Often, there is not much that distinguishes a lawyer from the rest of humanity except the fact of their having gone to law school. Like any other person, a lawyer can be disorganised, careless, irresponsible, overcommitted, vengeful, greedy, addicted, or otherwise undesirable.
Like any other person, a lawyer can have ideological perceptions totally different from your own. It is your job, and you must do it while enduring the pain of divorce, to see through all of this and make a judgment on the best lawyer for your needs.
It will not be easy. It will take guts. But by doing your homework, you should be able to make an educated choice about the lawyer who will play a very important role in how you will live the rest of your life.
As you interview each lawyer, be on the lookout for the following characteristics that might indicate they should be avoided. If one of the behaviors listed here came through during an interview, think seriously about taking the name of that lawyer off your list.
Lawyers make money based on how much time they bill. The more cases they have, the more opportunity they have to bill. This is why lawyers sometimes take on too many cases. Rather than focusing on doing a good job for the clients they have, some overcommitted lawyers are not as available to their clients as they should be.
They may also fail to attend to small problems early enough to prevent them from turning into major crises. Also, the clients of an overcommitted lawyer are the victims of many ‘emergencies’ that only the lawyer can take care of, so the lawyer can develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance. This may result in your being belittled when you need him or her to take care of a relatively small concern.
The overcommitted lawyer’s modus operandi in such a situation will be to ignore your requests for help until you have a crisis on your hands. At that time your concerns will be addressed, but at higher cost to you because a crisis is more time-consuming to deal with than a minor problem. Knowing how many open cases a lawyer has and how many staff members are available to assist can help you determine if a lawyer is overcommitted.
Another test of whether a lawyer is overcommitted is how easily you can reach his or her office by telephone and have a problem solved or question answered.
When you get the run around, no matter how good the lawyer’s intentions are, your interests are not being protected. Do yourself a favour and do not commit your future to an already overcommitted lawyer.
A lawyer who is disorganised or easily distracted is a disaster waiting to happen. In the legal world, a missed deadline can be catastrophic. A good lawyer is aware of all pending deadlines and to-do items imposed by the court and the other side. He or she gets things done on time while simultaneously developing and implementing strategies to get you what you deserve.
A lawyer who cannot return phone calls promptly, provide accurate bills, or conduct a meeting without allowing interruptions may not be sufficiently organised to advance your interests. Not returning calls, arriving late for meetings, carrying messy piles of papers and files, a harried staff, an inability to make uninterrupted time available to you reasonably soon after you request it—these are all signs that a lawyer may be disorganised and should be avoided.
The passive lawyer answers your questions with generalities that minimise the seriousness of your concerns. The passive lawyer tends to react to what your spouse’s lawyer wants and forgets that he or she is supposed to pursue your case assertively.
The passive lawyer calls to tell you when you need to gather documents or answer questions for the other side but is slow to turn the tables and insist that they do the same for you when required.
It may be hard to determine just who is a passive lawyer because some who are so, merely seem calm and relaxed. Being around a passive lawyer can make you feel good because the lawyer does not seem to be worried about anything.
Lacking a sense of urgency, the passive lawyer waits until the last minute to start on work and then does a half-baked job because there is not enough time to do it well. The passive lawyer is unable to get enough adrenaline pumping to be a champion for anyone.
Lawyers who practice assembly-line law treat every case exactly the same, and every case moves along like a part on a conveyor belt. Like assembly-line workers, assembly-line lawyers do not apply creative problem-solving skills to their work because their work consists simply of repeating the same set of movements over and over again. Like assembly-lines in general, assembly-line lawyers can be efficient and economical in some circumstances.
But if your case involves a contested divorce or conflict about parenting orders, complex financial issues, or anything else out of the ordinary, you should weed out assembly-line lawyers. If, however, you and your spouse agree on everything and simply need a lawyer to legally formalise your agreement, an assembly-line lawyer may be just the ticket. Such lawyers handle these matters routinely and will have pre-drafted forms available that will save you much time and money.
As most schoolchildren know, every playground has its bully. Instead of eventually learning to get along, some bullies grow up to become lawyers who view their law licenses as permits to be deliberately obnoxious and harassing. It seems these people perceive being a courtroom lawyer as a socially acceptable way to live one’s life as a bully.
