Posted on January 19, 2016
The statistics vary, but it is noted that between 60 and 70% of the litigants in Family Court (the courts that process divorces and other family law matters) are self-represented, meaning they do not have an attorney. Of that 60 to 70%, about half of the individuals can afford an attorney, but are opting not to hire one. The other half are not able to afford an attorney. So why are litigants choosing to represent themselves if they can afford an attorney? Let’s explore the benefits of hiring a divorce attorney and why a divorce attorney is a sound investment.
Any litigant, whether they have an attorney or are self-represented, is expected to know and follow the rules of procedure and evidence. An attorney goes to college for 4 years, and then law school for an additional 3 years, for a total of 7 years of education beyond high school. After graduation from law school, it takes at least 5 years of being in a specific practice field to have a good handle on typical matters. This experience enables an attorney to conduct themselves appropriately in hearings and navigate any unexpected situations, questions from the court, and so forth. That is a total of twelve years of education and experience that an attorney has over a self-represented party.
Next, is the issue of asset protection. If there is a pension that needs to be divided, an attorney will know that a separate domestic relations order will need to be prepared to properly divide that account. Otherwise, the non-pensioned spouse will almost certainly have their community property interest in that pension affected. This is just one of the many issues that can fall through the cracks when a litigant fails to have a professional handling their divorce case for them.
Why do litigants think they can trust the spouse they are divorcing when it comes to equally dividing property? The court puts the onus on the parties to disclose the assets and debts, so an asset can easily be left off the “balance sheet”, either intentionally or inadvertently, especially when there are no attorneys involved. If an asset is omitted when an attorney is handling the matter, the omission has the potential to be located, found and disclosed or the attorney can seek court orders to rectify the omission. Why not have it done right the first time?
But what about the belief that a divorce attorney will cost too much or that they just want to rip you off? Our Family Law Courts involve a small circle of family law attorneys and judges. Over the years, we get to know one another and reputations are formed and shared. We know that our reputations are everything. Just off the cuff, I’d estimate that at least 90% of the family law attorneys I practice amongst are ethical, straight-shooting people who value their profession and feel honored and privileged to be able to practice it. Those attorneys (myself included) are not going to “run up a bill” unless the work done justifies the outcome being sought. A good attorney will treat your pocket book as they would their own. We will almost always do a cost/benefit analysis when determining whether to take a certain action by discerning the size of the estate we are dividing versus the cost of the action being contemplated. The other 10% of divorce attorneys unaccounted for could consist of misunderstandings between client and attorney, poor decisions or even rogue attorneys who do put their own pocketbook above yours. They are by far the exception.
So what is your call to action after reading this? Take advantage of those attorneys that offer free consultations and meet with several different attorneys. Come prepared to ask each attorney a string of the same questions so you can compare apples to apples. Then ask some other questions as they occur to you to gauge the attorney’s knowledge base and personality. Make sure you comply with the time they allot to a free consultation (mine is 30 minutes) because it is, after all, free. Disclose your concerns to the attorney in advance, and throughout the representation as to how important it is to you that your divorce fees not exceed a certain amount. Don’t be afraid to have candid conversations with your attorney about fees and whether actions are necessary or recommended.
I have practiced family law for eighteen years and could not imagine representing myself in a divorce if I didn’t know what I know now. I urge all self-represented parties to take the suggestions discussed in this article into consideration.