If you or a loved one are facing divorce in California, deciding what help you need can be daunting. There are so many lawyers out there. Whom should you pick? How about the one who promises to take the gloves off? How about the pictures of gavels and cherry-paneled law libraries? The one that charges the lowest retainer? The one with the most experience?
When I went through my divorce 10 years ago my first inclination was to go for someone aggressive who could make my ex sorry she left. But I was lucky enough to learn from some colleagues that such a strategy is a recipe for heartache and poverty. My values placed my relationship to the children ahead of all else, with a strong second place given to avoiding attorneys fees and costs. I got my case into mediation and settled without going to court.
Many divorce lawyers want to sell you their most expensive product: litigation. The sell usually relies heavily on fear of loss, with heavy doses of “you’ve got to protect yourself.” They’ll show you all the problems and describe themselves as the solution.
Divorce lawyers have a classic, built-in conflict of interest. If you settle quickly the case is much less lucrative for them. On the other hand, if you have conflict, and a war chest to spend, the more conflict, the more the attorney makes.
Several years ago Tammy and I mediated a case that was reviewed by one of the top-tiered, certified specialist firms in San Diego County. We had the case settled amicably, and all that was left was for the parties to get their financial disclosures and settlement papers reviewed by an outside lawyer. We always recommend such a review in mediation cases because as neutral mediators, Tammy and I can’t tell you, the party, whether your settlement is a good deal. I encourage parties to take the settlements for review with a lawyer who represents just them.
After seeing this lawyer, the person’s trust for the other party plummeted like a boulder dropped off a cliff. The party left our office with a high level of trust in the settlement’s fairness, and with the ability to deal with the other parent intact. After seeing the lawyer, however, the party was sure that the other spouse was hiding assets, understating their true income, and wanted to see years and years of the parties bank statements.
This is what can happen when you hire a lawyer who doesn’t share your values and goals. In mediation, we try to follow the advice of countless divorce professionals who have been divorced themselves: try as hard as you can to avoid court. Court tends to polarize the parties, reduce trust, and worst of all, it places major decisions in the hands of decision makers who might not share your values and goals.
I’m not saying there’s no place for aggressive lawyering. If your ex is a true scoundrel, or if your goal is truly revenge, and money’s no object, have at it. If in your value system getting “everything you’re entitled to” is the highest priority, go with the lawyer who will leave no stone unturned.
But if your values run more toward preserving family and relationships, and you want to keep your transaction costs down, communicate those goals to your attorney. If that attorney insists on a mountain of discovery requests, subpoenas and complicated motions, it may be time to find a different lawyer. I find that most lawyers are set in their ways, and feel that they know how to play the game, if only they can get you to go along.
If you want to settle your case with a minimum of cost and heartache, avoid the gavels and the cherry-paneled walls. Get your case into mediation, and at your attorney review, tell the attorney you have decided not to sweat the small stuff. Until next time …
Love your family,
Protect your finances, and
Reach for your future!
Thomas D. Ferreira, Esq.