"So far, Jane's divorce has cost us about $120,000. It'll probably be closer to $150,000 by the time the dust settles." Micheal, a Chicago-based architect, is speaking about his fiancee's extremely bitter split with her ex-husband. "We hired the best divorce lawyer money could buy, and it was worth every penny," he asserts forcefully.
On the other side of the coin is Susan, an assistant editor at a Toronto newspaper. "We each entered the marriage with nothing, and we left with nothing," says Susan. "No kids, no money, no investments, no assets. Since we managed to remain on good terms throughout our separation, we opted for a do-it-yourself divorce. Our divorce agreement basically consisted of us saying, 'You take the microwave, I'll take the TV set'," she adds.
If you're like most separated North Americans, your situation is probably somewhere between Jane's and Susan's: you've acquired some assets -- or children -- during your marriage, and you and your ex are relatively civil to one another most of the time. You've also probably never had occasion to retain a divorce lawyer before, and may have no idea how to go about finding the divorce lawyer who's right for you.
"Unfortunately, many people spend less time searching for a family lawyer to handle their divorce than they do shopping for a new car, home, or apartment," says Lester Wallman, a partner in the New York family-law firm Wallman, Greenberg, Gasman, & McKnight and the author of Cupid, Couples & Contracts: A Guide to Living Together, Prenuptial Agreements, and Divorce (Mastermedia). "It's shocking when you consider that their future, money, property, and the custody and support of their children may be forever affected by the quality of the divorce lawyer they choose."
Finding the right divorce lawyer is critical for your divorce and you can begin your search by talking to those you know: ask for recommendations from a close friend or family member (your friends and your family -- not your spouse's) who have been through divorce themselves. If you can't get any personal recommendations, there are professional organizations that offer family-lawyer referral services, such as The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (312-263-6477, www.aaml.org), The American Bar Association -- Family Law Section (800-454-8432 or 312-263-6477, www.abanet.org), and The Law Society of Upper Canada (800-268-8326 or 416-947-3330, www.lsuc.on.ca). Ask for two or three names of local lawyers who devote their practice to family law. Also, check your phonebook for the number of your local Bar Association.
Visit a library and take a look at the "Martindale-Hubbell" -- a seven-volume compendium of lawyers categorized by state and ability. Read the biographies, and make sure the attorneys you select specialize in matrimonial or family law. You could also visit a courthouse in order to see lawyers in action; call the clerk's office to obtain dates and locations of cases and hearings.
"How much" lawyer do you actually need? The best (and most expensive) litigator money can buy, or someone who can handle the whole thing quickly and inexpensively? Is it important to find a lawyer who's "compatible" with you: one who understands and respects your thoughts and feelings about your divorce? Or can -- and more importantly, should -- you handle your divorce yourself?
Your answers to these questions will be determined by your own unique circumstances. Here are some basic guidelines to help put you on the right track.
Finding a divorce lawyer
Choosing which divorce lawyer will represent you may be the most important decision you'll make during your divorce proceedings. As in any profession, there are good divorce lawyers and bad divorce lawyers. It's up to you to do your homework -- and to ask the right questions -- to determine which group your family attorney falls into.
"The ideal family lawyer lets you participate in a discussion about your situation and is not afraid to tell you at the outset advice and information you may not want to hear," states Michael Cochrane, a Toronto-based family lawyer and divorce mediator with Ricketts Harris, and the author of Surviving Your Divorce: A Guide to Canadian Family Law (John Wiley Canada, 1999). "After spending 30 minutes with this divorce lawyer, you can answer three questions: Do I feel comfortable with this person? Do I respect his or her opinion? Does this person respect mine?"
Look for someone who:
Choose a Specialist
In each divorce, different issues come up that require special attention; so it is best to find a divorce lawyer who concentrates on the specific issues that may arise in your divorce. Here are some examples:
Little firm, big firm
You also need to decide whether you'd like to be represented by a sole practitioner or a full-service family-law firm. Your choice will be partially dictated by your spouse's choice: if the divorce is relatively easy and friendly, you can probably agree on what kind of representation you need. If the divorce is very bitter; if there are children, money, or large assets at stake; or if your spouse is just plain "out to get you", consider hiring a "top gun" -- whether that be a well-respected individual or a team of lawyers at a prestigious firm.
The main advantage to hiring a sole practitioner is that you know exactly who will be working on your case; in bigger firms, the lawyer you speak to initially may not be the one who does the bulk of the work on your case. You will get to know your sole practitioner well, which should make office visits or phone conversations a little more comfortable.
"Many people prefer to have this kind of one-on-one relationship with their lawyer," says Lois Brenner, a Manhattan divorce lawyer and co-author of Getting Your Fair Share (Crown Publishers). "Divorce is a very personal and psychological thing. Having a closer connection with a family lawyer allows a client to feel comfortable and offers him or her the chance to give input." A sole practitioner will usually be less expensive than a big family-law firm, although some top practitioners can be quite pricey.
