How lawyers can help without hurting
The right lawyer can help a lot if you use him or her in the right way.
Legal information and advice. Lawyers who specialize in divorce can be extremely useful to you when they do not insist on being retained to do the whole divorce. It can be very cost-effective to get information and advice on specific subjects or a case evaluation. That may be all the legal help you will need. It is usually important to know what the rules are in your state and whether or not one can reasonably predict what a judge would do if presented with your facts.
If the standards in your state are predictable, you can use that to guide your negotiations. An experienced divorce attorney can also help sort out the many tax issues of divorce for you.
Drafting your agreement. You may decide to have a lawyer draft your marital settlement agreement or look over one you have made yourself. Writing an agreement that is clear, unambiguous and legally correct can be a technical challenge, so unless you get your language directly from a reliable source and do not depart much from it, then having a lawyer draft your agreement, or at least check it, is a very good idea.
Collaborative law. This is a very small but very interesting movement. These lawyers represent you fully and require a retainer agreement, but in the agreement they state that they will not use litigation or go to court for any adversarial purpose. Instead, they emphasize negotiation and mediation. The “collaborative” part means that the attorneys on both sides should have this orientation so they can work well together to settle the case. When up against a traditional attorney, the case is far more likely to go into litigation. At the present time, Collaborative Law is well-established only in Minneapolis, thanks to the pioneering work of Stuart Webb.
Who to pick? You want three things in a divorce attorney: experience, reliability, and a good attitude. Your lawyer should specialize in divorce — at least 50% of their case load. Your attorney must be someone you can trust and work with comfortably, someone who has your confidence.
You are looking for an attorney who can:
- communicate in plain English
- simplify instead of complicate your case
- provide neutral, settlement-oriented advice
- seek practical solutions instead of legal ones.
If you want advice, be sure to look for a lawyer who is trained in divorce mediation and who practices it professionally. Mediation-minded attorneys are more likely to give you neutral and problem-solving advice, whereas traditional attorneys tend to be more oriented toward conflict and their advice tends to be adversarial.
If you want to know the law in your state or get an appraisal of likely outcomes in your local courts, or drafting of a marital settlement agreement, then you are more concerned with the attorney’s knowledge and experience. Attitude is a little less relevant here, but watch out for the attorney who seems to make things more complicated rather than less, or who urges you to do things that could lead to conflict.
We suggest that you generally avoid anyone who seems cynical, unnecessarily aggressive, or moralistic. For most cases, you will want to look for someone who prefers to avoid conflict in favor of negotiation and compromise. You are trying to find an attorney who prefers to keep the case cool.
Avoid situations where you don’t like the way the attorney or the staff treat you. Look for lawyers who listen well to what you want and who seem willing to do things your way. Make sure the attorney knows it is your life, your case, and that you are in charge.
How to use your lawyer. Be very well prepared. Know your facts, know what you want to ask, and know exactly what you want the lawyer to do for you. Plan each conversation; make an agenda; write down the things you want to talk about; take notes on every conversation; keep track of time spent on all phone calls and meetings.
Keep a file for all your notes, letters and documents. Do as much as possible on the phone and by mail to keep office time at a minimum. Let the attorney know that you expect phone calls to be answered by the next working day.
When you talk to a lawyer, stick to the facts. Don’t just chat, ramble, or complain about things your spouse did unless you actually want your lawyer to do something about it. Lawyers cost too much for you to use them for company, sympathy or consolation — that’s what family, friends and counselors are for. A lawyer is not the right person to make your decisions or lead your life: you are.
Being in control of your own case and your own life is the single best thing you can do in any divorce, so it is essential that you have a lawyer who can work cheerfully on that basis. If you are well-prepared, organized and businesslike, that will help the lawyer to see that you are in charge of things.
For more information, contact Divorce Helpline at 800-359-7004