I like to call myself a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey who helps families in a time of need. But it took me a few stops to get there.
I was born in Philadelphia while my dad was finishing dental school. We then moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where Dad served as a dentist in the U.S. Air Force and Mom played the role of the traditional military wife. From there, we went to Staten Island, New York, where Mom ran Dad’s dental practice, which was located in our house on Richmond Avenue. I recall many Saturdays when we had to leave the house because my dad was working.
It was just me with my parents until I was about six, when I was joined by a sister, another sister and then a brother. As a family of six we could no longer fit in the space above Dad’s office, so we moved to Marlboro, New Jersey. When my siblings came along, we grew to be very close, and as the oldest, I was very protective and looked out for everyone.
It was during my years at Marlboro High School that I first thought I might want to become a lawyer. I didn’t know what type of lawyer, but I was driven, hardworking and had a desire to help people (as I always helped my family) and a desire to be successful. I went on to study at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., where I majored in justice. One spring, I interned for the U.S. attorney’s office in its sexual offense unit. It was this incredible experience that inspired me to want to become an assistant prosecutor. My plans were in place, and I was later accepted to New York Law School.
But it was when I had just completed my sophomore year in college, and was moving out of my dorm, that my world was turned upside down. It was a warm, sunny day in May of 1991, and I was looking forward to seeing my parents and being home with my family for the summer. When my mom arrived to pick me up, she came alone.
My dad wasn’t with her, and it was then that she explained to me that he had some emotional challenges that prevented him from being present for me at that time. For a long time, she worked hard to help him with his challenges and hide the pain from our family, but after years of not succeeding, she realized that it was best for her and for our family that they separate.
In the summer of 1993, just as I was graduating from college, my mother told me that my parents were getting divorced. I could not believe it. To others, we seemed like this perfect family of six. We had everything — a nice home, a luxurious lifestyle and two great parents.
It was then that I realized that not everything is always as it appears. Money can’t buy love. Money can’t buy happiness. And money surely can’t mend a broken home.
No child ever wants to hear that their family is breaking apart, especially one as close as ours was. For me, the perpetual fixer, the day I learned that my parents were getting divorced was truly one of the worst days of my life.
As the one in the family who always looked out for everyone, this was a hard time because I was powerless. I wanted to save our family — and I was convinced that I was going to be able to do it. I felt that I had to do it, not only for me but for my three younger siblings who needed my parents as they continued to grow up in our home during their teenage years. I remember many occasions when I bought Mom gifts from Dad (gifts that to this day she still thinks he bought her) desperately hoping that this would repair their relationship. I tried for years to get them back together, but nothing worked.
Their long and terrible battle lasted more than five years. While attending law school, and while my parents were in the midst of their contentious divorce, I decided I would become a bankruptcy attorney rather than an assistant prosecutor. At that time, I could never have imagined entering the world of family law, and I even dropped my family law class — the only class in law school that I ever dropped. As a third-year law student, I was the managing editor of the law review. This helped drown out the pain of my parents’ contentious divorce.
I started my legal career as an associate in the litigation department at a large New York City law firm, specializing in maritime law. I then ventured to another large New York law firm, where I practiced intellectual property litigation. I enjoyed both jobs, but didn’t feel a true passion in these positions. Having watched my parents go through their terrible divorce, I decided my calling was to focus on families, especially during the most difficult time in their lives.
Around that time a recruiter called me and tried to get me to leave my job. I told him that I would only leave if he could get me a job with Eleanor Alter, a world-renowned family lawyer and the best in the business. After much waiting, interviewing and soul-searching, I got my dream job working for Eleanor, and my life as a family lawyer started to fall into place.
What does it mean to be a family lawyer? For starters, it is one of the hardest areas of the law to practice in. Half of our job is to navigate clients through the complexities of family law, and the other half of our job is to counsel clients through the process. I chose to leave the world of litigation representing corporations to help people during the most difficult time in their lives.
Fast forward to the present: I am the founding partner of my own thriving law firm in Cranford, New Jersey. I recently became chair of the Family Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, and I work every day to make family law in my state the best it can be. The lawyer that represented my dad during my parents' divorce, as well as one of the lawyers that represented my mother (with whom I am privileged to be co-authoring a book on family law issues), are both members of my Executive Committee.
I take time away from my family to help people in their own troubled times. I feel good about what I do, and I have helped inspire my children to help others. One of the worst periods of my life taught me how to be resilient and lead a family in a time of need, and
made me stronger as a person. Most importantly, it is the reason I’m here today as a family lawyer.
Sheryl J. Seiden is the founding partner of Seiden Family Law LLC.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.