Working With Your Divorce Attorney
1. Choosing your attorney: Choosing your attorney is one of the most important decisions in your case. The attorney often sets the tone for the case, and how the case begins will often dictate both the emotional and financial costs of the case.
It is good to select a firm that has at least two attorneys that practice exclusively in the area of family law. Family law is often subjective and discretionary, and it can be beneficial to have more than one attorney to bounce ideas off of and to brainstorm with. It will also provide you additional security knowing that if "your" attorney is not available due to trial or vacation, there is another attorney in the office that can help you with your matter.
You should strongly consider only hiring a Certified Family Law Specialist. Certified Family Law Specialists are attorneys committed through certification to keeping up his or her proficiency through continual practice and continuing education. Certified Specialists have taken and passed a written examination in Family Law; demonstrated a high level of experience in Family Law; fulfilled ongoing education requirements; and been favorably evaluated by other attorneys and judges familiar with his or her work.
When making an appointment with an attorney, ask if there is a fee for the consultation. Be wary of attorneys who don't charge for their consultation. We charge our hourly rate for our consultation, and this is often the most important meeting you will have with your attorney. We will discuss your goals and concerns, how the law fits into your situation, our strategy for handling the case, and your rights and responsibilities during the process. We also explain the divorce process and what your next steps will be. As this is important information, you should be willing to pay for the attorney's time and knowledge. You don't need to meet with numerous attorneys, but you should find someone that you are comfortable with and whose judgment you trust.
Realize that there is a difference between advocacy and unnecessary aggressiveness. A skilled attorney will work with you and your spouse's attorney to solve problems. An unnecessarily aggressive attorney will make more problems. The lawyer's job is not to make your spouse miserable or to create additional conflict between the parties. Good lawyers don't have to send nasty letters or pound their fists on the table; they let the results speak for themselves. We are however equipped to handle overly aggressive attorneys taking measures to protect your interests when opposing counsel is unreasonable. An unskilled attorney will simply pander to their client's every desire, even unreasonable requests. This only increases attorney's fees and creates more bad will between the parties. A good attorney will tell you when you are being unreasonable or unrealistic and may not always agree with your position or request. Rely on the experience of that attorney. He or she has likely been involved with hundreds of divorces. This is likely your first experience with the process.
2. Your initial interview: We suggest that you bring your most recent tax return, you and /or your spouse's last pay check stub, and a list of assets and debts with you to the first meeting. If you don't have access to these documents, that is fine; we can obtain them later. You should also bring a list of questions so that we make sure to cover all of your concerns. In our office, we will have you complete an intake sheet which provides us with information that we will likely need at some point in time during the case. Other than discussing the process and your options for resolution, the attorney will also discuss issues as they pertain to your case. These may include:
- Custody of children, if any
- Child and Spousal Support
- Property Valuation and Division
- Premarital or Inherited Assets
- Attorney fees
- Insurance (health, life)
You should feel free to be honest and forthright with your attorney. We cannot correctly advise you if we don't have all of the information. Our discussion is confidential pursuant to attorney-client privelege and we are non-judgmental.
The attorney should listen to your goals and concerns and advise you on your options, including alternative dispute resolution. If the attorney only discusses litigation and it is your desire to only end up in court as a last resort, that attorney may not be the best fit for you.
3. Retaining your attorney: If you decide to work with our firm, we will request an initial retainer and have you sign an engagement letter. The amount will vary based upon the complexity of your situation, the size of your estate and the manner in which you hope to resolve your situation (litigation, mediation, collaborative law, private judge). It is nearly impossible for us to quote you or estimate the total cost of the litigation as we cannot control how your spouse or his/her attorney acts or responds to the situation. However, we do use a "team" approach in office so that our paralegals or associate attorneys may be able to complete some of the work in your case at their lesser rate. The retainer is not a cap or flat fee, but rather a deposit toward future fees. Unlike many firms, our retainer is refundable if not used in its entirety. If the retainer is used entirely and the case is still pending, we will request an additional retainer to be applied toward future services.
4. The process: The case is often divided up into three issues: child related issues (if any), support, and property division. There are also dual agendas. There is the process of resolving the issues listed above, but there are also the emotional issues surrounding a divorce. Often one of the difficulties in the process is that each spouse is in a different place emotionally with regard to the divorce. One spouse may have been considering the divorce for several months, while the other spouse may have only recently learned and been blind-sided by the fact that their partner no longer wants to be with them. The feelings of anger, fear, embarrassment, betrayal, etc. are normal, but best dealt with in therapy, and we can refer you to an individual therapist to help you deal with your feelings. However, these feelings will not necessarily be helpful in the divorce process as California is a "no-fault" state, and a spouse cannot be rewarded or punished for their behavior. Often, these emotional issues only increase attorney's fees and reduce the total estate left for you and your children. By the same token, you cannot control how your spouse reacts to this process, and his or her feelings may get in the way of resolving this case.
If you have children together, it is important to remember that your former spouse is going to be in your life for the indefinite future. Just because you are divorcing one another doesn't mean that you won't have to deal with each other. Even after your children are grown, there will still be graduations, weddings, and grandchildren that you will both likely want to be a part of in the future. Don't burn your bridges with your spouse or children as this may have long range effects later in your life.
With regard to issues related to support and assets, you have a duty to make a full disclosure of all of your income and assets. You may also be requested to produce "discovery", which means that you will provide documents or answer questions related to your situation. We can request the same of your spouse if necessary. While it may feel hostile or intrusive to have to produce documents, California has a very liberal disclosure policy. Unless the request is totally unreasonable, you should timely cooperate with discovery requests. Not doing so will not only create more conflict and distrust, but increase attorney's fees and the end result will be the same; you will still likely have to produce the requested discovery given California's policy and the fiduciary duty between spouses.
We hope that you will decide to work with our firm on your family law matter. This is often the most difficult time in your life and choosing the right attorney can have an effect on the rest of your life. We have the skill, knowledge, experience and empathy to assist you with your matter, and we look forward to assisting you with the process.