I have found that when most people meet with me about their divorce, custody modification, or other related family law issues, they often ask whether the opposing attorney is tough, a fighter, or will tell me that they heard that their spouse’s attorney is a “real shark”, or worse.
Everyone wants a family law attorney that can handle the stress and strain of the courtroom appearance, and any lawyer can claim that he or she is tough, just like any politician can claim to represent your interests better than his opponent can. Being tough almost goes without saying, and it is too easy to say. The cliché that “actions speak louder than words” is a cliché because it is true more often than not.
Persons looking for a family law attorney should instead be aware of the following standards. These are all things that a client can assess on his or her own relatively quickly, and discover before it is too late.
Your attorney has to be able to stay calm and patient. Both sides of the divorce are usually as far from calm as they ever will be in their lives, and the children, grandparents, business partners and other people having to suffer the fallout from a divorce will be panicky as well. Your family lawyer should be able to deal with you in a calm, controlled manner. She should show patience with you, and with the other side as well. Panicking rarely, if ever, solves any problem.
II. WILLING TO SAY “NO!”…EVEN TO YOU.
A good attorney is candid about your chances in obtaining an outcome on any particular issue and should avoid making any promises the attorney cannot keep. Your attorney should also tell you if you are doing something wrong, or if you are wasting your time. Simply because a client wants something does not mean that it is the best thing for a client, or that it is the right thing to do.
While some clients may get upset when they find out that their attorney will not do everything that they are told, that is just the type of attorney that you should be looking for. Otherwise, your attorney will quickly get a reputation of asking for frivolous things or taking positions on issues that he knows the Court will not adopt. That makes it tougher for that attorney to be successful on truly close issues. Also, you deserve the best advice, not just the advice you wanted to hear in the first place.
III. USES TECHNOLOGY.
Property division, pension allocation, child support issues, and many other matters relating to divorce and custody rely on software programs to make efficient, intelligent decisions. If your attorney is not up to date on those issues, and is still using pencil and paper to formulate a property division, he is behind the times. He should also be able to communicate with you by email, and discuss with you the opportunities and advantages of electronic communication when parents and children are living apart. If your attorney has not kept up to date on technical issues, it is unlikely that he has kept up to date on legal issues either.
IV. KNOWS THE PLAYING FIELD
Your attorney will not be able to predict the future. She will not always know how a particular issue will be decided. She should have enough experience with the Judge, with the law, and with the other lawyer to intelligently analyze the probabilities. If you are asking your attorney to travel to another county or jurisdiction, she should discuss with you what she knows, and doesn’t know, about the judges and lawyers in that area. Divorce can be very court and judge specific, unlike many other areas of law.
V. PUT YOUR CHILDREN FIRST
I consistently tell clients in my first meeting with them that their children need to be their number one priority, and that they will be my number one priority as well. If I see a client who is in my opinion abusing, misusing, or manipulating their children in a divorce case, I will tell them to stop. If they do not, I quit. It is really that simple.
VI. KEEPS EYE ON IMPORTANT ISSUES.
I once had an attorney on the other side of a case send me a letter vilifying my client, and demanding that I take action to make sure that my client (who was living in the home and had the family’s personal computer), immediately EMAIL her client’s resume to her. Given the fact that the woman was less than 25 years of age, I would have thought that she could probably remember where she went to high school, and what jobs she had held since. This attorney was simply not willing to tell her client that this was not an important issue in the greater scheme of things, and that she should probably save her money for more important issues. Likewise, a client once asked me to file a contempt action after a final hearing in a divorce action. When the personal property was divided by the Court, he was to get the 60 foot garden hose from the side of the garage, and just knew that the garden hose’s disappearance was an intentional act designed to irritate him. I explained to him that it would have to be one heck of a garden hose to justify filing a contempt action, and again suggested that he spend his money in a more important area.
An attorney who gets distracted in court by pursuing arguments about whether a bicycle should be in mother’s home or father’s home will not be as effective in front of most trial judges in dealing with the more important issue of where the child should be.
VII. OPEN TO QUESTIONS.
Your attorney should answer your questions. If he cannot, he should tell you why not. If you do not think that you are getting a fair answer to your question, then write a letter or send an email. Frequently attorneys think that they have answered all a client’s questions, only to find that the client is still confused. Do yourself a favor and the attorney a favor and be sure to ask again. If you cannot receive an answer after that, then that attorney may not be for you. (Caveat: remember, your attorney cannot predict the future. If he could, he would be betting on football games in Las Vegas, not meeting with you at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon when the sun is shining, the fish are biting, and the beer is cold).
VIII. GOOD PRESENTATION TO YOU.
Remember, as a potential client, you are a potential boss. If the attorney does not behave, dress, and talk in a manner that provides good presentation to you, what makes you think she will do any better in front of a judge?
In the popular media, sometimes people think the best lawyer they can have is the one that is the sneakiest, or plays the closest to the edge of ethical, moral, or legal behavior. Resist the temptation to hire an attorney who acts like that. Judges will not let attorneys get away with that behavior for very long, opposing counsel tend to be much more difficult to work with (meaning you will be spending a lot more money) and ultimately you will have a more contentious divorce, with nothing to be gained to compensate you for the increased bitterness and expense.
X. SOLVES PROBLEMS.
If the attorney you are looking to hire simply talks in terms of winning and losing, get up and leave. By definition, every person going through a divorce suffers some loss, and certainly children are losers no matter what the outcome. What you want is an attorney who works to identify the problems, and solve the problems. Solutions to those problems may come by counseling, a word of wise advice to you, patience, mediation, or possible trial in front of a judge. No options should be foreclosed. Five years after the divorce, you will not be able to remember who “won” or “lost”, but you will remember whether the divorce was too expensive, whether your financial settlement or division was extremely unbalanced, and how your children either suffered or survived after resolution of your case. An attorney who does not work to solve problems before going to court will not be a good family law attorney.
It’s an emotional time, and an important decision. Take the extra time and steps to ensure it was the wise one.
Rockhill Pinnick LLP is a general practice firm in north central Indiana, with extensive experience in litigation, family law, and personal injury cases. The author of this article, Jay Rigdon, has practiced for over 25 years, and has taught at a variety of seminars for attorneys and others throughout the state. For more information, visit their website at www.rockhillpinnick.com. Mr. Rigdon is also a member of the LawGuru Attorney Network.