JACKSONVILLE -- Ask lawyer Kenny Leigh if he would ever represent a female client and he’ll say no.
He’ll also tell you he’s not sexist but railing against a Family Court system that is unfair to men.
At 41, the Jacksonville lawyer has built what appears to be a successful law practice branded on the slogan, “Men Only. Family Law Only.”
And while Leigh said he’s finished with that slogan, the attorney said his firm’s philosophy won’t change.
“The only thing that’s very consistent about family law is how unfair it is to men,” Leigh said in a January sit-down interview. “The current system turns a father into a visitor and a paycheck.”
Leigh said dropping that particular slogan is connected to hiring an advertising firm. He said it’s not related to a recent letter from The Florida Bar that mentions a professional conduct code about not engaging in conduct that discriminates based on things including gender.
Law firms must get the Bar’s approval of advertisements. The Bar’s Feb. 8 reply to Leigh’s proposed new radio ad mentioned two changes that needed to be made to make it acceptable.
A Bar ethics lawyer said he needed to take out a reference to “unparallel professional and personal support,” since an attorney’s services can be compared to another lawyer’s services only if “the comparison can be factually substantiated.” The other change concerned adding a spoken disclosure for a “non-lawyer spokesperson.”
But while the letter also said the Bar opinion only addressed advertising rules, it suggested Leigh review the professional code relating to “statements about representing men only.”
Florida Bar assistant ethics counsel Cynthia Booth said that someone would have to file a discrimination complaint for the Bar to take action. While the Bar can’t disclose if any cases are pending, an official said Leigh has no disciplinary history and no complaints that closed in the last year.
Some things on Leigh’s website, www.menonlyfamilylawonly.com, have changed. Under a section titled “Our Belief,” the message is a bit different.
“We only represent men and we exclusively practice family law,” it once said.
“Exclusively family law, focusing on men’s rights,” it says now.
But Leigh said if the Bar tells him he has to represent women, he’ll go to court to fight it.
“If the Bar tells me I have to, then I will litigate The Florida Bar that it’s unconstitutional.”
Leigh, James & Associates started with one man.
Leigh finished his law degree at Nova Southeastern University in 1999. He did a brief stint in commercial litigation and another prosecuting misdemeanors as an assistant state attorney before striking out on his own in Clay County.
Leigh said he had a case against a lawyer who does what he does now and began gravitating toward family law. When that lawyer retired, he took over some of his files and started branding his business for just men in family law matters.
Leigh is married with children and a stepchild. He said his mission didn’t grow out of personal experiences, but injustice he saw toward men.
He said he helped grow his business through aggressive advertising. Now his firm has 10 other lawyers - including one female lawyer. There also are 30 staffers, most of whom are women. Since Leigh started the firm about seven years ago, the Clay County office has expanded and he’s opened another office in a high-rise in downtown Jacksonville.
Walk into his Clay office and you can read a copy of “The Sensible Cigar Connoisseur” as you wait for your appointment. Walk into his downtown office and you’ll get a view of the St. Johns River.
Leigh says he charges more than a lot of lawyers and spends a “significant” amount of money on ads. He also says he knows not every father is a good one.
“If I had to base my practice on just good dads, I’d be broke,” he said.
But he says that like a criminal defense lawyer who represents an ax murderer, every divorcing father deserves an advocate. And some people appreciate that passion.
John Manzone hired Leigh to represent him in his divorce and child custody fight when the lawyer was just starting out on his own. The client recently called Leigh a straightforward and sincere advocate and said he had no problem with Leigh’s commercials.
“He never pulled any nasty tactics and he was never ugly with my wife when he deposed her,” Manzone said.
But Manzone’s former wife Heidi saw Leigh and his firm another way.
“They twisted facts,” she said. “...They painted John as a saint. ... I don’t how much of it was lies John was feeding him. ... I just wonder if the firm counsels fathers to put the needs of their children ahead of their own needs.”
Leigh and the lawyers at his firm admit to using tricks.
In a meeting the Times-Union sat in on, the lawyers talked about ways to bluff that a private investigator had found dirt about the opposing party. Leigh admits winning family law cases involves digging for dirty laundry.
“It’s gloves off. It’s nasty stuff,” he said.
Jennifer Gutai, the firm’s only female lawyer, said it’s part of the job.
“When people are lying, it’s very, very easy to get people to think you know something when you don’t,” she said.
The 25-year-old said she’s pleased to be fighting for equal rights for fathers. She says favoritism for mothers in Family Court is like a civil rights issue. Fathers’ rights advocates tend to agree.
Glenn Sacks, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Fathers & Families, said he’s seen more law firms step up around the country to represent fathers because of that bias. But he said he’s also seen firms marketing to just women and mothers.
“They’re in business, not charities,” Sacks said of firms like Leigh’s. “I’m sure that they are trying to make money like any business does.”