Deciding to divorce is one of the most significant decisions you will make in your lifetime.
So, congratulations, even if you feel anything like celebrating. To those whose spouse decided for you and are first beginning to look for a family law attorney, I say congratulations as well. Just the fact you are reading this article means you are coming to terms with your situation and looking at your divorce head-on, which immediately puts you in a position of strength. No good can ever come from sticking your head in the sand, especially about a divorce.
Reading an article about making an educated choice about the family law attorney you hire is also a decision worth congratulating. Because what this means is you have acknowledged all family law attorneys are not the same. Philosophies and approaches to family law differ substantially from one family law attorney to the next with potentially grave consequences. One piece of advice can affect you, your children, and your overall family dynamic post-divorce for years, perhaps decades, to come. Depending on who you choose to be your family law attorney, that experience can be quite damaging.
But before you let this happen, you are going to do your research. You will meet with prospective family law attorneys and tell them the facts of your case as you see them. Next, you are going to listen. And listen carefully. Because what these family law attorneys will tell you apart from specifics concerning when you will file and whether you will need a forensic accountant is who they are. And this, dear Reader, is ultimately what your case will turn on because that family law attorney of yours is going to set the tone not only for your divorce but, much more importantly, the years that follow.
After you have had your conversations, take time to think about what you have heard and ask yourself the following questions. Once you do, you will have a clearer idea of who you want to represent you, and by default, your children (if you have any) in your divorce.
Does this family law attorney have emotional intelligence?
When it comes to choosing a family lawyer, it doesn’t matter if your family law attorney graduated at the top of their class or has a Law Review distinction, although I do. As much as I am proud of my accomplishments, they won’t help you in the least. Why? My achievements don’t speak to who I am as a person and what I value in a divorce proceeding — and, as a once divorced (I have since remarried) single mother of four children, what I cherish in my life.
When listening to a prospective family law attorney, you want to hear about how they plan to reach their goals in yourcase. Whether it is for you to continue living in the marital home after your divorce, retain full custody of your children, receive or pay a certain amount of alimony and children support, the answer should not involve court, court, court.
There are many ways to receive a fair and equitable settlement in your divorce without ever stepping into a courtroom. Family court is only one tool in the box, and a tool you should only use as a last resort because once you use it, you lose a lot of control over your case. Yes, a judge will order what you and your spouse must do, which you might believe is the right approach, especially when you are involved in a high-conflict divorce with an uncooperative soon-to-be-ex-spouse.
But the reality is that a judge will not know much about your case’s nuances simply because time will not allow them to get up to speed as they would need to in a perfect world. Judges have large caseloads to manage, and yours will only be one in a stack of files, which means the decisions the judge makes may not always be the best ones for you, your ex, and, critically, your children. So if a family law attorney is going to Mach 1 immediately, that person is probably not the right lawyer for you and your family.
If a family law attorney says all they want to do is go to court, their strategy is to hold a big hammer and hammer every nail in their sight. With this haphazard approach, a family law attorney can destroy families. Worse still, if each party hires this kind of lawyer, even more damage can ensue, not only because of the decisions that arise from the fighting but because of how the family law attorney educates the parents about resolving conflict. These are habits that will last long after the ink dries on the divorce decree.
How these types of lawyers teach clients to solve problems is abhorrent. Parents are not learning how to resolve conflict in a calm, reasonable way. Doling out hand grenades and snarky emails are no way to solve problems, only to escalate them. A family law attorney must have emotional intelligence. Your family law attorney needs to know and understand what you and your children are going through. Your family law attorney needs to get you what you are entitled to but not at the expense of your children, who are powerless to protect themselves. That is your job and the job of the right family law attorney.
The good news is most parents do want to do what is best for their children. However, the bad news is a family law attorney lacking emotional intelligence can warp even the most aboveboard intentions from parents by using the wrong tools to solve problems, namely court as a first and only resort. An emotionally intelligent family law attorney understands how specific actions and approaches, and the behavior that results from them, can damage children. Parents always fighting can affect children for life. If you want to fight, hire a “yes” family law attorney, not me or any lawyers on my legal team. We won’t engage if your primary goal is to destroy your spouse without a thought to the children who will ultimately get caught in the middle.
Is this family law attorney creative?
Does the family law attorney you are interviewing see your case the same way they see every other case? Run, unless you want the typical treatment. Your family law attorney needs to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You and your family law attorney need to operate within the sphere of your strengths. That means not spending all of your time focusing on what you did wrong in the past. If you were combative and off the rails, you could still change to help yourself and your kids going forward.
A creative family law attorney will be able to approach your situation from a new vantage point, offering you solutions you likely hadn’t thought of before or had the wherewithal to implement. These solutions will help you reach your goals without leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Whatever has happened in the past, you must continue moving forward; you must get past your current conflicts by addressing them constructively and in your children’s best interests first. Winning your divorce but destroying your children in the process is not winning. A creative family law attorney knows and understands this critical point and has the intention coupled with the vision to put their words into action.
What are you trying to do for kids?
This question is by far the most crucial one you need to ask yourself because your answer will shape everything you do in your divorce and the years that come after it. Think back to when you first became a parent, the first time you held your baby in your arms. I know I looked into each of my children’s eyes and wished for them a beautiful life, which I promised myself I would help give to them.
None of us can ward off the difficult events we will have to face in our lifetime: the death of a loved one, job loss, financial troubles, and, yes, divorce. But what we can do is influence how these traumatic events will impact our view of the world, our life, and the lives of those around us, especially our kids. You may feel powerless now but, rest assured; you have all the power in the world to make your life the way you want it to be, including your divorce. You can decide what you want your divorce to look like — beginning with the family law attorney you choose.
THE CONFLICT CODE
DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.