Mediation services are a fast-growing segment of the legal industry. An entrepreneurial husband-wife team seeks to capitalize on the trend with a focus on divorces.
Ruth and Michael Harshman are in the niche business of helping the almost divorced shift into their new phase in life in a low-cost, low-stress way.
The couple's new firm is Lakewood Ranch-based Fair Divorce. It offers mediation for couples, and, if necessary, it will navigate the Byzantine document preparation process required under Florida law for a non-contested divorce. The business, says Michael Harshman, attempts to blend mediation, law and psychology to arrive at an amicable result under trying circumstances.
“We see a lot of couples tired of living together,” Ruth Harshman says. “While some companies offer a service simply to process divorce paperwork, at Fair Divorce we offer an added benefit by helping people resolve their issues and come to an agreement that works for everyone.”
The couple — she's a former psychologist and now a mediator, he's an attorney and mediator — has decades of professional experience in the field. Plus, they have personal experience dealing with the harsh reality of starting fresh, albeit not in divorce. That stems from supporting and working for a prominent politician in their native Ohio who later resigned under the cloud of a scandal.
Indeed, the Harshmans moved to the Sarasota-Bradenton area in 2008, soon after Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann quit his position. Dann, elected in 2007, resigned May 14, 2008, two days after the Ohio Legislature filed articles of impeachment against him for misconduct, with accusations that included an alleged affair with a subordinate.
Ruth Harshman, the elected mayor of Poland, Ohio, for 17 years, ran the grants management office under Dann. Michael Harshman, meanwhile, campaigned for and supported Dann. Michael Harshman even lent Dann a plane for statewide campaigning. “We were disappointed in Marc,” says Harshman, “but there are no do-overs in politics.”
The Harshmans now face a substantial challenge in turning their personal and work experience into a viable business. For starters, mediation is a crowded field on the Gulf Coast, and building a client base is a long-term task. “It's hard to break into,” says Michael Harshman, who is also a staff attorney with Najmy Thompson, a local law firm. “We are just getting started.”
The Harshmans' sales pitch to build the business aims first at saving clients money. Michael Harshman says a divorce attorney in a basic case could start at $3,000. Costs grow quickly from there. Says Ruth Harshman: “The lawyers are the only winners in a contested (divorce.)”
The Harshmans, past the cost, aim to educate people about their firm because, somewhat unusually, it combines mediation with document preparation services. A firm in Boca Raton offers a similar combination, but the Harshmans don't know of any on the Gulf Coast that do both in this way.
A controversial bill that could cap alimony payments will make its way through the Florida Legislature in the 2013 session.
The bill would limit the amount of time someone would have to pay alimony, and it could also protect retirees from some alimony requirements. Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who, according to the News Service of Florida, calls the state's alimony laws “archaic,” is the bill's sponsor. The rules for alimony, the legal and financial obligations one spouse owes the other spouse after a divorce, differ in every state.
Part of the bill, says Workman, in the News Service report, is to provide better alimony guidelines. Says Workman: “I want to make this so people can get divorced and move on with their life.”
But Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, says the proposal is one-sided and “anti-woman.” She says the bill “will do more harm than good,” according to the News Service.
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee, after hearing emotional testimony from divorced people on both sides of the debate, approved the bill by a 10-2 vote Feb. 13. The bill will next go before the House Judiciary Committee; a similar bill was recently filed in the Senate.
This article has been updated to clarify that Ruth Harshman no longer practices psychology.