as disability pay. It was one of the most satisfying cases I ever worked on."

Hood handled the collection on the case. At the time, he and Knox were both working at another firm; later, Hood spent a few years with Knox & Givens before striking out on his own. They met through the USAF. At the time Knox was a reserve judge advocate and Hood was an active JAG. With almost 20 years knowledge of Knox, count Hood among the attorneys who think the sun rises and sets on the man.

"He's far more than a good guy," Hood says. "He's one of the smartest guys I know. And I know a lot of them. He has a photographic memory. It's something I would like to have. And he's as highly regarded as any lawyer in this community or across the state of Florida."

The other thing Hood mentions about Knox is his sense of humor.

"He's probably the funniest person short of a standup comedian you'll ever see," he says.

Knox comes across as bright, charming and professional. His sense of humor never exerts itself, but his partner Stann Givens swears that he's in business with the funniest attorney in America.

"He is a riot to work with," Givens says. "We had a judge a couple years back leave the trial bench to become an appeals judge. Jim emceed the going away party. I would have paid a cover charge to hear him. He is a funny guy. And a big heart. He's the complete package."

There is just one piece of the package missing. And depending upon what you know of divorce lawyers, it may or may not surprise you.

Knox has a problem with marriage - his own. For the third time, he himself is heading for divorce court. He and his wife have been married for 13 years, but separated for the last three.

"I tell people all the time, 'You want a divorce lawyer that has been married 30 years and never divorced? Or do you want somebody who knows how mean and ugly it can be?' I'm joking, but I'm not joking."

Knox adopted his third wife's two children, who are now 29 and 24. They also have a 12-year-old son. Additionally, he and his second wife have a daughter who is 17. (There were no children in his first marriage.)

So who does a king of matrimonial law hire to handle his own case?

Would you believe ¦ James P. Knox?

"I represent myself," he says, defying the age-old adage. ... "I know - a fool for a client. That has been represented to me more than once. I've had a number of contemporaries offer their services. I would feel I needed representation if I didn't feel I had made offers that exceed my risk at trial. I'm not willing to fall on my sword but you become fearless of trial if you've made more than one offer along the way that exceeds your risk of trial. My trial is not going to be complex, bitter or mean from my side. Sometimes bile is a one-way street."

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