Attorneys and Divorce Disputes

Many people handle routine family law matters without retaining an attorney. In California, 65% of all uncontested divorces are managed by unrepresented pro se litigants. Family mediation is also a process that is often handled by the parties without representation by counsel. Others decide they should retain attorneys to review the draft of the Marital Settlement Agreement. If you have a pension or a large amount of property or income it is certainly advisable to consult an attorney before you sign a final agreement. An attorney can also be very helpful in advising you during the mediation itself. You can save substantial legal fees in routine matters by finding an attorney who will provide you with discrete services when you need it, and then handling the rest of the paperwork yourself using resources in this Web Site.

When Can You Represent Yourself in a Family Law Action

It is not advisable to represent yourself if you have a contested custody matter, you have substantial property, or there is a dispute over pension rights. Self-representation is a process that works best for those with routine and uncontested legal matters and for those who can master the steps necessary to get from filing the complaint through the final hearing. An example is an uncontested divorce or a child support modification where the child support obligation for each parent is determined by statute.

Thoughts about Finding an Attorney Who will Serve You Well

Only Hire a Lawyer With Expertise in Family Law. A lawyer who normally handles personal injury law or corporate matters will not be of much use in a divorce since he or she may have little understanding of family law. Most states do not allow attorneys to state that they specialize in family law. However, firms are permitted to state that they limit their practice to family law, which means that they do not practice in other areas of the law. Another indication that a law firm has expertise in family law is if the firm is known to take on pro bono cases in family law. A pro bono case is a case that the firm takes on for no fee or a reduced fee because the client is financially eligible for such assistance under criteria established by a local or State Bar Association. You can also ask what percentage of the lawyer's practice is devoted to domestic law cases

Always have a written agreement. Do not hire a lawyer based on an oral agreement. That only leads to misunderstandings. Instead, be sure the fee agreement (called a retainer agreement) is in writing and that you understand all of its terms.

Family Lawyers Usually Charge "By the Hour." That means you are going to have to keep a sharp eye on the bill. Thus, do not accept a bill that reads, "fees for services rendered." Rather, insist on a detailed monthly billing statement. If you find a mistake or there is a charge you don't understand, bring it to the attention of your lawyer. Some lawyers are experimenting with a new form of practice called "unbundled" legal services. These lawyers will charge you just for the advice that you need, usually on an hourly basis, to support you in your mediation and after as a pro se litigant. In this case, you will still file your own legal papers, but the lawyer will be available to provide you with legal advice if you need it.

Don't Be Passive. Just because you have a lawyer, that doesn't mean you do not have a job to do. You should ask questions and read the material in this web site so as to better understand the law and the process. You - not you lawyer - should make the ultimate decisions about how to proceed with your case. After all, it is your life and your future that is at stake, not your lawyer's.

Here are some sample questions you will want to ask your lawyer. You may also want to add more of your own.

  • How long will the whole thing take?

  • What will be happening step-by-step?

  • What is your best estimate of the fees I will be charged?

  • How much will the costs be? (Costs are all "out-of-pocket" expenses that are incurred to support the litigation. Examples are court filing fees and paying court reporters for deposition transcription services. Costs can mount into the thousands of dollars in contested cases.)

  • Will I be asked to pay the other sides attorneys' fees? (Can I have my spouse pay my attorneys' fees?)

  • After describing what you want out of the divorce i.e. by way of property division, custody and support, ask: Can this be done? If not, why not? If so, what are the problems we face in getting what I want?

  • How much support should I ask for (or offer to pay)?

  • How can I be sure that I get my visitation, child support, alimony, etc.?

Ask about whatever you don't understand or think you may not understand. Also, listen to what the lawyer says. Part of his or her job is to educate you about what you will be going through. (You may want to take notes for future reference.) Remember, you have the right to answers. Never accept a condescending answer such as, "It's too complicated, you wouldn't understand." And especially don't accept, "Trust me, it's all under control."

For a "virtual" Maryland law firm offering limited legal services at a fixed price for divorce and other domestic relations matters exclusively over the Internet, check out: