Richmond lawyer William C. Wood can take a lot of personal satisfaction in how Virginia family law practice has grown in scope and complexity since he pioneered his specialty practice in Henrico in 1966.
One of the deans of the domestic relations bar, Wood yesterday accepted the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Virginia State Bar Family Law Section’s board of governors. He is the 17th recipient since the section instituted the honor in 1993.
In accepting the tribute, Wood vividly traced changes in divorce practice, before and after the watershed moment when Hopewell lawyer Larry Diehl, another Lifetime Achievement honoree, “invented equitable distribution” in 1982.
When Wood opened for business, “divorce was not very common.” The “tender years” presumption prevailed in custody, and standards for dealing with fault were underdeveloped.
Lawyers had trouble getting their divorce cases set before judges. During the bad old days, one judge told Wood, “Divorce lawyers are the proctologists of the legal profession.”
“After the ED statute, divorce cases became partnership dissolutions,” he said.
“The body of law created after ED at the appellate level has been significant,” he said. “For 30 years, there was no separate representation of children during a custody case. Now it’s commonplace to have a guardian ad litem. Family lawyers have been quick to adopt ADR,” including collaborative law, one of the most important developments in the 44 years of his practice, he said.
Mike Ewing, a shareholder in Wood’s firm of Batzli Wood Stiles, said he is one of many Virginia lawyers who has benefitted from Wood’s mentoring.
Ewing began practicing in the Richmond metropolitan area in 1993. Early on, Ewing, as a fledgling attorney, did not apprehend that the lawyer needed to take some affirmative action to remove a case from the docket when a court hearing was no longer needed. He got word one day that Chesterfield Circuit Judge Timothy J. Hauler was steamed because court was held up for a considerable time while they waited for Ewing to show up for a hearing.
Ewing worriedly consulted Wood, saying he thought maybe he should write the judge a letter of apology.
“Son, here’s what you’re going to do,” Wood instructed. “You’re going to get in your little beat-up car and you’re going to drive down to the courthouse” and “sit in the front row of the courtroom” all day if you have to, until the judge has time to hear you.
The judge was so impressed with Ewing’s efforts to make amends, Ewing said he “didn’t have the heart to tell him I was just going to send a letter.”
Wood brought that same level of respect to his dealings with other players in the system, and especially to his clients.
Wood offered a benediction to his colleagues: “I’m putting out on the 18th [hole], as I stand here today,” I know that “trying to help a husband, a wife, a mom, a dad, a child, in the crisis of divorce, is a very worthy calling.”
By Deborah Elkins