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The Life and Career of Jeffery Leving Expert in Family Law

published November 13, 2007

( 112 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)

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Leving came from a humble background on the South Side of Chicago. His father was a tailor and bartender. Neither of Leving's parents had graduated from college, and the family had many financial struggles. This upbringing motivated Leving to rise above a potentially limited future.

"I looked at law as a way to better myself," he says.

Leving's background also led him to consider criminal defense work and poverty law for the falsely accused who could not afford legal representation.

As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, Leving, an avid lover of the arts, graduated with a degree in communications with an emphasis in radio and television. After two years of struggling to find a stable job in the media and entertainment industry, he decided it was time to go to law school.

Leving went to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Chicago-Kent College of Law and graduated in 1979. Fresh out of law school and eager to start making some money, Leving took a job as a federal tax law editor for Commerce Clearing House. After he had worked there for a year, he finally found a job that fit his career agenda.

Staying true to his initial urge to help the disadvantaged, Leving next accepted a job as a staff attorney for the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation. There, he was also able to try some criminal defense cases.

Soon after delving into legal aid, Leving began to notice a pattern in family law proceedings that would spark the entire foundation for his legal career.

"I eventually went out on my own because I shortly discovered that the system was very gender biased against fathers. It seemed to be very easy to represent a mom in a divorce or paternity case, but it was very difficult trying to get fathers simple visitation rights with their children. I looked at it as a void that needed to be filled," he says.

"There's so much father absence in our society," Leving continues. "I believe right now there is such a deterioration of not just marriage but, in fact, relationships between parents and children due to the deterioration of fatherhood over the years. Right now, we have 24 million children living absent their biological fathers, and it's getting worse."

With his alarming realization, the ambitious Leving decided to start his own family law office specializing in fathers' rights — something that was rare if not nonexistent in the early 1980s.

<<"It was so incredibly unpopular when I was a young lawyer that it was clear that there were not attorneys who were going to even attempt to fill that void. Even when I started to fill that void, I spoke to a judge who is now retired; I remember him telling me that he thought I was a skilled lawyer with a lot of potential and that I was wasting my time focusing on helping fathers. He seemed to think it would tarnish my professional reputation," Leving says.

Because the specialty virtually did not exist in the legal profession in 1981, Leving had to start his business from scratch.

"I found two older lawyers who were very successful litigators. They had a little, teeny office in their law firm, and I worked out an arrangement with them where they let me use it rent-free and use their receptionist, but what I had to do was perform a certain amount of legal services for them every week. I tried difficult cases that they didn't want to try, and that's how I started," he says.

"My first year I was there, I felt as if I was almost an indentured servant," he adds. "I did a lot of hard work for the office space, but I never lost a case they gave me. I even handled a burglary case that they gave me, which was virtually impossible to win, and I was successful."

Finally, Leving's hard work paid off. His one-man show began to pick up, and he was able to move on from his tiny space in the Scheffries & Zoloto law firm to his own office.

Today, Leving's career has soared because of his unique practice specialty.

In 2000, Leving was chosen to draft an amicus brief to submit to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba.

Gonzalez, who was six at the time, traveled to the U.S. in a small aluminum boat with his mother and 12 others as part of his mother's boyfriend's illegal smuggling trade. After his mother and 10 others died during the journey, Gonzalez arrived in the states with only some extended family to care for him. During this time, a dispute began to erupt with regard to whether Gonzalez should stay in the states with his extended family or return home with his father.

"I take pride in that brief because I think it was instrumental in the INS deciding to return him to his father in Cuba," Leving says.

Shortly after, with the direction of Gonzalez's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez-Quintana, Leving represented Gonzalez's great-uncle, Manuel Gonzalez, in gaining custody of Gonzalez. The objective was for Gonzalez's great-uncle to gain custody so he could return him to his father in Cuba.

"My plan did not work, and the child was removed by federal law enforcement, so it occurred differently than what I was hoping," Leving says of the case's outcome.

More recently, Leving represented a U.S. soldier and war hero who was in Iraq when his wife left their three children in the care of an abusive boyfriend, which resulted in the death of one of the children. The four-year-old victim was beaten to death over the span of 48 hours in front of the two surviving children.

<<"What was upsetting to me about that case was that the Department of Children and Family Services did not immediately place the surviving children with the father. I had to run into court and litigate the custody of the children. If the gender roles were reversed, I believe that the Department of Children and Family Services would have placed the child with the parent whose lover had not killed the youngest child," Leving says.

"This is an example of how gender bias can leave two surviving children in that terrible situation unprotected," he continues.

Leving has also taken his cause worldwide, representing fathers in the U.S. and abroad in parental abduction cases after the Hague Convention in 1996. After Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Slovakia honored Leving and his quest for fathers' rights by producing a commemorative coin. The best part is Leving's likeness is actually on the coin!

In 1997, Leving published his first book, Fathers' Rights: Hard-Hitting & Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute, which was written to inform and educate fathers so they don't lose their children. It also serves as a guide for family law attorneys to use as they navigate through cases that fall in this particular niche.
Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. I like to paint.
Q. Throughout your lifetime, what movie have you watched the most?
A. I've probably watched The Godfather a number of times.
Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. I normally don't listen to rap music, but I represented Twista in his divorce, so I have his whole collection for free. He's supposed to be the world's fastest rapper.
Q. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
A. Chocolate.
Q. If you had an extra hour in the day, what would you spend it doing?
A. Probably reading something unrelated to law.

"There's a lot of lawyers who handle complicated custody cases, and they've never litigated any of them. But unfortunately they do it because there's a lot of them to litigate, and there's not a lot of work for lawyers. Custody litigation is incredibly difficult. There are lawyers who handle these cases, and they don't realize how difficult they are until they end up in the middle of the trial and start drowning," Leving says.

<<Last January, Leving's next book, Divorce Wars: A Field Guide to the Winning Tactics, Preemptive Strikes, and Top Maneuvers When Divorce Gets Ugly, was released. This is a more gender-neutral book that takes a mediation standpoint, encouraging divorcees to find alternatives to litigation and directing them on settling their cases.

Leving also started an online publication called Leving's Divorce Magazine that focuses on parenting and men's legal issues.

Recently, Leving helped draft a bill that would permit virtual visitations for non-custodial parents in Illinois. Bills of this type have already been passed in four other states and are pending in six others. The bill would, if passed by the senate, amend the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act to officially define electronic communication as a method of visitation. This would include telephone, email, instant messaging, web cameras, and other wired or wireless technologies via the Internet or other avenues of communication.

Throughout his career, Leving has primarily sought mentorship from one person. That person is not a famous attorney, legal scholar, or politician. Who would be more fitting to serve as Leving's mentor than his own father?

"He gave me a lot of emotional support. He was poor, but contrary to popular belief, you don't always have to be rich to be a good parent," Leving says.

Today, having mentored his fair share of young attorneys, Leving encourages them to stick to the work.

"A lot of young lawyers get frustrated and give up," Leving says.

He also stresses that lawyers have to have a passion for what they're doing because the industry is ever-changing.

"The more you learn, the more you're going to realize what you don't know. The learning process never ends," he says. "You can succeed without a passion, but you'll never excel."
( 112 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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