I have had over 400 family law clients in the last few years, the vast majority of whom have been satisfied with the work I have done for them. I try very hard to settle cases quickly and fairly and when that fails the degree to which I am reasonable with opposing parties (and lawyers) depends entirely on the degree to which they are reasonable. We litigate every case hard when it comes to litigation, but we litigate only as a last resort. There are so many creative ways to settle cases, but once in the courtroom the Parties are subject to the blunt instruments of the judges. This is fair – judges don’t really have much time to truly spend with individual sets of parties, so they rely on their tried and true means of resolving disputes.
For the judges, you fit into one of several pre-set categories the judges have set out ahead of time as a way of being efficient in their own work. The family litigator’s job is to make sure you fit into the right category (the “good dad” versus the “absentee father”; the “stay at home mom” versus the “freeloader,” the “hard working mom who does all the housework and raises the kids on her second shift” versus the “party girl,” etc.). This is done in a variety of ways – what I do at the Law Office of M. Jude Egan is figure out the way we going to tell your story from the very beginning – I call this “strategizing” your case. I am continually thinking of ways to position you with the Court, including ways of dealing with set backs and new pieces of damaging information (including your ex positioning you as the bad guy).
All in all, the biggest complaint I hear when a client engages me after being with another attorney is not complaints about billing, which is what you might have thought, but rather complaints about personality fit (“she just screamed and yelled and billed me for it,” “it was embarassing”, “nothing ever got done”, etc.) . When clients fire me and move to another attorney, which doesn’t happen often, but does happen, I don’t get to debrief them, but I can usually tell by the lawyer they picked and the differences of opinion that we had in the case that the personality fit just wasn’t there (“I wanted someone who was going to punch my ex in the nose”, etc.).
We settle most cases and the ones we don’t settle, we settle most issues in the case and litigate the hard stuff. That’s because we have ways of working with just about every attorney in town. You should want it that way, if you engage me. If you are the type who wants to fight on for fighting’s sake that’s the type of personality non-fit that would usually lead me to make a referral to another attorney. We have lawyers in town who will gladly take your money to tread water until you drown but they will make it a spectacular death with all sorts of blood and gore! Your ex will hate you and hate your lawyer! And everyone in the courtroom will see you scoring “nasty points” in the courtroom! But sadly, you will be nowhere closer to finishing your divorce and your ex will be nowhere closer to working with you after the lawyers are gone.
I say all this because I read a recent article on Huffington Post about choosing a good divorce lawyer. While I don’t agree with absolutely everything the author says, I think it’s generally a very good piece on how to choose a divorce lawyer. Personality fit is front and center. You need to trust your lawyer. You need to feel good about the approach your lawyer uses in the courtroom (i.e., respectfully approaching the Court and other parties with reasonable settlement offers and working toward getting things accomplished; choosing battles versus kicking and screaming and raising a fuss – treading water and burning retainer; etc.). You need to be comfortable with the way your lawyer explains things to you. You need to be comfortable with whether your lawyer stands up for you, and the ways in which he does so. And you should never ever feel embarassed for one of your lawyer’s behaviors.
There are things that the lawyers in a smaller community know that you most likely don’t. For example, the lawyers know how the judges are likely to rule on particular issues (does that mean we always predict things correctly? No, but we have higher than average success rates in predicting judicial behavior). The lawyers know which other lawyers settle cases and which other lawyers litigate everything (i.e., the churners and water-treaders) and which lawyers will sit down and hash out (im)perfect but better than the alternative plans. The lawyers know which lawyers take unsupportable settlement positions and losing courtroom arguments and which ones take reasonable steps to get your case resolved.
A key takeaway point: in California, “winning” a divorce means getting the 50% of the stuff that you wanted rather than the 50% that got assigned to you. It means getting a decent and sustainable support order, one that your ex can live with and if you tighten your belt a little, you can live with too. It means getting good orders for your children to spend time with each parent (so you have breaks too). That means that even a divorce lawyer you find out is a terrible fit for your personality is unlikely, if they know the system at all, to lead you to a bad (i.e., losing) outcome. Just make sure that you are making progress toward the finish line – always moving forward to finality. Finality even with imperfect outcomes, 97% of the time is better than limbo in search of perfection (and is 100% of the time better than limbo to fuel the anger).
My unsolicited (non-legal advice) is this: do not let your lawyer fire your anger up so much that you do irrational things like spend all your money on unwinnable custody fights (trying to squeeze out an additional 4 hours with the kids each week – people who get along with their exes see their kids so much more than those who extract every second from their ex). Don’t let anger fuel you in your quest to destroy your ex. The chances that any of our judges (or any of our lawyers) will allow you to be completely destroyed (or completely destroy) is very slim. The law really doesn’t allow it anyway.
Do, however, look for someone that asks what it is you really want as an outcome and works tirelessly to push toward fair final resolutions. When they ask for documents, get them turned around right away. When they ask for declarations or statements about the situation, turn them around right away. Keep pushing toward judgment rather than revisiting temporary orders over and over again. And be wary of lawyers who urge to rush into court on small things. Keep your eyes on the prize – finality with dignity and the 50% of things that you want rather than the 50% that someone else makes you take.
Remember that personality is not the end all be all for a lawyer in the courtroom. Our judges have been very clear that they don’t like blood in the water campaigns. They want to see parties moving forward toward resolution. Most of the lawyers in town can get you there so long as they are continuing to move a case forward.