LOCKPORT – It didn’t take long for Laura A. Miskell Benedict to discover what she really wanted to do with her law degree.
Starting out in Lockport law in 2005, the University at Buffalo Law School graduate was exposed to a variety of legal tasks, but when she was asked to represent a child in a Family Court case, she discovered her specialty.
“I loved it,” she said. “I really do. I love being able to help families, I love being able to be a safe place for these children. I really treat my kid clients the way I hope my children are treated by other adults.”
Today, Miskell Benedict is probably the only local lawyer with a cache of Lincoln Logs in her office for her clients to play with.
“They’re the real deal, not the plastic ones they make today,” she said.
Posted on the wall are pages cut from coloring books. Some of them are the work of her own two young children while others were colored by youngsters whose interests she watches out for, preventing their young lives, as much as possible, from becoming collateral damage in their parents’ divorce wars.
“I don’t get appointed unless it’s so far gone that the parents can’t settle things on their own,” Miskell Benedict said. “Their families are breaking apart, they’re distraught, there’s usually financial trouble, so there’s already tension.”
Judges and her colleagues have taken notice of Miskell Benedict’s work. On June 21, she will be in Rochester to receive the Michael F. Dillon Award for the Eighth Judicial District, presented to Western New York’s best lawyer for children as nominated by judges. Only two other Niagara County attorneys have won it in the past 25 years.
Also, at a Bar Association of Niagara County luncheon May 6 in Niagara Falls, Miskell Benedict will receive an Integrity Award from the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity.
In 2013, Miskell Benedict won the Crapsi Award, a local award for work in family law, named after the late Niagara County Family Court Judge Paul V. Crapsi.
As you can probably guess, Miskell Benedict, 37, is widely respected by her peers.
“She’s one of the best family attorneys I’ve ever met,” said P. Andrew Vona, a prominent Lockport lawyer.
“She’s obviously very well regarded at her young age,” said Ronald J. Winter, law clerk to State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. and former national chairman of Phi Alpha Delta. “We scour the four Supreme Court justices in Niagara County and say, ‘These are the basic attributes, can you give us some nominations?’ ” He said Miskell Benedict was on every Integrity Award ballot for the past two years. Last year, the award went to Michele G. Bergevin of Niagara Falls.
Miskell Benedict is the daughter of Allen D. Miskell, a veteran Lockport attorney, and the wife of Michael E. Benedict, a full-time Niagara County assistant public defender. She is a partner in the Miskell & Moxham law firm, founded by her father and his colleague Walter E. Moxham Jr.
“I started out in family law representing parents,” Miskell Benedict said. “Within a couple months of practicing, I realized that there was actually a job out there that permitted me to work with children. I thought it was a really unique job, that you would actually be presenting children in the court, and I thought it would be great to practice those skills and still have the ability to practice law, but working with kids.”
The job, which used to be called “law guardian,” required her to take a two-day training course at the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Rochester.
Today, she has 80 to 100 children as clients at any given time. She is on a list of lawyers appointed by judges to handle such duties, and she is paid by the state to perform them.
“The vast majority of my cases are child custody,” Miskell Benedict said. “Either their parents are going through a divorce, so we’re in (State) Supreme Court, or their parents were never married, so we’re in Family Court. I do also represent children in respect to a criminal matter, but in Family Court, if they’re juvenile delinquents or Persons in Need of Supervision.”
Her job as a lawyer for children in a custody case is “to advocate for what my clients want.” The judge has the final say on custody, of course, but Miskell Benedict is there to balance the children’s wishes against what she deems is their best interest and present that input.
“You have to weigh the age of the child, and the mental capacity, their maturity with what they’re directing you to go in and tell the court.” she said. “A lot of times, the very hard of my part of my job is, I explain to my clients, no matter what age they are, attorney-client privilege. When I have little kids, I explain to them that this is their safe place. This is where they can talk to me and tell me what’s going on with them and I won’t repeat it. With older kids, I actually explain attorney-client privilege. Then I have to go into the courtroom and advocate for them without being specific about their wishes. It really is a hard thing to do, but I really try to place it on me and take it away from the kids, so Mom doesn’t go home and say, ‘Why did you tell your attorney that?’ ”
If siblings disagree on their preference or are already living apart, the court must assign different attorneys for each of them. Miskell Benedict said that might happen once or twice out of every 100 cases. Also rare is a situation in which the court compels the parents to pay her; that happens only when the parents are fairly wealthy.
“Mom has an advocate, Dad has an advocate, and as my clients’ advocate, I kind of have to toe that line between attorney-client privilege with a child and advocating them. I try to get the nets to see it from their kids’ point of view,” Miskell Benedict said. “Best-case scenario, you’re only going to see your kid half the time. Worst-case scenario, you’ll see them one or two days a week. It’s a really difficult time for families, and I really think it’s important, when I represent the children, to make it as easy as possible for the kids.”
As a children’s attorney in a contested divorce, “I’m the only one who can talk to all the parties,” Miskell Benedict said. The father’s attorney is forbidden to talk to the mother, for example, but Miskell can work with everyone. She also will talk to relatives, teachers, counselors, babysitters, or anyone else who might have insight to offer on the children and their needs.
She admitted, though, that some of these cases have no good resolution. “You get to the point where you just do what would be the least damage to the children,” Miskell Benedict said. “Obviously, I do get emotionally involved in every case with my kid clients. But even what I represent one of the parents and some other attorney is representing the children, I tell my clients, ‘You’ve got to put your anger aside and do what is best for the child.’ I always start with the premise that the child should have Mom and Dad in their life 50 percent of the time. You have to convince me otherwise. Whether it’s the child convincing me or the behavior of the parents, that’s where I start from.”
Her husband helps with their children on nights when she’s holding evening office hours for her “kid clients,” because she doesn’t want the court system to disrupt their daily activities any more than necessary. “He doesn’t practice family law, but he’s an attorney. He gets it,” Miskell Benedict said.
She can identify with the emotions involved in every case. Looking at a framed photo of her two children, Miskell Benedict said, “For me, there’s nothing more important in the world than those two.”