Sooner or later, many people need legal counsel related to divorce, legal separation, marital asset valuation, child custody, timesharing or modification or enforcement of a court order.
That’s why Jacksonville’s Bedell Firm, founded in 1865 and the oldest continuously operating law firm in Florida, established a family law practice about three years ago.
“We got a lot of calls from our existing business and criminal law clients for referrals to a family law attorney. The directors asked if anyone would be willing to start that practice. I thought it would be great to start something new,” said Ashley Wells Cox, Bedell’s senior counsel in the firm’s Family Law Division.
It wasn’t the first time Cox has shifted careers.
After graduating from Duke University in 1997, she taught students in underserved communities in Chicago, a member of the Inner-City Teaching Corps.
Cox then was influenced by her parents, former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Wells and mother, Linda Wells, a commercial litigator, to enroll in law school at Northwestern University.
After graduating in 2002, she practiced for two years as a Skadden Fellow attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, then moved to Jacksonville and joined the State Attorney’s Office.
Cox prosecuted felony and misdemeanor cases before joining Bedell to practice criminal defense in 2006.
She specialized in representing clients facing criminal charges in state and federal courts, attorneys called to appear before The Florida Bar and applicants in cases before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.
Ten years later, noted Jacksonville family law attorney Barry Sinoff died. Cox was a former client of Sinoff and his sudden passing led to offering his paralegal for nearly 30 years, Patricia Abraham, the opportunity to join Bedell.
“The timing worked out. We had the nugget of a family law practice,” Cox said.
Bedell Firm Managing Director David Barksdale said the initial plan was for Cox to practice family law about half the time while maintaining her criminal defense practice, but that’s not what happened.
“Our family law practice has doubled each year for the past three years,” Barksdale said.
Changing her practice focus hasn’t made Cox a stranger at the Duval County Courthouse, but the interaction with the justice system has changed.
“I find going to court interesting and challenging. The judges want the family to succeed even in the difficult situation,” Cox said.
“In criminal cases, the prosecutor represents the state against the defendant. In family law, everybody is working toward a different good,” she said.
Not all of her clients end up in court. Cox said if someone comes to her considering divorce, she’ll discuss counseling options to see if there’s a way for both parties to be happy and avoid dissolving their marriage.
“That’s the goal. It doesn’t always work out that way, but we try to come to agreement on our own through mediation. Going to court is the last resort,” Cox said.
The law tends to evolve, and there have been some substantial changes in family law in the past few years, such as tax regulations related to alimony.
Previously, alimony was taxed as income for the person receiving it and deductible as an expense for the person paying it.
“Now, alimony isn’t deductible from taxes and it’s no longer income for the person receiving it. That can affect the amount,” Cox said.
In addition, the state Legislature is anticipated to consider in its 2020 session whether to amend to law to make calculating alimony more formula-based, similar to the current child support law, Cox said.
Another trend Cox is seeing is “a significant number of long-term marriages in divorce” as people are waiting until their children are grown to seek dissolution.
The firm expects its family law practice will continue to grow.
“Ashley has done an outstanding job and people are hearing about it,” Barksdale said.