If you're facing a divorce, your expectations have probably been shaped by the experiences of your family and friends, and maybe what you've seen on TV and in the movies. The best way to know what to expect from a divorce comes from an objective party who has seen not just one or two divorces, but hundreds: your divorce attorney. Here are seven secrets your divorce lawyer won't tell you (but should).
A divorce is a lawsuit, and we usually think of lawsuits as ending in a trial. However, many, if not most lawsuits end in a settlement. This is especially true of divorce, where upwards of 90% of cases settle—and some reports place that figure in the 95-97% range.
What does that mean for you? That a lawyer who knows how to negotiate and resolve cases short of trial may be the best bet for you.
Sometimes a trial in a divorce case is necessary, like if one party refuses to come to the table and negotiate or is hiding assets. Most of the time, the couple can do a better job (with their attorneys' help) of figuring out custody, support, alimony, and property division terms that would work for them than a judge can. Think about it: you know your family, your kids' needs, your finances, your schedules. Even the best-informed judge can understand only a fraction of what you do about your family.
Not only does reaching settlement mean you're more likely to have an outcome you agree with, it's likely to cost you a lot less. Trial is expensive, and attorneys, to do a good job, must spend many (billable!) hours preparing for trial. The expense of trial is worth it if a trial is needed to reach a just result in your case, but often, it's not.
If most divorces don't go to trial, that means many divorce attorneys don't have a lot of trial experience. Why does that matter if your case is likely to settle anyway? Because when you settle, you want it to be because you've reached a good agreement—not because your attorney wants to avoid a trial he or she isn't confident in handling.
In a nutshell, you want an attorney who is an experienced negotiator who will help you avoid unnecessary conflict, but who also has the courtroom experience to know when it makes sense for a client to settle, and when it's worth it to fight.
Yes, attorney fees can be costly, and add up quickly. But your attorney may not tell you what you can do to keep them down unless you ask. You should ask, because there are some simple things you can do to reduce your attorney's workload, and more importantly, save yourself some money.
One thing you can do is gather financial documents your attorney will need in your case. In almost every California divorce, property division is an issue, and if you have children, child support will be an issue, as well as possibly spousal support. All of those matters require your attorney to have information about your income and/or assets. He or she can spend time and resources trying to get those from your spouse's attorney, but if you can copy income tax returns, bank statements, retirement account statements, and so on, you could save both time and money.
Even if you do everything possible to keep your legal bill down, there are no two ways around it: divorce is expensive. Your attorney probably won't be able to tell you exactly how expensive, because that will depend on how your case unfolds. Still, you should plan on needing to put down a retainer (a deposit of funds against which the lawyer will charge hours that he or she bills) and to replenish the retainer when funds get low.
If costs are a concern, as they are for many people, talk to your lawyer about how to plan for your necessary legal expenses, and how to avoid unnecessary ones. A good lawyer won't brush aside your worries and will talk to you realistically about managing your resources. Be wary of an attorney who promises you the moon for very little money. He or she might be trying to get you to sign a retainer agreement; once you're on the hook, you might find out your case will cost more than you were led to believe.
There's a stereotype of aggressive "pit bull" divorce attorneys who won't back down and will never compromise. It might seem like those attorneys will do a better job for you and protect you when you feel most vulnerable, but it's rarely true. Remember the first secret above: most divorce cases don't go to trial. An aggressive attorney can actually get in the way of a productive settlement, extending the case and billing more hours by stirring up hostility and "churning" the file.
At worst, an aggressive attorney can force you into an expensive trial you didn't need. Most of the time extended conflict enriches the lawyers, not their clients. What's more, when your case is done, your lawyer doesn't have to deal with the ongoing hostility he or she has helped to stoke between you and your ex—but you will. If you have to co-parent together, your attorney's aggressiveness could make your life more difficult for years.
Your divorce or family law matter is a very personal thing. You need to have an attorney who is experienced in California family law, who knows how to negotiate, and who knows his or her way around the courtroom. But you also need an attorney with whom you feel comfortable. You need to be honest about your life and marriage with your attorney, so he or she needs to be someone you can talk to freely. The attorney who was right for your coworker or cousin may not be best for you.
Interview at least a few attorneys before you hire one, to get a sense of their approach to cases and their general demeanor. A good attorney will not be offended if you want to talk to others before committing to retain someone. On the other hand, be very wary of an attorney who tries to pressure you into signing a contract if you're not ready. You may have a limited time to respond to a divorce petition filed by your spouse, but aside from court deadlines, there is no rush to hire a lawyer. Find someone who is right for you and who will give you the counsel and advocacy you need.
If you have questions for a divorce lawyer, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.