FONT & AUDIO
Divorce & conquer
- Jill Spitznass
- Portland Tribune - Features
Jody Stahancyk is a powerful ally in a painful process
The name-calling usually starts after the judge has ruled in her client's favor.
'I always say that 'bitch' means the same thing as 'cunning fox,' ' says divorce lawyer Jody Stahancyk with a broad smile.
When it's time to split the sheets, prominent locals turn to Stahancyk, the senior shareholder at the Portland law firm of Stahancyk, Gearing, Rackner & Kent.
A 6-foot-1 redhead who exudes energy and confidence, Stahancyk (pronounced sta-han-chick) has earned a reputation for her ability to protect her wealthy clients' assets.
It's a talent that invites references to aquatic creatures: 'She's a barracuda Ñ divorce lawyers are supposed to be,' says a recently divorced father of three and satisfied customer.
Or this: 'Jody's not a piranha, as people have said,' maintains the firm's human resources manager, Mary Hurley. 'She's an artful negotiator who's unafraid of battle.'
Stahancyk simply prefers to be known as a family law attorney, one whose key interest is in the welfare of the children involved in a divorce. She also brushes aside the notion that there are winners or losers in the courtroom.
'A client wins when they're getting as many of their needs met as the facts allow,' she says, pausing before offering the alternative scenario: 'A failure is when we can't find a solution without exposing ourselves to the embarrassing and seamy side of our lives.'
It's not that Stahancyk enjoys hanging impending ex-spouses out to dry; she'd rather her clients tend to what she calls their 'marital garden.'
'People come to divorce lawyers too late,' she says. 'If you can deal with things sooner, you might find that they can be
repaired Ñ or at least divorce on better terms.'
Lest this be interpreted as the softer side of Stahancyk, the 55-year-old makes her courtroom mission clear: 'Law is a determination of who trumps who in competing interests,' she says. 'That's all law is.'
High-profile beneficiaries of Stahancyk's legal acumen include car czar Scott Thomason, ex-Portland Trail Blazer Maurice Lucas and local businessman Howard Hedinger.
A native of Prineville, Stahancyk earned her bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Oregon. After stints as a district attorney and juvenile court referee in Multnomah County, Stahancyk took several years off to stay at home with her children, Seth, now 25, and Kate, 21. Stahancyk has no personal experience with divorce; she and her husband, attorney John Crawford, have been married 29 years.
Since launching her private practice in 1986, Stahancyk has built the firm to include a staff of approximately 50 people, including four shareholders, 11 attorneys, 30 support staff members and an executive chef. With satellite offices in Bend and Astoria, the firm has carved out a formidable niche in family law and estate planning services.
Inside the firm's Portland office, the emphasis is on comfort Ñ both physical and psychological. Rich olive-green walls, original art and fresh flowers are only a few of the elements that create a sense of being elegantly safeguarded while plotting the demise of one's marriage.
'We've worked hard to create a space that's comforting,' says Stahancyk, whose private office is dotted with family photos and filled candy dishes. 'For instance, there are no windows in the conference rooms, so people can't see you while you're giving depositions. You'll also notice that we have chairs, not couches, in our waiting areas, so people can feel that their personal space is protected.'
More important than creature comforts, Stahancyk says, is the relationship that her firm develops with clients:
'It's important to think of clients as friends. And as you do with friends, you have to be honest with them, and not hurtful, and look out for them.'
That corporate sentiment is echoed on the firm's Web site: 'It's official, we have the most wonderful clients at Stahancyk, Gearing, Rackner & Kent. Of the many cases we have handled over the years, we have come to consider our clients as friends.' The firm often hosts social events, such as picnics, for appreciative clients.
Stahancyk and client Hedinger, president of American Industries, extended their relationship into the real estate arena, purchasing a building near the Mallory Hotel last year for $5.4 million. The law firm is now located in the structure, since renamed the Athena Plaza building.
But the nature of her business isn't pretty, and Stahancyk admits to having clients who are resistant to her charms.
'You can't please everyone,' she shrugs. 'Sometimes people have bad boundaries and want to place blame on someone else. You can't feel responsible for that.'
