What to Expect from a Divorce Lawyer
As a divorce lawyer, I spend part of my days – when not in court, writing letters or motions, sending emails, or on the telephone – meeting with people I have never previously met, sitting at a table while they tell me how their marriage has fallen apart. In each of those meetings, the person across the table is considering hiring our law firm to represent him or her as an advocate, a guide, and a legal counselor through the difficult process of divorce litigation. Despite the very different paths that bring those individuals to our conference room, most divorce client prospects have common goals in their search for an advocate.
I often think of what it must be like on the other side of that table, to be the person looking for a lawyer with the right expertise, attitude, experience, skills, and temperament to be a guide through troubled times. The comparisons to the non-legal world, however, are scarce. In so very few professions is the personal connection to the client so very vital to the integrity and viability of the relationship.
From the moment a client walks into our firm for a consultation regarding divorce, my main priority is twofold: firstly, to offer comfort and a solid basis for trust, and secondly, to determine why it is that this prospective client is either seeking divorce or finds themselves defending an action filed by their spouse. I try to determine for myself, from the outset, whether a total dissolution of the marriage is what this person wants, or whether they are “considering their options,” for example, trying to envision what a divorce would mean for them financially. A dissolution action is a means to no other end than ending the marriage – a client who does not understand this concept is embarking on a perilous journey. In addition, at the forefront of my approach is the notion that the selection of an attorney for a divorce matter (much like choosing an attorney to defend against criminal charges) is not only the acquisition of an advocate, a fighter, a trusted advisor…but in many ways, is the selection of a client’s surrogate “best friend” for the next 6-8 months, year, or longer. If the chemistry is present, both the attorney and the client will know it within the first several minutes of the consult. For those looking for legal counsel, they must ask themselves if the attorney is truly listening to them. Is he or she engaged in the conversation? Does the attorney seem to want to “run the show” under any and all circumstances, or is he attuned to the desires of the client, and willing to offer advice and counsel? Will the attorney be flexible where necessary, and aggressive when needed? Does he or she have the style that the client prefers? Does he or she seem like a person with whom the client could have healthy disagreements, discussion, and accord? In that first consultation, if the client (or the attorney, for that matter) perceives there is a misconnection or a communication problem, it cannot be and should not be ignored.
A mentor of mine, also a trial lawyer, once compared the selection of a prospective juror to picking a person one would like to chat with at a cocktail party. You would like to have things in common, so that conversation doesn’t go stale; you understand each other, and you could fall back on one other when the rest of the party turns out to be a disaster. Choosing an attorney in a divorce action – and for that matter, choosing to represent a client in that type of capacity – goes far, far beyond that standard. You can expect the relationship to be tested, to be challenged, to be invigorating, inspiring, rewarding and difficult – often at the same time. A solid foundation, often formed during that initial consultation, will and should be the basis for sustaining the attorney-client relationship throughout the often emotional fray to come. Beyond finding comfort in an attorney’s legal abilities and experience (while these are very important indeed), a client should feel able and comfortable to speak about his or her mental health, childhood, details of the marriage, and motives – all without concern that the attorney will pass judgment on any level.
How long will the process take?
Clients almost invariably ask how long the process will take. The disheartening news for those looking for a quick answer is…it depends. On the one hand, clients can expect a battle of a year or (sometimes substantially) more in cases in which custody is contested, custody evaluations are ordered and a Guardian ad Litem is appointed to represent the best interest of the children, or where there are complex business valuation issues to be determined by experts. On the other hand, where custody disputes are nonexistent or relatively minor, and where neither party raises issues of fault as related to property distribution or alimony, it is possible to negotiate a settlement agreement within a few months. Much depends on the wants and expectations of the client, as well as the ability of the lawyer to advance those interests in an effective manner.
What if we kiss and make up?
It is important that every client retaining our firm understands the legal process they are about to undertake, as well as having a recognition that there is a legal mechanism for stalling the divorce to work on the marriage (to a point) – and that they can, of course, withdraw the action at any time. This type of discussion, however, goes to the commitment that a client must have to the ultimate goal; if he or she is already thinking about reconciliation or withdrawal of the action, he or she must also realize that psychologically and otherwise, merely the filing of the divorce action itself may well cause irreparable damage to the marriage. Most often, if a prospective client is sitting in our office, he or she is ready to proceed. Again, the client has to be true to himself or herself, and the prospective attorney is charged with encouraging the client to clearly state his or her goals and priorities.
What happens first once we decide to do this?
Once a client has decided to file for a dissolution, he or she can and should expect the retained lawyer to act as quickly as is required to start the action. If the circumstances justify immediate action for any reason, an effective counselor should be able to have a summons and complaint – together with any appropriate motions – served on the client’s spouse by a marshal in very short order. Where time is of the essence for any number of reasons, it is not uncommon for our firm to meet a prospect in the morning, execute a retainer agreement that day, gather additional facts during the afternoon, and arrange for a state marshal to serve the spouse that very same evening.
During the initial attorney consult, it is most important for a client to fully comprehend the Connecticut “automatic orders” for dissolution actions, and for the attorney and client to strategize concerning the impact of these orders once a case is served and filed. The orders, in essence, maintain the “status quo” during a divorce action; for example, prohibiting parties from incurring unreasonable debts, selling property, or locking the other spouse out of the house absent prior court approval. I have found that it never hurts to “drum” these into a client during the first several meetings, even to go over the written summary of the orders in detail; all too often, one party or another will act (or consider acting) outside the orders months afterward only to claim that he or she did not know what was permitted and what was not.
