Divorce can be one of the most frightening times in a person's life because the losses many people suffer can affect them for a lifetime. While grieving or enraged, conflicted or determined, you are most certainly under emotional stress. The California divorce process tries it’s best to be user friendly, but it’s fraught with forms, “legalese,” codified procedures, and a culture that appears to those who don’t practice law to be secretive and wrapped in code. At best it is unfamiliar.
For those who choose to mediate, however, there is good news. Those who work with an independent and neutral divorce mediator will have someone to guide and facilitate their negotiations, all while avoiding the stresses of court and preserving precious resources. Couples who mediate often feel a sense of pride in knowing that they can protect their children from a long, drawn-out, acrimonious legal battle. If you are working with Leave Strong Divorce Services, you will spend less than $4,000 as a couple on your whole divorce process, be done in less than 6 months in most cases, and have a detailed parenting plan that the two of you will want to stick to because no one else ordered it so—it’s your joint plan.
Despite the benefits of mediation, many clients I work with have the same lingering question when they begin the process: how will I know if I am getting a fair deal?
Help is available. You don’t have to navigate your divorce mediation alone. Many clients I work with choose to hire outside legal counsel to review their Marital Settlement Agreement, while others hire counsel seeking legal advice on a specific problem. A consulting attorney is like a divorce coach. As in sports, the coach does not get on the field with you, but he or she does ensure you are ready to give it your best. Your biggest challenge is how to select a consulting divorce attorney, and when and how to use them.
When interviewing potential consulting attorneys, you want to make sure you are interviewing for the right qualities. You are not looking for a lawyer known for their court room performances, or one who is so heavily staffed you can’t access him or her. You are looking for a skilled and knowledgeable professional who believes in the value of mediation and who seeks to understand your goals. I suggest you interview at least three local attorneys and ask these questions:
I’m mediating and looking for some guidance and someone to review my MSA before I sign it. Are you willing to work as a consulting attorney?
How do you bill for this type of service? Hourly? Retainer? Flat fee?
How long have you been in practice as a family law attorney?
Do you usually draft your own Marital Settlement Agreements or do you pass that
task on to someone else in your firm?
How long does it typically take to get an appointment for an hour or two of your time?
If you know you want advice on specific types of issues such as how to negotiate long term spousal support, or valuation of a business, ask the attorney about their experience representing clients with these types of issues.
Remember you are choosing this professional to be your trusted guide. You have to respect them and their opinions or you are wasting your money. Do a bit more homework. Look them up on Avvo.com and see what their clients and colleagues have to say about them. Check out their reviews on Yelp, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+. See what others have to honestly say about their experience working with them.
Finally, check-in and trust your gut. Did you feel they had the time for and are interested in you? How hard was it to get to them the first time? Did they offer you a free consultation? And then ask yourself:
Were all my questions answered or did they go off on a tangent into their own agenda?
Were their responses to my questions clear, confident, and concise? (remember, you are paying by the hour)
Do they seem open to working collaboratively or more interested in taking over my case?
A consulting attorney is there to advise you on the legal merits of your case. He or she may help you put together a proposal on various issues, or provide you with case law to back up your proposals and help you understand how strong or weak your case would be should you decide to abandon mediation and risk putting your case in front of a judge. Many clients I work with check in with their consulting attorneys once the Marital Settlement has been drafted and is ready for review so they feel confident they have negotiated a fair settlement. With a skilled mediator and a trusted advisor, even the most complex family law cases can be settled out of court in a fair and enforceable way at a fraction of the cost of a litigated divorce.
Laura McGee, JD is a Divorce Mediator and founder of Leave Strong Divorce Services. She is a non-practicing attorney. Nothing shared by her in this article should be construed as legal advice. Laura is sharing insights which are based on her education and training, career path from trial lawyer to mediator and divorce coach, and personal life experience as a mother who spent far too much time and money litigating her divorce. If you are seeking legal advice please contact a licensed attorney.