If you're looking for a divorce law firm to represent you, remember that they come in all types and sizes. A firm can be three lawyers and a few paralegals, or 100 lawyers and more than 20 paralegals. You can hire a general practice firm that deals with various areas of the law and has a smaller department that handles divorce and family law, or a matrimonial firm that handles only matrimonial matters. "In this world of specialization, it can be essential to have an attorney or firm that deals with family-law cases on a regular basis," says Bernard Rinella, a Fellow of the AAML and a partner in Rinella and Rinella, one of the oldest matrimonial law firms in Illinois. "A general practitioner wouldn't know the everyday workings of divorce law that a matrimonial attorney would deal with daily."
Donald Schiller of Schiller, DuCanto and Fleck, the largest family-law firm in the US, agrees. "In a divorce, there's a lot at stake and a lot of issues. Having a family-law firm allows a client to have a huge fund of knowledge and several divorce lawyers to back them up on every aspect of divorce law."
A full-service firm can give you access to specialists in other fields if your case requires it. "You can get everything done in-house," says Malcolm Kronby, a Certified Specialist in Family Law practicing at Epstein Cole and the author of Canadian Family Law (Stoddart Publishing, 1997). A full-service firm can handle complications such as shareholders' agreements, business organization or reorganization, tax-driven settlements (including asset transfers), establishment of family trusts, real-estate transfers, or estate planning. There may be a number of people handling your case at a big firm, which has its own set of pros and cons. One advantage is that you get the experience of a senior lawyer while lower-priced associates, paralegals, and legal secretaries handle some of the standard elements of your case, saving you money.
But most importantly, Cartier stresses the importance of looking at your individual divorce lawyer's ability handle your case. "Size doesn't always matter," she says. "If your particular lawyer listens to your wants and needs and does all he can to achieve them, it doesn't matter if he is with a law firm of two or of fifty."
The initial interview
The outcome of your divorce proceedings will change the course of your life forever, so invest the time and money to find the lawyer who will do the best job for you. "When looking for a lawyer, you should interview two or three prospective professionals before deciding who'll represent you," advises Phyllis Soloman, a New York City lawyer and the former president of the National Conference of the Women's Bar Association. Remember: it's your responsibility to retain a lawyer who's not only good at his or her job, but one whose personality and outlook are compatible with yours.
Here are the questions you should ask during your initial interview:
Sometimes, despite their best efforts, people end up choosing the wrong lawyers. "Normally, a client will gravitate to the lawyer who will fulfill his or her needs -- whether that be for a tough litigator or low-key negotiator," observes David Wildstein, who heads the matrimonial practice at Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in NJ. If it's clear that you've chosen the wrong lawyer, he says, don't compound the problem by sticking with them to the bitter end. "You'll either prolong the process unnecessarily, or end up with an unacceptable settlement," says Wildstein.
What your divorce lawyer needs to know
You'll also need to provide information to your prospective lawyer during your initial interview. The better prepared you are for this meeting, the more you'll get out of it. Just as you're searching for the ideal divorce lawyer, the lawyer is hoping you'll be the ideal client: calm, businesslike, competent, and well prepared. "Ideal clients are organized; are willing to work together with me to attain their goals; and are willing to listen to my advice, pay their bills on time, and settle if possible, instead of tapping into their children's college fund," says Soloman.
Of course every case is unique, but the following checklist will give you an idea of what information your lawyer is looking for during your first meeting. You need to disclose:
Should I handle my own divorce?
People are attracted to do-it-yourself (also known as Pro Se, which is a Latin phrase meaning "for yourself") divorces because they are supposed to save both time and money. Unfortunately, most divorces are relatively complicated -- involving complex property transfers and their tax implications; plus the issues of support, custody, and access if children or an unemployed spouse are involved. You'll also have to be able to prove grounds for your own divorce.
If you want to try the pro se route, there are some resources available to help you. Check with your local community college, adult education center, or community center to see if they offer classes on divorce. There are some low-cost legal clinics that will fill out your forms and review your separation agreement to make sure the paperwork is complete before it's filed with the court.
"Lay people can get themselves into more trouble when they try to handle their own divorce because they don't know the procedural ropes, where to file, etc.," cautions Connolly Oyler, a family lawyer and past-president of the Santa Monica Bar Association in California. "They also don't know substantively what they're entitled to. There are a hundred and one pitfalls."
If you do create your separation agreement yourselves, both you and your spouse should each retain an independent lawyer to check all papers before signing -- even if the divorce is "friendly" and you think your agreement is very straightforward.
A quality do-it-yourself kit or book will provide a good introduction to the divorce process. If your divorce is very simple and completely uncontested, a kit may be all you need. But if things turn nasty, or you suspect your spouse is trying to trick you into agreeing to a settlement that really isn't in your best interests, you'll need to consult a lawyer -- who may have to charge you even more money to undo what you did prior to retaining him/her.
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