Navigating the Contested Divorce Process Requires an Experienced Attorney
It's always a sad day when parents, who once loved each other, can no longer be together. When a marriage ends, it's not only the couple that experiences loss. The children do too. When your family breaks apart, everyone is forced to adjust to a new life, and, as a result, there will be times when you have to deal with a variety of issues that come up because of the breakup. Minimizing these factors makes retaining an experienced divorce lawyer you can trust, who understands your specific situation and is sensitive to the nuances of your conflict (inside and outside the courtroom), a crucial next step.
The Matrimonial Labyrinth
Divorce is a major event in one’s life, where a state court’s judge or official, can determine the many future rights and responsibilities of the parties. When personal promises made in marriage vows no longer serve or survive the realities of the present relationship and dissolution is determined to be the only alternative, the state laws come into effect. Suppose the parties do not agree along every single line involved in the legal end to their marriage. In that case, it becomes a “contested divorce” – a maze, unfamiliar to most parties, requiring a professional guide to help you avoid or manage the pitfalls of the divorce process.
The requirements for divorce vary from one state to another. One state may require a waiting period for a divorce to be finalized, while another may not. Some states require no waiting period. A good Family Law Attorney will know how to represent your interests, explain all possible outcomes, develop a sound legal strategy in divorce proceedings and give you an edge in negotiations – all in accordance with the laws of the state where your divorce takes place.
Many Issues to Be Considered
There is an assortment of issues to be negotiated, discussed, and resolved during a divorce, including, but not limited to:
- Spousal support or maintenance
- Assets requiring professional valuation and division such as business interests and real estate.
- Child support
- Child custody, visitation, and related childcare issues
You Need More Than a General Practitioner. You Need a Specialist in Family Law
The above mentioned issues exist in an ever changing environment of new statutes, new case holdings, and new procedural requirements. Family Law is a quickly evolving segment of the legal system, and it is not a place for practice by a general or non-matrimonial legal professional.
In every case, a party to a contested divorce proceeding is in immediate and constant need of someone who intimately knows the Family Court system, is locally and professionally resourceful, and who has the means to keep abreast of the rules and procedures, which, in the era of COVID, can change daily. An ability to keep one’s finger on the pulse is too important to leave to chance and should be handled by a seasoned Family Law Attorney. This is particularly true in cases, for example, where one parent is struggling with alcohol misuse, which often comes with built-in urgencies that need to be addressed by a proficient Family Law Professional, who is equipped to hit the ground running at a moment’s notice and who is allied with forensic psychology practitioners.
In emphasizing the importance of a Family Law Attorney who is educated when alcohol misuse is a concern, Reagan Riddle, a partner at Armstrong Divorce and Family Law, explained, “At our firm, at least, we do a lot of outside education, not just between the lawyers going to CLEs or anything like that. We actually bring in outside therapists who have substance abuse backgrounds . . .”
Not to mention, your divorce attorney serves as a trusted Family Law advisor regarding the confluence of your financial and parental rights and interests.
Understanding the Commencement Process—A Letter from a Divorce Lawyer
Quite often, the first indication of a divorce proceeding comes via a lawyer’s letter, which is a communication advising the (then) unrepresented spouse that a divorce is being sought and suggesting that the services of a lawyer be engaged on the recipient’s behalf so that the parties might settle the differences between them and make attempts to resolve their financial, child custody and visitation matters, without the need for a judge or the state to intervene.
A great deal of money and time can be saved by working with a knowledgeable legal professional who can help prepare a case strategy and negotiate a resolution that will result in an amicable divorce, both financially and emotionally, while avoiding potential disputes with your spouse in the courtroom.
Commencement by Serving Formal Papers
On other occasions, often where there is a great deal of animosity between the parties, or there are other reasons for formal commencement of proceedings, the divorce process starts with the serving of a pleading, often in the form of a summons and complaint, which are formal court papers that are time-sensitive and must be responded to by a specified deadline by the person served.
