Many people email or call to share their stories with me. Most are on the other, too often losing, end of a divorce and custody battle. However, a significant number are stuck in the legal system. Either they’ve had trouble securing a lawyer who represents them properly, are almost out of money and are having to decide whether they need to make a switch, or they’re already on the receiving end of the divorce gamesmanship I describe in my book and, like me, need a crackerjack lawyer yesterday. Although the system is so complicated as to be obtuse, the only fighting chance you have is to find the very best attorney you can. Not just the best person or the one who did a good job for your friends; the best lawyer for you. This is first of a 3-part series I wrote as a biweekly contributor to www.hopeafterdivorce.org, which shares my columns with www.lafamily.com, www.familyshare.com, and other family oriented websites and magazines.
When I was “shopping” for a divorce attorney, I was already on the receiving end of much of the divorce gamesmanship I write about in my book. In short, this wasn’t leisurely, thoughtful mall-style shopping. This was a smash-and-grab at the Rite Aid.
From my backyard office, the only place I could talk out of earshot, I desperately secured the attorney who yanked me out from the 8-ball I’d trembled behind since my husband began employing brutal tactics to set me up. Not only did my attorney deflect the nasty gamesmanship, he negotiated a fair outcome in an astonishing two and a half months. After hearing dozens of terrifying stories from people who were victimized and couldn’t recover, I began to see Bruce as a legal miracle.
There are two approaches to modern divorce: litigation and negotiation. The hard-line litigation approach produces an outcome of one winner and one loser while the negotiation, or “collaborative” method, strives for a win-win.
Yet, Bruce seemed to fall somewhere in between. He aimed to mediate, but the forces against us were formidable. He knew how to step it up, call the other counsel on her game-playing, and swiftly put a stop to it.
So I dialed up my go-to divorce lawyer source, Randall M. Kessler, 2011-2012 Chair of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association and founder of Kessler & Solomiany of Atlanta. I asked him what lawyers do when they face divorce. Surely there was some magic in it so I could help others find expert counsel without fortuitously stumbling on it as I did.
Alas, Kessler says, lawyers are as emotional and confused going through divorce as are the rest of us. But following wise advice and finding like-minded counsel can provide the best results.
- Your first goal is to avoid court. You do not want counsel who is afraid to litigate, but “very few people are happy they went to court,” Kessler says. An enormous mistake many divorcing spouses make, and which some attorneys exploit by not setting them straight, is they think the judge needs to hear all the evidence they’ve gathered against the spouse, and the minute details of the personal situation, how the spouse has been wronged, et cetera. “The judge will not care about all the inside information you’re harboring,” Kessler says. “This is not about that. It’s about solving a problem. How do two households live on the same funds as the original one?”
- The more you know the facts about your household and how the divorce system works, the more successful your mediation will be. In any divorce, “There’s a risk you’ll be taken advantage of, and the main thing is to make sure you have all the information,” Kessler says. “Get the facts. How much money is there? Where is it? What is there to divide?”
- You must have some idea of the laws in your state. “Educate yourself about what the divorce legal system looks like from the inside. Find the child support guidelines online. Find out how property is divided in your state.”
- What do you think is fair? “Nine times out of 10, it’s going to be a close approximation,” Kessler says. “Generally, this is very common-sensical. When you’re being objective, you can see all the reasonable possibilities.”
- Putting emotions aside is a tricky proposition in the throes of any divorce, but getting the specifics down is the key. A parallel exercise Kessler recommends is to “step outside of your shoes and pretend it’s a friend’s divorce.”
- A central problem in most divorces is to figure out how children will spend quality time with both parents. “Solve that problem, solve the financial situation. It doesn’t help to draw it out.”
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, realize people are people, and appeal to their human nature. “One thing that I always try to convey to my clients is that people are less likely to do things because they have to, and more likely to do things because they want to,” Kessler says. “You have to ask them, not force them. Make people want to do things. Litigation makes them have to do it. Mediation makes them want to do it. Wouldn’t you rather face something that you want to do, rather than something you have to do?”
This is what I experienced as we abandoned the bloody divorce battleground and set about following a constructive road map for the future. I am convinced the quality of my attorney more than helped create the possibilities my ex and I drew on to be successful co-parents. But keep the above in mind when lawyer-shopping, and you stand the best chance of satisfaction with your purchase.