I write about the bully here because many people desirous of an amicable divorce are inclined to automatically weed out the bully. But if your spouse’s lawyer is a bully or your spouse is a bully (or both of them are) then you must hire some one who will deal with bullies. Taking the moral high ground—being fair and ethical—will not protect you against the tactics of the bully.
If you offer to split everything fifty-fifty, you can be sure the bully will never settle for that. Once the bully knows what is agreeable to you, come hell or high water, they will make sure you get less. The bully is tenacious and emotionally vested in depriving you of whatever you are willing to settle for.
Unless you have a lawyer who understands this mentality and knows how to turn it against the other side, you will be worn down to nothing—financially and emotionally—before the divorce is over.
The worst kind of lawyer you can have if your spouse or your spouse’s lawyer is a bully is a lawyer who constantly advocates compromise. Such a dynamic is similar to when marriage counsellors tell the wives of abusive men that ‘it takes two to have an argument’. If you buy into this logic, you will lose all your money, your children, and your self-esteem. The more you give in to the bully, the more they will expect you to give in.
Another typical divorce lawyer is the deceiver. This type of lawyer says whatever will advance his or her immediate goals.
Moreover, deceitful lawyers are sometimes preceded by their reputations, and judicial officers and other lawyers do not trust them. Hook up with this type of lawyer and you may be found guilty by association. The Judicial officer may be inclined not to believe anything you say.
What if a deceiver represents your spouse? Your only hope is to find yourself a lawyer with a mind like a steel trap who can keep track of everything the opposing lawyer has said and can throw it back at them if and when required.
You will need a lawyer who is organised and compulsive enough to get everything from the deceiver in writing. Unfortunately, this level of commitment and attention to detail is rare in divorce lawyers.
What is worse, if you complain to your lawyer that your spouse’s lawyer is being allowed to get away with too many distortions of the truth or even lies, you risk creating an adversarial relationship with your own lawyer. This brings us to yet another type of lawyer.
If you express concern to your lawyer about your case or the way it is being handled, the defensive lawyer may say (or imply) that you need not worry about such details. This is not unlike a doctor telling a patient who suffers from a malady the doctor cannot diagnose, that it is all in the patient’s head. If you are critical of your lawyer, you may find that, rather than correcting the problem, the lawyer becomes defensive and attacks you.
By carefully screening your lawyer candidates, you can weed out those who would rather lay a guilt trip on you for being demanding than have to work a little harder. Many lawyers just go through the motions and send bills, but do not spend much time focusing on what they could do to make the process easier or quicker for their clients.
And these lawyers have no regrets about profiting from the misfortune of their clients. After all, the defensive lawyer rationalizes: if clients do not want to spend the money on lawyers, they can always stop litigating. If they want to keep fighting, let them pay.
You should not expect your lawyer to become caught up in your own emotional turmoil. Just as doctors cannot get emotionally involved with every terminal cancer patient, divorce lawyers cannot really become overly focused on the emotional welfare of their warring clients. The lawyer’s job is to get the client divorced.
However, some divorce lawyers have given themselves the inappropriate luxury of not worrying at all about how well the client fares in the process and how much it costs them, psychologically as well as financially.
You need a lawyer who can find and maintain a balanced perspective.
Another classic divorce lawyer is the ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ lawyer. Whenever a tough problem looms (or even a not so tough problem), this type of lawyer asks the client, ‘What do you want me to do?’ without setting out the available options for the client and without explaining the pros and cons of each of the options.
By doing this, the lawyer hands the responsibility for strategising the case to the client, without having given the client the necessary information to allow the client to make an informed choice. The lawyer who does this is abdicating his or her responsibility to the client.
Then, if the client is not happy with the result, the lawyer can say, ‘Well, I did what you told me to do, so it’s not my fault’. This kind of thing tends to happen at times of crisis or at crucial moments in the litigation—times when emotions are running high and the lawyer begins to feel that they might be losing control.
Although it is difficult to determine in advance whether a candidate is this type, once a lawyer has begun working on your case, the tendency is easy to spot and may be serious enough to consider a change of lawyer. If your lawyer makes a habit of asking you what to do without giving you options and explaining them to you, they are either incompetent or trying to get rid of you.
But you need to be reasonable. Your lawyer cannot decide substantive issues for you, such as whether you are satisfied with contact every other weekend or satisfied with getting the station wagon instead of the sedan.
These are decisions you must make yourself. But if you tell your lawyer you want half the savings account and the sedan, your lawyer should not ask you how to go about getting them. That is a lawyer’s job.