By David Crum
Getting a divorce is emotionally and financially challenging, even when all parties involved cooperate fully. A divorce is not an end-all solution. You and your spouse will still need to communicate, especially if children are involved. For these reasons you want to be well-informed when choosing the attorney to represent your case.
Clients considering divorce have lots of questions about the process. To have these questions best answered, you’ll want to invest in a good divorce lawyer. Note that not all attorneys specialize in divorce or family law. So what should you expect from a divorce attorney?
While lawyers do not have to specialize in divorce or family law in order to take on your case, it is best to get a lawyer who does. Law school does not go into specifics; lawyers who practice only family law understand specific legal issues, case management, the proper handling of court proceedings, and have the knowledge and experience to succeed.
Ideally the best attorney is someone who not only has experience in divorce and family law, but also has experience in your jurisdiction including your specific courthouse and judge. Local experience means your attorney knows the decision makers involved with your case, and how they make rulings. This affects how your lawyer presents your case, and how your lawyer is perceived by the judge.
Even within the realm of divorce and family law there are specialized skill sets. Make sure your attorney has skills that fit your needs. Divorce attorneys can have experience in the following areas:
Involves filing a petition for divorce and goes through normal steps of procedure which may include numerous hearings and possibly a trial. Litigation is a very specialized field requiring a specific set of legal skills in order to be effective.
If spouses involved in the divorce process are largely in agreement about the divorce and the diving of assets and debts, and there is a general understanding about how your case should be solved, then you may be able to file for an uncontested divorce. This process takes less time and money than going through litigation, but clients should seek an attorney with experience in negotiation and the drafting of legal documents.
Very few lawyers explore this option with clients as it involves one attorney handling the case and acting as a neutral third party while representing neither spouse and providing no legal advice to either client. Instead, the attorney helps both parties work towards the resolution of their case. Mediated divorce may be explored as a first option, but requires that spousal communication is still effective.
Spouses and attorneys work together to control the divorce process. An effective attorney will help build a customized process for solving the case without necessitating time in court. This process may involve use of financial and child custody experts. While this kind of divorce ideally keeps clients out of court, if no settlement is reached the clients must obtain new legal counsel before filing a court proceeding. Significant training and continued legal education are required on a regular basis for an attorney to be effective at collaborative divorce.
Knowing what to expect from your divorce attorney doesn’t negate the things you need to expect from yourself.
Be well prepared order to avoid unnecessary stress and fees. Being more organized will help cut legal fees and ensure that you are more satisfied with results.
Before meeting with a prospective attorney, have a list of questions prepared. Know the difference between what you want versus what you need to get out of your divorce. Organize tax returns, insurance policies, and financial portfolios so that information is easily accessible. You don’t want to waste your lawyer’s time trying to sort these documents, and you don’t want to waste your money paying for that time.
Be flexible and have realistic expectations for the final outcome of your case.
Though lots of issues can be contested, it is not always a good idea to do so. You may dictate the course of the case, but trust your attorney’s judgment and be ready to let them make decisions about contesting issues. It’s easy for clients to let emotions drive certain decisions. Your attorney can and should provide you with an honest assessment of what is worth fighting for or not. Keep in mind the emotional cost of each issue, and whether or not you are likely to succeed. By constantly contesting issues, you create a more volatile environment which can have a serious impact on children trying to adjust post-divorce, and make it harder for spouses to cooperate while adjusting to their new relationship and its dynamics.
Choose Your Attorney Carefully
Expect to spend time prospecting potential attorneys. When speaking with a potential attorney, ask how they will plan processes and how they understand the value of your case (including how your assets and debts should be divided in a fair settlement). You want a lawyer who plans for settlement facilitation before your case reaches this part of the procedure. Discuss various settlement scenarios with prospective attorneys – how prepared are they for different situations that may arise?
Very aggressive lawyers are often referred to as “pit bulls.” Some people think they need this kind of lawyer, however, setting an aggressive tone can interfere with negotiations and settlements and getting sidetracked by harping on less important issues can drive up legal fees. Your attorney should be able to say “No,” and be aggressive when necessary, but without being a bully. Of course every situation is different, so communicate with your lawyer and discuss the tone you want to set.
Most importantly? Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel comfortable with an attorney during initial consultations, do you want them representing you? Be wary of lawyers who promise too much; divorce is a give and take process. When people cannot agree, legal fees go up and clients lose money. Don’t be afraid to explore your options!
Bio: David Crum is a Managing partner at The New Mexico Legal Group where he specializes in divorce and family law matters. David has worked as a law clerk in the United States Attorneys Office as well as a mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
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