The State of California has almost forty million people living here. It is the most populous state in the Union. If California was its own country it would rank 33rd in population amongst all the nations of the world. It has the largest economy of any state, and it would rank as the 8th largest economy in the world as its own country (right after the United Kingdom and right before Russia).
California is one of only ten states with a full-time Legislature. In its Legislature California has 80 State Assembly persons and 40 State Senators. Those 120 full-time politicians have to stay busy, and the way they do it is by drafting new laws. California’s state laws, by number of statutes, are easily the largest and most voluminous in the U.S., if not the world.
Family Law in the state is governed by the California Family Code. Of course, California’s family code is the biggest, most complex, and most convoluted in the land. And it is growing bigger and bigger as those 120 legislators draft a slew of new family laws every year. That Family Code created by the Legislature is interpreted and applied by the courts. The detail and scope of family law practice in California is so broad and complicated that we believe our clients would be at a disadvantage if we were to practice family law in addition to criminal law, probate law, labor law, securities law, or any other type of law practice. Family law is all we do, so that our clients can benefit from the best representation possible.
It is also important to appreciate that California is divided up into fifty-eight different counties. Each county is the default unit of local government for the area within its boundaries. Counties are responsible for all elections, property-tax collection, maintenance of public records such as deeds, and the providing of county-wide law enforcement (through the county sheriff and sheriff’s deputies).
The court of general jurisdiction for the state is the Superior Court of the State of California, also referred to as the “trial courts.” Each county is responsible for the creation, operation, and administration of these local-level courts within their borders. So, you have the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Alameda, the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Los Angeles, and so on, and so on 58 times over. The judges for each county’s superior court sit only in that county. In addition to working with the California Family Code and the California Code of Civil Procedure, each County’s Superior Court also has its own set of local rules that deal with filing deadlines, how cases are assigned to a particular courthouse and judge, the scheduling of hearings and trials, creation of local forms, etc.
In Northern California nine counties touch the water of the San Francisco Bay, and comprise the metropolitan area commonly referred to as the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Those counties — San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa, Sonoma, and Marin – are home to more than 7.1 million people. More than 1 million of those people live in Contra Costa County, and more than 1.5 million of those people live in Alameda County. Each of the counties has its own Superior Court, and each of those Superior Courts has its own different branches, courthouses, and family law courtrooms.
Harding & Associates has an office in Alameda County (in the city of Pleasanton) and in Contra Costa County (in the city of Walnut Creek). The county seat (and the largest city) in Alameda County is Oakland. The Alameda County Superior has approximately 85 judicial officers (judges and commissioners), who work in courthouses located throughout the county. All family law cases are handled in the Hayward Hall of Justice in the City of Hayward.
The county seat for Contra Costa County is the City of Martinez. The Contra Costa County Superior Court has approximately 62 judicial officers (judges and commissioners). Contra Costa County judicial officers hear family law cases at the Peter L. Spinetta Family Law Center in the City of Martinez and at the Richard E. Arnason Justice Center in the City of Pittsburg.
Given the complexity of the California legal system and the California courts you may begin to appreciate why we limit our practice to just a few northern California counties. We believe it vital to the success of our clients that our lawyers have face time in front of all of the judges that could be handling their cases, and that our lawyers are intimately familiar with the operations of each Superior Court, and each family law judge within each Superior Court. Just practicing in two counties, we have to know the habits, customs, preferences, and practices of no less than a dozen different family law judges operating out of three different courthouses.
Some family law lawyers may argue that all California family law cases are handled under the same laws and are thus all handled the same. Those same lawyers would also argue that location is irrelevant. That may be true for those lawyers who settle each and every case; and who settle their clients’ cases without gauging the settlement against the likely outcome in court. We would argue otherwise, and firmly believe that any lawyer going into a courtroom as a stranger is at a clear disadvantage, as is his or her client! We work for the fairest outcome available for our client. Adequately assessing the case and structuring a fair settlement necessarily involves some degree of measurement against a likely outcome in court. That measurement cannot be performed if you don’t know the judges and the courts. If you do have to go to court there definitely is a home field advantage. We perform better in court, and get better results for our clients at trial, because we know the local rules and we know what to expect from the judges. Those judges also know us, and give us the credibility we have earned and deserve.
Distance is also a consideration in limiting our geographic area of practice. Time and advice are our stock in trade. Time is one of the commodities that we sell. That salable time includes the travel time required to get to and from the courthouse. California is a big state. In most cases it is not practical to have us fly to Southern California, or drive to the far ends of Northern California to handle a case. The Bay Area is terribly congested, and that creates a different problem. Even though the distance from our Pleasanton office to the City of San Jose is less than 30 miles, because of bad traffic the drive can easily take an hour or more. The distance from our Walnut Creek office to the City of Fairfield (and the family law court for Solano County) is only 30 miles, but again because of bad traffic, the drive can easily exceed one hour. There are many outstanding family law lawyers in California. Paying us to sit in our cars may not be the best way for a legal consumer to spend his or her money. Because of the cost of commuting in California most legal consumers do find lawyers closer to the courthouse, and we are not presented with sufficient opportunities to handle cases in other counties. That gets us back to the idea of knowing your judges and your courts. If we don’t know them, and they don’t know us, we are not doing the best job we can for our clients.
That does not mean that we won’t take a case anywhere in the State. We have, and we will. In those instances though we explain the extra expense, and we usually recommend that our client allow us work with a private judge, or to associate an attorney who is local to the courthouse for the case. That local attorney can handle the little details unique to the location, and give us assistance with the local rules, and the peculiarities of the local court and judge, while we manage and handle the bulk of the case.
Our original office is in Pleasanton, and that location allows us to conveniently represent clients from throughout Alameda County. We have always represented a significant number of clients with cases in Contra Costa County, and for decades we did so economically from our Pleasanton headquarters. However, the growth of Contra Costa County, and the resulting congestion and bad traffic was making it more and more expensive for our Contra Costa County clients to have us on the road driving from Pleasanton to the Contra Costa County courthouses. It was also becoming more difficult for our Contra Costa County clients to meet with us in our Pleasanton office. As a commitment to our Contra Costa County clients we opened our Walnut Creek office. The location is central to most people living in Contra Costa County, allows us to lower travel costs for our clients, and makes it easier for our clients to get to us.