An Immediate Response Required by the Contacted Spouse
Upon the receipt of an attorney’s letter, the recipient should rapidly obtain a divorce lawyer. Upon receipt of a summons and complaint, the need for speed is paramount in obtaining a competent divorce lawyer, to avoid having a default in answering occur, and the defaulting spouse being significantly disadvantaged.
Finding a Divorce Attorney—Personal Recommendations
You can start the process of finding a good divorce attorney by reaching out to friends, family, colleagues, or co-workers for referrals. Often, the best source for finding a divorce attorney is an attorney you know and trust in another practice area. Perhaps you have previously hired counsel to do your Will, or your house closing. When making this request, emphasize that you are seeking one who specializes in divorce. Depending on your comfort level with this person, it may behoove you to be up front about significant concerns that stand to overshadow your divorce like the matter of alcohol misuse.
When you know the source of the referral, you may feel more at ease than by using another method of obtaining a Family Law Attorney.
The Limitations of Personal Recommendations
It is important to remember that just because someone you know had a positive experience with a divorce lawyer, it doesn’t mean you will. Every case is different; every client relationship with counsel is different, and what worked for your friend, might not work for you.
Your issues may be different; your incomes and assets are likely different; your custody and visitation needs may be different.
Remember though, that personal recommendations may be useful in constructing a list of possible Family Law Attorney prospects to represent you in your unique divorce situation.
But, when you come up against a dead end, it may benefit you to immediately begin scouring the lawyer review sites… as well as other independent sites, including those that publish crowd-sourced reviews about businesses.
Finding the Right Lawyer for You—Online Searches
Online searches are becoming more and more common in Family Law, and when conducting an online search, you should carefully review the credentials of the lawyer, the years of experience, any publications that they might have authored, Continuing Legal Education seminars they may have conducted, and any articles or news items on (and off) their website.
On-Line Searches for a Divorce Lawyer Have Limitations
Obviously, online searches are useful, but they are not perfect. They can serve as a process stage in the weeding out of lawyers, and the creation of a prospect list of divorce attorneys you will want to contact for a further exploration.
Finding Counsel—Bar Association Referral Services
Many local bar associations maintain what is known as a Lawyer Referral Service, consisting of members who have requested listing under various areas of practice, so that inquiring potential clients may be referred to them for a consultation, and possibly continuing representation.
Often, the initial consultation is at a low fixed price for the first half hour or so, and then the client and divorce lawyer make whatever financial arrangements for continued representation.
Frequently, in areas such as divorce law, a bar association member pays a fee to be listed with the Referral Service. Be aware that the mere listing of an attorney on the service’s platform is not an endorsement by the Referral Service of the lawyer’s expertise or knowledge. It is merely advising that the attorney who paid to be listed is seeking these types of cases.
Private Listing Services
There are also private listing services, some of which are free to the attorney, some of which require a subscription fee. These services’ vetting of attorneys may or may not be thorough. So, although a divorce lawyer may be recommended by one of these services, you still need to do a deeper dive into the details about the recommended lawyer’s experience, approach and personality.
Websites Underscore Some of the Law Firm’s Story
Always visit the law firm’s website. Often, in reviewing a law office’s website, you can get a feel for the tone of the firm. Do they emphasize aggressive representation? Do they take a collaborative approach to Family Law? Does the site merely appear to serve as a flat, online brochure, providing no discernable skill set that may be of significant advantage to you and value to your divorce case?
Keep in mind that on any law firm’s website, the attorneys are going to share the most flattering information. Most law firms are not going to post negative testimonials on their sites.
Therefore, in addition to reviewing the website of a divorce attorney, you should look for reviews of the firm or an individual attorney from clients on lawyer review sites. However, you should also bear in mind that (a) one or two bad reviews should not necessarily be a dealbreaker for you in deciding whether or not to hire the lawyer in question, especially if there are numerous positive reviews; there’s always someone who is going to be unhappy with the outcome of their case no matter how talented the attorney is considered to be by his or her peers and/or previous clients; and (b) one or two glowing reviews amid a vast majority of negative reviews from disgruntled clients may be a red flag.