But when things go well in the courtroom, the affection between Stahancyk and her clients is palpable. 'She's got a heart of gold,' says one client, who goes on to note that Stahancyk 'saved my ass in a lot of ways.'
Worth the price
Stahancyk, a resident of Northwest Portland, is characteristically candid about her $350 per hour legal fee.
'I'm not the most expensive attorney in town, and I'm not the least expensive,' she says. 'Sometimes people complain about lawyers' fees, but we're being asked to solve complex problems, and all of this takes time. But in the end, an attorney should save you money, not cost you money; sometimes you have to spend $5 to save $10.'
You can pay her now or you can pay her later: Stahancyk often is called in to bat cleanup on divorce proceedings that have been botched elsewhere.
'I do a lot of remedial work on results that haven't been tidy Ñ instances where there should have been more time spent getting it right in the beginning,' she says. 'These things are like a wound. If you don't clean it out because you think it's going to hurt, it's not going to heal properly, and you end up with a worse problem later on.'
Stahancyk says that this ability to address a mess unflinchingly is one of her greatest assets.
'I am not afraid to walk in the room and say, 'All right, here it is, now let's take care of it,' ' she says. 'People call me a warrior, but I'm willing to withstand conflict to find a solution.'
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, it's also no time for the client to go wobbly.
'There are terrible mistakes made by pacifists during a divorce,' she says. 'If you give in out of fear of conflict, you'll end up with a lopsided situation that doesn't work in the end and will ultimately be untenable for the person who was afraid.'
For this reason, Stahancyk frowns on pursuing a divorce through nonlegal avenues:
'Therapists and mediators often project their own issues onto the process, which affects the outcome. An attorney helps you pave a better road toward the future by providing (legal) boundaries; everyone knows what the rules are going forward.'
Stahancyk is big on boundaries, believing that good fences make for good exes.
'I tell my clients to simply grin and nod when they see their ex in public,' she says, illustrating the technique. 'To do any more than that Ñ especially around the children Ñ is confusing and inauthentic. Children wonder, 'Well, if you get along so well, why did you get a divorce?'
'I also have a problem with new spouses who want to be a parent, too, and that's not their job. I like to say that everybody has a place on the bus Ñ you just have to know what yours is.'
The firm's employees know their place, viewing Stahancyk as a tough but fair boss who's prone to generous acts.
'She's very demanding of her staff, but at the same time she'd give you everything she has,' says Alfred Popp, the firm's former executive chef. 'Jody's larger than life Ñ a go-getter who runs 24-7. There's never a slowing down, and she expects everyone else to be the same way.'
Dissolving complex, untraditional marriages calls for an ability to crystallize tough issues.
'We're doing a lot more business reorgs and dividing of pensions because of two-income families,' says Stahancyk, who advocates a good prenuptial agreement and says that their use is on the rise. 'Less traditional ways of raising children, like stay-at-home dads, also make things more complicated. The days when mom gets the house and the kids, and dad gets an apartment Ñ and then raises someone else's kids Ñ are over.'
Unfortunately, Stahancyk says, the law is often slow to accommodate such changes.
'The law is reactive, not proactive, which doesn't bode well for children,' she says. 'We've only begun seeing children in terms of stewardship, not as possessions. I make all my clients agree that we'll do what's best for the children Ñ whether (my clients) like it or not.'
Not surprisingly, Stahancyk's tough approach has drawn its share of detractors Ñ few who will talk on the record Ñ including the judge who described her firm as employing a 'scorched earth' policy toward its opponents, and the woman who claims that Stahancyk instructed her ex to weaken the woman's position before the divorce was finalized by cutting her off financially. Stahancyk declined to comment on the latter claim except to say that the woman's attorney 'must have agreed with whatever the situation was, or they would have pursued a remedy for their client.'
It takes more than this to put a dent in Stahancyk's armor.
'I see the value and beauty in everything,' says the avowed optimist. Even divorce? 'It's been said that people make the most change during times of stress; I want to help people face the future with their bags rearranged.'
And no doubt it's the good luggage.