THE ANSWER IS, PROBABLY NOT—unless you remain alert, on top of your divorce case, and know when conditions are ripe for you to be victimized. That’s right! Victimized even by your own lawyer!
Divorce lawyers have been portrayed in cartoons and jokes as sharks, snakes and similar cold-blooded creatures with vicious and aggressive traits. But divorce lawyers are no different than any other people and they have the same motivations, strengths and weaknesses. And, they are out there trying to make a buck.
THE INITIAL CONFERENCE. Watch out during that first conference with your lawyer! When you walk into that office for the first time, you are likely to be under stress, angry, yes, and even temporarily psychotic. You are looking for a gladiator to go out there and battle to protect you, or even to inflict heavy wounds.
The lawyer, on the other hand, is thinking, “How can I get this client to retain me?” Remember, the lawyer is in business and the advice given to you during that first conference may be tainted by monetary motives. One good test of your lawyer is whether advice given to you is unselfish and even against the lawyer’s monetary interest. For example, suppose you have a choice of courts in which to bring your lawsuit for divorce, courts located in different counties or states. A lawyer who has his or her own interest primarily in mind will discourage you from bringing your lawsuit in a place where you might have to retain other counsel. Be sure to ask questions designed to weigh the pros and cons of each place (venue) and observe the lawyer’s responses carefully.
A sure way for a lawyer to get your retainer payment is to tell you what you want to hear. For example, you tell the lawyer your story, perhaps how your wife or husband cheated on you or how he or she was abusive. What you want your lawyer to tell you is that you are the victim and that it’s time for retribution. “Let’s get the creep!”, he or she says. You may want to hear that but If you hire that lawyer, you are making a big mistake.
DON’T TRUST A “GUTTER FIGHTER.” Divorce is a painful process and what you need is intelligent guidance to get you through the court system that often exacerbates the problems and to get you through the emotional upheavals of divorce. Your lawyer must not only get you through the divorce process, but must look beyond the divorce and advise you whether a particular course of action is likely to permanently damage you and your relationship with your spouse and your children. How many of us who have gone through divorce have, at least momentarily, considered quitting our jobs or cutting back on our production to avoid paying support “to her (or him)?” Surely, the long term effect of doing that can have little benefit.
A “gutter fighter”—an aggressive lawyer who will not hesitate to go over the line is not the lawyer you want. Going for the kill may give you some temporary satisfaction, but it will also wreak havoc on your family and your relationship with them and will embroil you in a snowballing process in litigation. Instead of getting you out of your bad situation, you will remain embroiled in it.
WATCH THAT BILLING! No doubt you've heard of “churning” a case. Churning means unnecessary litigation designed to produce fees without regard to the ultimate benefit to the client. Let’s say the lawyer’s practice is a little slow. He or she thinks, “Maybe a few motions, a nasty letter, a shotgun demand for every document a person ever had, will stir things up a little?” So long as your lawyer bills on a basis of time spent (and that is the only billing basis you can reasonably expect), there will be a danger of churning because only the lawyer knows how much time was really spent.
You must stay on top of your case. Remember one principle! You want to get through this with a minimum of damage and cost as quickly as possible. Any actions inconsistent with that goal should be carefully scrutinized before you accept them.
INSIST ON AN ITEMIZED BILL. You should receive a bill once a month itemizing, in detail, all services performed for you and time spent on each item. There is nothing wrong in letting your lawyer know that you are looking over his shoulder. If something on the bill appears inappropriate, question it. But be careful not to make your lawyer your enemy—tact is always helpful.
KEEP YOUR LAWYER HAPPY. While you should be wary of the possibility of your lawyer’s overreaching, you should also make certain that he or she is fully and timely paid for services rendered. A happy lawyer is more likely to be loyal and more importantly, he or she is more likely to be there for you when needed.
NEVER PERMIT YOUR LAWYER TO OBTAIN FEES FROM THE OTHER SIDE. A lawyer that looks to your adversary for payment of fees is likely to lose objectivity. If your lawyer says to you, “Don’t worry, your spouse has plenty of money and I will get my fee from her (or him)”, watch out! The lawyer may be unduly motivated by a desire to get the fee and make your interest is made secondary.
A LAWYER SHOULD BE PAID FOR TIME, NOTHING MORE. If your lawyer is permitted to negotiate his or her fee beyond time charges as part of an overall settlement, you will never know whether that lawyer’s hand is in your pockets. For example, let’s say that you and your lawyer decide that your spouse should pay you $200,000 as a reasonable property settlement and that your lawyer can negotiate the fee. Then let’s say that your lawyer says to the other lawyer, “I want $200,000 plus my fee”. The other lawyer says, “I’ll give you $150,000 plus $50,000 for your fee.” Your lawyer now knows that there is $50,000 available for fees, even though time charges may be only $10,000. If your lawyer tries to convince you to take $150,000 and he or she takes $50,000 as fees in that settlement, you have been robbed!
BEWARE OF THE BONUS. Lawyers’ skill, reputation and experience is reflected in their time charges. Experienced counsel might charge $250 to $500 per hour. Less experienced counsel might charge in the range of $100 to $200. They are not entitled to bonuses or extra compensation and you should not agree to pay any! A manipulative lawyer might ask you to agree to a bonus, say $25,000, in the event “exceptional” results are obtained for you. The unscrupulous lawyer may “condition” you to expect a modest result by underselling expectations, misleading you by convincing you that you will get less than you should. Then, when a result is obtained that is quite ordinary, it appears wondrous and, bingo!, you are only too willing to pay a bonus.
Assume that your lawyer tells you that a reasonable settlement will be for your spouse to pay you $100,000, but your lawyer knows that more is available—maybe because the other lawyer has already made an offer far in excess of $100,000. When $200,000 is formally offered, the stage is set for a bonus request. Don’t agree to it and don’t pay it!
There is nothing wrong with your having a second lawyer in the wings to confer with from time to time to make certain that things are staying on track. Look out, however, when that second lawyer becomes overly critical of your main counsel. The, criticism may be unfair, possibly motivated by a desire to take over the case.
Despite the tone of this article, be assured that there are professional, decent and legitimate lawyers out there. Be sure that you find one. Try to get a referral from someone who has been through a divorce. Remember, you are looking for a lawyer you can trust who has your interest in mind. Do not compare results with the person who refers a lawyer to you; no two cases are alike and results vary according to a number of factors, including who the parties are, who the lawyers are, who the judge is, and the particular facts of each case.
FIND THE RIGHT LAWYER,
GET THROUGH THE PROCESS QUICKLY
WHILE STAYING ALERT,
AND GO ON WITH YOUR LIFE!