Dennigan Cahill Smith Law Firm in Princeton Focuses on Family Law, Including Divorce
LEGAL EXPERTISE: “In our family law practice, we have developed a strong focus on the individual. The center of our legal universe is our client. We are focused on meeting the client’s needs from the first phone call through to the resolution of the matter.” Attorneys, from left, Grace Dennigan, Mia Cahill, and Elizabeth (Beth) Smith, are partners in the Dennigan Cahill Smith law firm.
By Jean Stratton
First and foremost, attorneys Grace Dennigan, Mia Cahill, and Elizabeth (Beth) Smith are there to help. When clients seek their family law services, whether for divorce, domestic abuse, child custody, financial issues, or divorce mediation, the partners and staff at Dennigan Cahill Smith (DCS) are skilled advocates on their behalf.
The firm was founded in 2006 by Grace Dennigan and Mia Cahill. Beth Smith joined in 2008, becoming a partner in 2012. They are experienced litigators, negotiators, and mediators, and the firm, located at 12 Roszel Road, Princeton, has an excellent reputation among both its clients and within the legal community. It represents clients primarily in Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Burlington counties.
An added dimension is that DCS is an all-female-owned and managed law firm. This has not deterred male clients who comprise half of the roster of clients.
“Both male and female clients have said that the idea of a strong female firm is appealing to them — based on their own perceptions on how they view us, and the qualities they are looking for in an attorney,” says Beth Smith. “Who doesn’t want a strong group of women in their corner?”
The attorneys at DCS have particular experience with clients in complex family cases, high asset cases, families with small businesses, and those struggling in families with mental health issues. The firm has an extensive network to assist clients in making connections with other professionals, such as accountants, appraisers, and therapists.
Although seasoned litigators, the partners routinely work with clients using methods of “alternative dispute resolution,” including mediation and collaborative law. These options can often be far more cost-effective and result in a better outcome for families.
The partners all have uniquely interesting backgrounds.
Practicing in New Jersey since 2003, Mia Cahill is known for her compassion and intellect in helping clients and in navigating her practice.
Her journey to the law was unconventional, she explains. “I was on the path to become an academic. And I was interested in law and society, which I now see up close and personal, instead of from the ivory tower.”
A self-described “Townie,” she graduated from Princeton High School, then attended the University of Delaware. She received her law degree and master’s from the University of Denver, and then a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin.
Prior to practicing law, Cahill was an academic researcher and professor. Her dissertation, later published as a book, was “The Social Construction of Sexual Harassment Law.”
“The idea was how culture influences what we think about law,” she explains. “In particular, how corporate culture and national culture relate to how people understand the law. For instance, regarding sexual harassment law and what it takes for victims to succeed, there is a very narrow band of law that is legally sexual harassment. On the other hand, corporations portray this band as wider, and this gives corporations maximum power to control the behaviors of their employees in the name of the law.”
In addition to teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Cahill taught at New York University, and she periodically serves as part-time faculty at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Studies.
In 2003, she entered private practice, and later joined with Grace Dennigan in establishing their current firm. In addition to her emphasis on fair settlements for her clients, and complex litigation, as appropriate, she is strongly focused on working with divorcing clients who have children with special needs.
Cahill helped found the Mid-Jersey Collaborative Law Alliance, and served on the board. She is a court-approved family mediator and a private mediator. She has published articles in a variety of law reviews and journals, with a focus on social problems and the impact of law on individuals.
As a Princeton resident, she remains attached to her hometown, having served six years on the Princeton Public School Board, and in 2009, she was an honoree of the Tribute to Women Award, of the YWCA of Princeton. She is currently a member of the Princeton Recreation Board.
Like Mia Cahill, partner Beth Smith came to the practice of law through a circuitous route. She earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University, and worked with families in crisis for nearly 15 years.
While still working full-time in social work, she attended the University of San Francisco Law School at night, and became licensed in New Jersey and New York in 2004.
Prior to joining DCS, she worked for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office as a Deputy Attorney General, where she honed her litigation skills, representing the Department of Child Planning and Permanency in difficult family cases.
Like her partners, Smith, also a trained mediator, focuses on more than just a client’s divorce in determining the best outcomes for her clients. Each person comes to the firm with unique needs and concerns. Smith’s training in social work has allowed her to take a thoughtful approach to the clients’ needs while simultaneously engaging as their “fiercest advocate.”
Currently, she serves on the Mercer County Early Settlement Panel, and was appointed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey to the District VII Ethics Committee where she serves as chair. Smith is frequently court-appointed as a parenting coordinator for divorced families with high conflict and as a guardian “ad litem” for children whose parents are embroiled in custody disputes. She is the Bar Association liaison to the Mercer County Domestic Violence Working Group, and secretary of the Mid-Jersey Collaborative Law Alliance.