How will the case unfold, and what should I expect?
An experienced attorney, given enough uncensored information by a client, can start to envision where the case may (or could) go, how the assets might be distributed by a court, whether there will be alimony and how much, and what a custody arrangement might be. The answers to all these questions depend heavily on the facts, and weigh considerably on what claims will be made by the client’s spouse. As I tell every client – you know your spouse better than I ever will. You know the relationship better than I ever will. Educate me. Give me the information, and don’t forget the ammunition.
Perhaps the most useful responses I will receive during a consult are given when I ask the questions: “If your spouse were sitting here across from me instead of you, what would he or she say about you? What would he or she say about the marriage? About the children? About the finances?” By truly and honestly considering the other spouse’s position – or by merely attempting to – a client can greatly assist his or her lawyer in preparing for the major (and perhaps minor) issues in a case, well ahead of the curve. Notably, these types of questions often yield very different responses, depending on whether they are posed at the beginning or end of the consultation. Indeed, the more a client is honest and candid regarding information, history, and his or her spouse during the initial stages of the representation, the more accurate an attorney’s prediction will be concerning the road – and the cost – ahead.
“This is a straightforward divorce.”
This phrase is one which should be carefully – and almost universally – avoided by both the client and the attorney during the initial consult. For strategic reasons, a case – from the financial perspective or otherwise – may indeed be quite streamlined, almost “simple,” by the time it gets through the discovery process. However, a client’s effort to simplify a divorce during the initial consultation – usually in an effort to minimize a forthcoming quote for counsel fees – does no one any good. Choose your cliché: this business is not an exact science; nothing is straightforward; there is always a wrinkle. Each statement is almost always true, and I would much prefer that my client offers full disclosure of potential problems, and more importantly, fully understands what is (or could be) in store for the litigation ahead.
For this reason, I often ask a client to prepare a confidential marital summary for my use and as my work product throughout the litigation – with as much detail as possible, “even if it doesn’t seem important.” Nine times out of ten, the summary yields something useful for negotiation purposes, even if the matter is never fully litigated.
Tricky issues, strategic decisions
Some divorces have been brimming for years, and brought only to the surface by the one party who – perhaps due to the proverbial straw on the camel’s back – finally walked into a lawyer’s office after years of unhappiness. Other cases begin with the virtual explosion of special issues that require immediate attention. If custody is likely to be disputed, is there an emergent reason for that position? Has the Department of Children and Families been involved, or have any criminal arrests been made? Is this a domestic abuse situation and does the situation call for either criminal involvement or a civil application for relief from abuse (a restraining order)? At this juncture, the client is faced with the reality of whether the litigation will start with a bang or a whisper. Indeed, an immediate civil restraining order and motion for exclusive possession of the marital home (where a spouse is ordered to leave and reside elsewhere) – and perhaps even a criminal arrest – might be warranted under the circumstances. In that case, any attorney or law firm has to be prepared to act quickly and aggressively, and the client has to be ready and willing to accept and trust in our advice as the situation rapidly unfolds.
For best results, be ready to go the distance
If a prospective client is sitting with me in one of our conference rooms to discuss an impending divorce action, it is typically the case that he or she has thought this out, has discussed it with family members, friends, confidants, and perhaps even other lawyers. What he or she needs now is not simply information (“what are my rights?”), general strategy, or empty promises (no lawyer worth his salt will make any promises in an initial consult). What the individual truly needs is a person to trust, with the knowledge that such person has the skills, legal resources, experience, and capability to litigate the matter through to conclusion in the event that their spouse is unwilling to settle. As I often remind my clients: if you want a mediocre result, you can engage in mediocre settlement dialogue, at any time, and even without a lawyer. Only those lawyers who are prepared to go to trial are equipped to deal with the unreasonable spouse who refuses to give in – such as the husband who stops paying bills and hides his income, or the wife who denies visitation or changes the locks.
A client looking for a divorce attorney has often been spurned by a spouse, and has in some fashion or another suffered a breakdown in communication within the home. It is my hope for each of my clients with children that the communication gap repair itself over time, in the best interests of those children. In the interim, however, my goal as a divorce attorney, as a counselor, as an advisor, is to rebuild communication and trust for that person within the four walls of this law firm, so that together we can use the law to our advantage, in order to achieve the best possible settlement or result after trial.
My non-lawyer friends often ask if this type of work is depressing or draining. My view of family law is much like representing clients in criminal matters. People come to us during a true low point in their lives, where things often appear as though they cannot possibly get much worse. If we do our job well, if we honestly assess the client’s priorities and aggressively pursue his or her goals within the confines of the law, we can rest assured that a client will leave the situation and the litigation in a substantially improved position. When a client returns to us in the future or refers a friend or family member, we have met our own standard for representing a client effectively.
If you have any questions or would like to speak to an attorney about a divorce or familial matter, please don’t hesitate to call our office at (203) 221-3100 for a free consultation or reach out to our Managing Partner Joesph C. Maya via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Divorce is difficult, education is power. Call today.