The Initial Consultation as a Selection Tool
Once you’ve narrowed down the attorneys that interest you, you will need to schedule face-to-face initial consultations. At the time of this writing, “face to face” may mean a Zoom consultation, depending on the Covid situation and your city’s ordinances.
But whether in-person or virtual, remember that it is not just through words that information is gathered, it is also from verbal tone, and from the many visual clues we receive, which may be a bit more challenging to assess during a remote consultation.
Observations in the Initial Consultation
If you are making an in-person visit, you want to observe the general neatness and organization of the suite and the physical layout of the offices (if it’s an in-person consultation), the professionalism of the support staff, and how the phone is answered.
If you visit the office in person, these observations can provide insight into the type of firm you might be dealing with: Are the secretaries and clerks (if any) poorly dressed? Is the staff unprofessional in their manner of speaking to each other, their supervisors, and the clients?
That is a reflection on the supervising lawyers, and the opposite is, of course, also true; neat and professional support personnel indicate a law firm that cares about its image and its clients.
When you are ushered into the office, do you see a desk and floor piled with open files exploding papers and names of other clients exposed? If so, you may rightly wonder if your paperwork will get lost in the disarray.
Remember, once litigation starts, there is a definite time limit for various stages of the proceedings, and you want to be assured that your divorce lawyer will not lose track of your important dates in the mess of paperwork surrounding him or her. You also should be concerned about the confidentiality of your information if there appears to be no concern for the proper organization and storing of files of current clients.
The Initial Consultation—Free or Fee?
There are some firms that offer a free consultation and some that do not. It’s not always easy to determine which type of consultation you are going to receive; however, keep in mind that when it comes to divorce consultations, there is some truth to “you get what you pay for.” For a variety of reasons, paid consultations are often extraordinarily more thorough than free consultations. This is not to say that this is an indication of the quality of service you will receive once your retainer is fully executed, but the information and wisdom imparted during paid consultations can make a monumental difference in your understanding of your legal position when all is said and done.
Some attorneys who practice in the divorce field are loathe to offer free consultations because it happens (on not so rare occasions) that a party will come in for a free consultation, just to prevent their spouse from using that counsel in their divorce.
Some lawyers may offer to credit the initial consultation fee towards their retainer fee, if retained by the client.
But whether you pay or not for that initial consultation is but one item on your checklist of deciding factors. You are also there to get a feel for the firm, to see if you can work with the attorney(s), to see if they are only concerned about milking the most fees from your wallet, or genuinely invested in representing your interests, whether it requires a reasonable settlement, or a full-blown trial.
Speaking again with Reagan Riddle, she advises, “you just have to find somebody that is going to be a zealous advocate for you. And part of that process is meeting with your Family Law Attorney and having that first initial consult.”
The Retainer Agreement
States frequently require the signing of a retainer agreement prior to counsel representing a client in a divorce case. Further, the state will often, via statute or regulation, identify what topics, provisions and terms must be covered in such a retainer agreement, and what language must be included.
It is crucial that you carefully review any retainer agreement before you sign it, to confirm
- what the hourly rate is;
- how time is calculated (for example, an item might have a minimum 1/10 hour charge);
- what the procedures and policies are in the event of a fee dispute;
- how often you will be billed (which is sometimes mandated by statute); and
- other terms and provisions regarding your rights and responsibilities as a client.
Additional Considerations in Selecting Your Divorce Lawyer
A divorce proceeding involves more considerations than just procedural and substantive matters pertaining to financial matters and child custody and visitation concerns. The dedicated attorney, Riddle says, “We really try to pinpoint our client's goals and figure out a way to achieve those goals as seamlessly as possible.”