After graduation from law school, attorney Grace Dennigan was licensed in New Jersey, and completed a judicial clerkship in Union County. She became an associate at Carchman, Annich, Socher & Shuster, a Princeton law firm, before joining the Attorney General’s office in 1987. After a great deal of jury trial work there, she returned to private practice, and has since concentrated on family law.
In addition to her law practice, Dennigan teaches the Family Law For Paralegals course at Mercer County Community College as well as courses for the NJ Institute for Continuing Legal Education.
Although a seasoned litigator, she is also a trained collaborative lawyer as well as a mediator, and is dedicated to offering these services to the practice as alternatives to litigation.
Few things are more difficult and stressful than going through a divorce. Separating finances, selling or keeping the house, joint or sole custody of the children, debt division, parenting time and visitation, alimony — these are just a few of the legal issues that are involved.
How these are determined will influence the way the parties can go forward and build a new future.
DCS represents clients in court-litigated divorces and out-of-court settlements. Litigated matters officially begin with the filing of a divorce complaint and end with a trial and decision. Uncontested cases are negotiated and often signed before either spouse has contact with the court. Other scenarios are also available, and the DCS partners always work to provide the best option and outcome for the client.
This even includes referrals to marriage counselors, as the attorneys are proponents of spouses staying together, whenever possible.
If not, however, the DCS partners work diligently to help clients through the divorce, mindful as Mia Cahill notes, “We’ve seen a lot, and divorce is very individual. As no marriage is the same, no divorce is the same.
“The reasons can range from physical abuse to general malaise. Many clients have already decided to divorce when they call us, and have often sought help from marriage counselors, therapists, etc.”
People can become estranged for a variety of reasons, the partners point out. There can be financial difficulties, one spouse can stray, there may be problems over the children. Sometimes, a tragedy or difficult situation can exacerbate existing issues and drive people apart.
Currently, and unfortunately, reports have indicated that incidents of domestic abuse have risen during the COVID-19 crisis.
Recognizing that many elements can be part of a fair divorce, DCS includes collaborative law as a process. This is an out-of-court option that involves a non-adversarial strategy to transform the way families resolve conflict by using consensual dispute resolution, including a coach, or a financial neutral party, such as an accountant, who help clients come to a negotiated, “collaborative” agreement.
The lawyers of both parties agree to rules, and in addition to representing his or her client, agree to treat the process and all involved with respect, and remain child-centered, while working collaboratively.
A successful collaborative solution results in a written, signed agreement, enforceable in court, along with a final divorce judgment.
“We want clients to realize that the divorce process doesn’t have to be a big fight, that there can be a good outcome without an acrimonious conflict,” points out Beth Smith. “Collaborative law has important benefits in this. The important thing is to make sure that each individual has dignity.”
Divorce has five points, she adds. (1) Divorce from the bonds of marriage, i.e. no fault in New Jersey, (2) child custody, (3) child support, (4) spousal support (alimony), and (5) equitable distribution (assets and debts).
How to resolve financial issues, including credit card debt, mortgages, and so on, is very important, explains Cahill. “We want to help people plan how to move forward, so they don’t have to go to court later. For example, what if someone is hoping to take early retirement? How does this affect alimony? What about job losses, transfers to new work locations? Clients may not always think this through. When done right, divorce law is prevention law. It can be a smart divorce.
“Also, with matters relating to children, the best interest of the child is major. Divorcing parents may have different views of the child’s best interest. But we want the best outcome for children, and conflict between spouses can affect this.”
And don’t forget the pets! A dog or cat, loved by both spouses and the children, is an important consideration, notes Smith. A pet clause can be a part of the divorce.
Many factors come together as part of a divorce settlement, and whether the process involves family mediation, parenting coordination, custody and child support, litigation, or collaborative law, DCS is experienced in every aspect and ready to guide clients through to the best result.
“I like to think of it as an arc,” observes Mia Cahill. “The day the client comes in can be very hard, certainly one of the top 10 worst days in someone’s life. We put them in a better place than when they first came in, and the projectory goes up. We help our clients to regain a full life.”
“This involves being able to trust people again, and move forward in their life,” adds Beth Smith. “This is meaningful and positive work. We believe strongly in what we do.”
Due to state regulations during the time of the coronavirus, DCS cannot see clients in the office. Once a case is undertaken, clients are charged by the hour, and the firm is mindful of clients’ financial needs.
Prospective clients can communicate via email and telephone. (609) 919-1600. Website: dennigancahillsmith.com.