Pit Bulls: Selection, Care and Feeding or How to Choose and Make Effective Use of a Divorce Lawyer. By: Donald K. Butler.

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1 Pit Bulls: Selection, Care and Feeding or How to Choose and Make Effective Use of a Divorce Lawyer By: Donald K. Butler Selection Before my colleagues take me to task for perpetuating a negative stereotype, let me confess that this characterization of divorce lawyers is purely and simply an attention grabbing title. It is designed to call the attention of those seeking advice and representation in family law matters to the fact that careful thought should be given before blindly seeking an attorney who is perceived as aggressive... i.e., one who appears to have a reputation as a pit bull. Ask different people who know that breed of dog, and they will give you differing descriptions. Some will tell you they are fierce, aggressive and unpredictable; others will tell you they are loyal, smart and loving. While certain characteristics are bred into the animal, their individual personalities and training, and other circumstances, can bring about different behaviors. Such is also the case with lawyers. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is an honorary organization of some of the most respected and successful family law attorneys in the Country. The motto of this organization is Protecting the family; improving the practice. One of its publications, The Bounds of Advocacy, promulgates standards of fair play for laymen and lawyers involved in family law cases. It describes ethical rules of conduct that are higher standards and aspirations than those established by most bar groups and regulatory agencies such as the Virginia State Bar. In other words, the paragon of the good divorce lawyer is not by definition nasty and aggressive and not metaphorically a pit bull. The fact is that lawyer aggression can sometimes be a useful tool, but it should not be a rule. Not every case in every circumstance and at every stage calls for the aggressive approach, but it certainly can have is proper place, and a good lawyer knows when and how to use it effectively.

2 However, there are circumstances for a more considered approach to resolving divorce issues such as custody of children, financial and property aspects, and sometimes even fault or grounds. The goal of the attorney should be to serve the client s best interests in an effective way, not always by tearing down, but sometimes by building up or preserving. This is particularly true when young children are involved or when people do not have sufficient resources to wage protracted and wasteful legal battles. This is why settlement or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) are always explained and considered as an option, and it is often recommended in order to bring an effective resolution to the problem with the least amount of destruction, both economic and emotional. (See more about ADR on this web site.) The process of selecting a lawyer is availed by many sources. Advertising and web sites can provide a lot of information, although sometimes in a very commercial manner that makes it difficult to judge the reliability of the hype. Referrals from other attorneys or professionals can be a reliable source. These people, as well as those who have been through a divorce, can provide more specifics and insight than printed words and graphics in advertising can provide. Other good sources are the surveys done by various research organizations and publications such as the book, The Best Lawyers in America, or Virginia Business Magazine. In compiling their lists on the best lawyers in various legal fields, these publications conduct extensive surveys of lawyers asking them to identify other lawyers they believe are the best in their respective areas of practice. Most family law attorneys offer consultations. (See Initial Consultation on this web site.) This is not only an opportunity to obtain legal information and advice, but it is also in essence an interview with the lawyer. Some people shop around by consulting with more than one lawyer, and some even do this with the express purpose of trying to create a conflict and thereby limit the field of lawyers available to the other party. However, one should be aware that the rules of ethics and conflicts of interest have recently been relaxed in this regard so that while any information given - 2 -

3 to an attorney in a phone call would remain confidential, it may not necessarily be the basis for a technical disqualification for conflict of interest. One should be satisfied with the answers to these questions before selecting the attorney for representation in a family law matter: 1. Is the lawyer worth the fee being charged, even though specific results cannot be guaranteed? 2. What is the billing procedure and retainer policy, and is there a written fee arrangement? 3. What other costs may be involved, and can that amount be estimated? 4. Will the lawyer provide suggestions on how to minimize your costs? 5. When may one spouse be liable for the fees and costs of the other? How will that liability be determined? Does that possibility affect the fee arrangement with the lawyer? 6. Is there any aspect of a case that this lawyer does not want to confront, including any issue, the opposing attorney, your spouse or the judge? 7. Does the lawyer currently have time for the immediate demands of the case? 8. Is there an expectation of prompt and meaningful communications? Is the lawyer skilled at explaining things? 9. What will the lawyer expect from you in terms of assistance in providing information, truthfulness, and meeting deadlines? 10. Who else will be working on the case, what work will they be doing, and what are those person s qualifications? How will the client be charged for those services? 11. How long will it take to conclude the case if an agreement is reached? How long will it take if any matter is severely contested? (In most cases, the lawyer will only be able to give you a - 3 -

4 general estimate because of court calendars or the other side s determination either to cooperate or stall the resolution of the case.) 12. Based on the information you have given, ask the lawyer what results could be anticipated on any particular contested issue in the case, either by court decision or by negotiation and settlement. (Since predictions are risky and the information you have provided is probably incomplete, one should expect a guarded answer with no absolute assurances of a particular result.) 13. What is the lawyer s attitude about alternatives to litigation such as mediation? 14. And last, but not least, does the lawyer have in his or her arsenal the attributes of a bull dog and know when to unleash them? Care and Feeding Once a lawyer has been selected, be prepared to provide proper care and feeding. This feeding requires more than just fulfilling the usual fee arrangements. It also involves cooperation, providing useful information, responsiveness, and contributing to the preparation of the case. In other words, this relationship needs to be a positive and efficient working relationship. Fee arrangements can vary based on the lawyer s reputation and experience. Some services in the family law area are available from some lawyers on a fixed fee basis, but most who deal in contested and complex cases charge an hourly rate. This arrangement avoids any potential unfairness to either the lawyer or the client. You do not want to be represented by someone who feels that enough of his or her time has been invested in your case for the amount paid, which might explain why your case may not be receiving prompt attention anymore. The best way to keep track of how much you are spending on an hourly billing arrangement is to request regular periodic statements of the amount of fees that you have incurred and the balance you have on any retainers you may have paid. If and when the retainer is expended, you will likely be required to replenish the account for future billings

5 A good lawyer will be happy to provide guidance to clients on how to effectively and inexpensively gather the necessary information, how to provide it in an effective way, and how to make effective use of the lawyer s time and thereby save money. Suggestions include such things as efficient communication management. For example, it can be less expensive and more efficient to bundle information or questions into one phone call, , letter or even in an appointment. While the lawyer is happy to provide his time which is the basis for his charges, it is not always effective and efficient to communicate thoughts and questions on a piece-meal basis. An experienced divorce attorney can offer information and advice in many areas, from accounting, business, taxes, real estate, and valuation of property (and sometimes even fine arts and antiques); to adult and child psychology, and marital counseling. However, when the situation requires more expertise, that attorney can refer a client to the proper professional. An important part of the relationship is communication, ironically something that may have been lacking in the relationship that brought you to a family law attorney in the first place. The first step is for both to communicate what each needs and expects to make the relationship work for the common goal. When one of you is not getting what he or she needs, it should be discussed openly. Most of the time, misunderstandings can be rectified and the relationship repaired. Unfortunately when that does not happen, consideration must be given to making a change. When the relationship is working well, just like any other breed, the lawyer enjoys positive reinforcement. Therefore, a compliment or positive comment here and there never hurts, even though most divorce lawyers can function very well without being stroked

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