“I can’t afford a lawyer, but my spouse can afford to hire the best firm in town. How can I get my fair share?”
I always suggest to clients that, if they possibly can, they hire a lawyer. It doesn’t have to be the “best firm in town” — there is no such thing. Speak to your friends and colleagues; check around whichever town you live in for a lawyer that people you know have been happy with. A good lawyer doesn’t have to be the most expensive or the longest-practicing in town. They have to be competent, available, knowledgeable, and responsive.
By available, I mean available to return phone calls, meet with you, and help you organize your case, whether it is proceeding by way of litigation, mediation, collaboration, or strictly negotiation. They must be competent — in other words, have a reputation for doing a fair amount of the work in the area in which you are retaining them and to be knowledgeable about that area of law. You have to meet with them to see if you and they are a good fit and they are responsive to your predicament.
Many people think that they can act for themselves, but this is probably not a good idea. Perhaps you could work out monthly payments with your lawyer, or they could receive their fees from the sale of the matrimonial home; if necessary, you could borrow the money to pay for a lawyer. Too often, I see people really mess up their lives by trying to act on their own.
As a last resort, engage a lawyer and “unbundle the services,” which means that they will help you prepare the court documents and organize your thoughts to argue in court, but they do not actually go to court with you. Many lawyers are happy to do this, and at least you will know what you will have to do: your documents will be prepared in accordance with the rules governing the family-law procedure where you reside, or they can help you prepare the documents for negotiation and advise you.
One of the reasons that collaborative law, in which the parties and their lawyers engage as a settlement team, has become so popular is because, in my estimation, it is very effective in optimizing financial resources and promoting settlement.
People tend to equate the best lawyers with the most expensive, and that is a misconception. The best lawyer is probably the one best suited for you by temperament, personality, and philosophy as to how to handle your case.
Judith Holzman is a collaboratively trained family lawyer who has practiced for over 33 years in the Toronto and York Region area. She has participated in amendments to the Family Law Act (provincial) and the Divorce Act (federal) in the area of religious divorce.