Nancy Ingram Jordan
Nancy Ingram Jordan says family law is not for the faint of heart but she enjoys a rapport with her clients. (Photo by Sandi Purinton)

Nancy Ingram Jordan, a former prosecutor and criminal appellate specialist turned divorce lawyer, has found a new niche with an appellate family law practice, and she’s moved to a new firm to pursue it.

Jordan comes from a family of lawyers. Her father is former Georgia Supreme Court Justice G. Conley Ingram, who’s now a senior judge in Cobb County Superior Court. Her sister is Cobb County Superior Court Judge Lark Ingram.

As a lawyer with Gregory, Doyle, Calhoun & Rogers, the Marietta business and education law firm, Jordan ran a one-lawyer domestic practice with one paralegal. She began to see an opportunity that matched her experience.

“There are some really good family trial lawyers, but they don’t do appeals, and there are some really good appellate lawyers who don’t do family law,” Jordan said in an interview.

This month, she moved to the 15-attorney family law boutique firm of Warner, Bates, McGough, McGinnis & Portnoy. “Nancy’s extensive experience in family law as well as appellate matters will immediately bring value to clients of the firm,” said C. Wilbur Warner Jr., a founding partner, in a written statement.

Besides a change of venue from just off the Marietta Square to the 22nd floor of a high-rise near Cumberland Mall, the move gave Jordan colleagues she can work with on domestic cases in preparing for and handling appeals. And she was able to bring along her paralegal, Lindsey Penirelli.

Joining a family law boutique is a smart strategy for someone who wants to specialize in domestic appeals, according to J. Scott Key, chairman of the State Bar of Georgia’s Appellate Section. “There are enough lawyers out there who hate doing appeals that they’d refer that to someone else,” Key said.

“There are plenty of upset people out there who want to appeal how a divorce came out or how a custody came out. The problem is turning them away,” said Key, who handles mostly criminal appeals. He said that because the standards for domestic appeals differ from those governing criminal appeals, it’s more difficult to find a legal error to form the basis of a divorce or custody appeal. Domestic cases are usually bench trials, with judges having more discretion, he said. And domestic litigants generally don’t have the same right to appeal as criminal defendants.

“I’d say it’s harder to win a domestic appeal than a criminal appeal,” said Key. And a baseless appeal can lead to sanctions for the lawyer. “If you bring an appeal and there’s nothing there, you can really get in trouble.”

Key added, “You don’t see a ton of domestic appellate specialists.” He said he has watched lawyers inexperienced in the appellate courts argue cases there, and “it showed.”

Key won a custody appeal last month, gaining a chance for his client to have a new trial. But domestic cases are not his favorite. He recalled a judge’s staff attorney once observing, “In criminal court, you see bad people at their best, trying to stay out of jail. In divorce court, you see good people at their worst.”

Certainly, screening out cases that aren’t good candidates for appeal is part of her work, Jordan said. She offers appellate consultations in which she sometimes has to tell clients they don’t have a case for an appeal.

One potential problem in domestic cases, as in many other kinds of cases, is when the option of an appeal isn’t preserved at the trial level. It’s important for a divorce lawyer handling a case before a trial court to ask for a transcript of every hearing, which often isn’t done in domestic cases, said both Jordan and Key. They also said it could be helpful for the trial lawyer and the appellate specialist to consult early in the process.

Jordan admits the practice of family law is “not for the faint of heart.” Sadly, she said, she sees similarity between domestic and criminal work in “the urgency of need, the anxiety.” She added, “When people are going through a family crisis like divorce, I think normal people act a little crazy.” But she’s found a calling in both appellate work and domestic work. She said she enjoys a rapport with clients that comes from sharing some of her own story.

“I can truthfully say life didn’t turn out the way we thought,” she said. “Then I explain my situation, and it gives me a little credibility.” She added, “We learn to reinvent ourselves.”

Jordan was a happily married soccer mom with two sons. But her husband of 24 years, engineer William Jordan, died of cancer on Jan. 1, 2008. Three months later, she left her solo general practice and joined the Gregory, Doyle firm, then known as Brock, Clay, Calhoun & Rogers. “I’m grateful to the firm,” she said. “I decided I didn’t want to live by myself and work by myself.”

In 2010, she began serving a term as president of the Cobb County Bar Association. But that year also brought another tragedy, the death of her friend and former law partner, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Debra Bernes.

Jordan and Bernes had worked together as prosecutors with then-Cobb County District Attorney Tom Charron, Jordan serving in the DA’s office for 15 years. She and Bernes became the department’s appellate specialists. Jordan said she wrote or coauthored with Bernes hundreds of appellate briefs and estimated she made arguments at the Georgia Supreme Court 80 times. After Charron left the DA’s office, Jordan and Bernes set up a law practice together before Bernes went on to be elected to the Court of Appeals.

Jordan’s move to Warner Bates and the domestic appellate specialty makes sense, according to Randall Kessler of Kessler & Solomiany, past chairman of the family law sections of the American Bar Association and the Georgia bar. “It’s a natural evolution,” Kessler said. “Thirty years ago, divorce was not a niche. Nobody wanted to be known as a divorce lawyer because it was unbecoming. Now, it’s the opposite. People want to have the finest divorce lawyer.”

While solo domestic lawyers may do their own appeals, the boutique firms would do well to have an appellate specialist, he said. “If you’re going to have a firm with 10 or more lawyers, you need to have somebody who’s good at appeals.”