If you decide to hire a lawyer to help with your divorce, it is important to choose one who is a good fit for you and your situation. There are several reasons why you might not fit well with a particular lawyer. Some potential clients are clear from the start that they want a lawyer who is of the same gender they are. Others reject a lawyer who seems too aggressive, opting instead for a more soothing or parental type. For some, aggressiveness is a prized trait. Price can also be a consideration; when there are lawyers available for $150 an hour, many people steer clear of those charging twice that much.
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If you don't have the money to hire a lawyer and your spouse has far greater financial resources than you do, a judge may order your spouse to advance funds to enable you to hire an attorney. Knowing this, some lawyers will charge only a minimal retainer to file the first appearance paper in your case—normally known as a complaint or petition—and then prepare a motion requesting you be advanced fees by your spouse to compensate your lawyer. The supporting papers will tell the judge that without such an order, you won't be able to afford legal representation. If the judge orders fees, the lawyer will continue to represent you. However, the lawyer is likely to bow out without such an order—and no clear promise of payment.
Finding a lawyer who is a good fit can be challenging. It's not that there aren't fine, sensitive, and ethical divorce lawyers nearby who would be happy to represent you; there are lawyers that meet that description almost everywhere. But there are also many who aren't strong in their knowledge of the law, don't care much about your personal needs, or charge too much for what they do. And there are more than a few who are deficient in all those respects.
So clearly, one key task is to get a short list of high quality local divorce lawyers who charge within your price range. And another is to be attuned to what may be less obvious: the type or combination of types of divorce lawyer for which you search.
Here are some types that I have identified over the years.
The Bomber may regale you with stories about how he or she demolished the other side in a recent trial—as in: "I had the husband so confused on the stand that the judge finally had to jump in and call a recess." A Bomber will shun mediation and collaborative law. In this lawyer's view, the only time to talk about settlement is after the other side has been decimated and is pleading for mercy.
There are some lawyers who advertise that they only represent clients of one gender. Their pitch is that the court assigned to hear your case discriminates against whichever gender they specialize in and that you need a lawyer who knows how to deal with that. They may go on and on about how "wives always try to turn the kids against their husbands" or "husbands always have some money squirreled away somewhere." In reality, the best lawyers usually represent as many men as they do women. Gender Specialists have a fairly harmless gimmick, but one that doesn't usually ring true—and if practiced too zealously, may actually alienate a judge.
A recent article in a legal newspaper quoted a Los Angeles lawyer as saying that when he goes into a divorce trial, he has a specific plan for exactly how he is going to present the evidence and argument. He complained, however, that too many judges interrupt him in mid-presentations, asking questions and suggesting solutions. Sometimes, he said, they lecture him or the parties about concerns they have about how the well-being of the children is not being appropriately considered.
What the lawyer didn't seem to understand is the fact that in a divorce trial, the ultimate decision is in the judge's hands alone. If the judge believes the attorney is going on with irrelevancies and not dealing with important issues, it is the judge's duty to inquire and to ask for evidence on issues he or she feels are crucial.
A lawyer's game plan may be beautifully drawn, but it is useless if it doesn't cover the issues that concern the judge.
Most family lawyers know that more than 90% of the cases they handle settle before trial. But some lawyers don't want to tell a prospective client this at the start because they think the client may fear the lawyer will sell them out cheaply to avoid a trial. The Settler will tell the client that he or she will fight to get all of the important financial facts on the table in the early stages of the case, but once that is done, those involved can almost always work out a good settlement that will avoid a trial.
There are a few lawyers in most communities who have reputations as the top divorce lawyers in the area. They usually have beautiful offices, large staffs of assistants, and expensive cars—some with chauffeurs. Most charge between $300 and $500 an hour for their services, and they rarely finish a case for less than $20,000. In my experience, most of these lawyers have earned reputations for their skills, but in the final analysis are not significantly more skilled than many other good lawyers who are much less expensive.
This lawyer doesn't specialize in family law, but may well be competent to handle uncomplicated family law matters. Some general practitioners will assure you that a specialist isn't necessary. However, if you have decided to hire a lawyer, it is usually preferable to find one who specializes in family law. Appellate courts frequently make changes in the fine points of family law and a generalist can't be expected to stay current on these matters. If you live in a small community where there is no lawyer who specializes in family law, consider checking out a specialist in a larger neighboring area to take your case.