Often, the services of a forensic accountant are needed, where there are business interests and assets to be evaluated for distribution. Psychological experts may be needed in making determinations regarding which parent will obtain residence with the children and which will have visitation rights. If there are accusations of substance or alcohol misuse, agencies and/or alcohol monitoring entities, such as Soberlink, may factor into the divorce process. Soberlink’s court-admissible technology has been used for custody cases in courts across the U.S. to prove sobriety and provide peace of mind.
Ideally, you will want to make sure that the law attorney you choose has experience using various professionals and entities in these areas and will have a solid understanding of how best to present expert testimony in support of a client’s case, as well as how to best cross-examine opposing experts.
Does Your Counsel Have Non-Legal Experience/Education Valuable to Your Case?
Divorce practitioners sometimes wear many hats. Some have served as court-appointed guardians in parental rights cases, representing the children who are the subject of proceedings, and that can be invaluable experience. Some may have education and/or experience in psychology, and that can be significant in recognizing the various mental/emotional stresses which are experienced by a party to a divorce, especially when such highly emotional issues as who will raise the child, and who will have visitation issues are in play.
Some attorneys have training or education in the field of taxes and accounting, and this can be of service when the tax considerations of distribution of assets and income come into play within the divorce proceedings. Further, such knowledge makes a smoother interaction with independent financial experts that might have to be retained in the divorce and can have an immeasurable advantage for a party in a divorce action.
The Importance of Hiring a Divorce Lawyer with the Current Technologies Useful in Matrimonial Process
Technologically competent attorneys (or law firms in cases where an individual attorney may not be tech-savvy, but has a staff that is) are a necessity in a divorce matter. Many issues of divorce require skill sets such as competency in complicated calculations to determine distribution of marital assets, and there are various software programs that can perform these calculations quickly and accurately. Will the counsel you select have such programs?
Many documents are required in divorce proceedings, and your attorney should have the right software to save time, which lessens legal fees in the assembly of such documents. In settlement agreements, (should your case not require a trial) there are many boilerplate provisions in every case—standard language found in most agreements. You don’t want needless time and expenditure of fees in “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to drafting your documents and agreements.
Technology and the Substance Abuse Factor
It is an unfortunate truth that substance abuse often enters into a divorce proceeding. The National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted a 14-year study and found that substance abuse is one of the most common reasons for divorce.
Perhaps alcohol abuse or drug misuse has led to the divorce. Perhaps a party has begun using alcohol to self-medicate to deal with the emotionally charged proceedings of a contested divorce. Reagan Riddle reveals, “I have been seeing so many more - especially during this COVID time period - cases where alcohol abuse or substance abuse has increased exponentially. So, it's definitely coming up more and more in our cases.”
In such instances, there are technologies, including, but not limited to Soberlink technology, that can check and monitor alcohol usage in a party who is a parent. Family Law experts trust Soberlink because of the simple, easy-to-understand format that provides fast and accurate real-time reports. If substance abuse is an issue that could potentially figure into your divorce, your counsel should be up to speed on the available tools to detect problems which can have an impact on parental rights, and even financial issues in the divorce.
Recapping How to Find a Divorce Lawyer
As shown, the selection of an attorney to represent you in your divorce requires the consideration of many overlapping dynamics.
At a minimum, you need a lawyer who has a concentration in divorce and Family Law matters, with sufficient knowledge and experience to effectively represent your interests. It is also helpful if she or he has some familiarity with the judges in your jurisdiction who might determine not only the outcome of your divorce case, but the post-divorce future of your family and your co-parenting position.
Your attorney should be a good match for you on a personal level; she or he will possess intimate knowledge of your life, your marriage, your finances, and your family, requiring a continuing level of comfort.
Finally, your lawyer should have good working relations with ancillary experts that might be required in determining the distribution of assets and the parenting time to be spent with the children. Additionally, your divorce attorney should have sufficient technology to provide cost-efficient representation in your matter.