Do I Need a Lawyer?

Divorce is a legal proceeding, so the question is not “do I need an attorney?,” the question is “which attorney do I choose?”

In this episode, North & South Carolina Family Law Attorney Leigh Sellers discusses the reasons you should always hire an attorney to assist with your divorce.

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The insights and views presented in “Welcome to Splitsville” are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning in to this podcast constitute an attorney-client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey through divorce, contact Leigh Sellers and her team at http://www.TouchstoneFamilyLaw.com

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Hello there. Going through a divorce? Considering one? Sorry to hear that, but here you are. Welcome to Splitsville. You’ll find Splitsville to be a pretty unique place. A new world really, with its own rules, its own expectations and in many ways, its own language. But don’t worry, you have a knowledgeable guide along the way, a family law attorney with three decades of experience under her belt.

And now, here she is. Your host and guide, Leigh Sellers.

Hi everyone, and thanks for tuning into another episode of Welcome to Splitsville. I’m your host and guide, Leigh Sellers, founder of Touchstone Family Law. And, in this episode, I’ll be answering another question that many newcomers to Splitsville have, “Do I need an attorney?” So let’s dive in.

So I often get this question, do I need a lawyer? I’m getting divorced, do I need a lawyer? And I never understand that question because separation and divorce is a legal process, so the answer is yes, you need a lawyer. It’s a legal process. You should always consider having a lawyer. So the question isn’t, do I need one? It’s which lawyer do I need? What type of lawyer do I need for my separation and my divorce? But it should never enter your mind that you don’t need a lawyer for any legal process. There’s an old adage that says that anyone who represents themselves as a fool, and I think that that’s true. I wouldn’t represent myself. Anytime I’ve ever had an important legal matter, I will talk to who I find is the best in the field for the legal issue that I am facing. And I have a law degree and I’m licensed to practice in two states. And I would never represent myself.

So what you really need to think about is, I need a lawyer. What kind of lawyer do I need and what can I afford and how am I going to hire an attorney? How am I going to find that attorney that’s going to be a good match for me and for my situation?

So the first thing you want to look at with separation and divorce is you want to find an attorney who is extremely experienced in separation and divorce to talk to you. So you don’t want an estate lawyer. You do not want a criminal lawyer. You don’t want a personal injury lawyer. You don’t want a workers’ compensation lawyer. You want to find someone who practices family law, divorce law, domestic law, however you want to tag it. You need to find out whether or not they handle cases with people who are separating or divorcing. Or if you’re not married, do they handle custody cases or child support cases? You want to be very specific about finding out what their experience level is.

And then I tell people, this is not the time to skim. You want to have a consultation with the most experienced family lawyer that you can afford to have a consultation. There are family lawyers who will offer a free consultation all the way up to, there was just a newspaper article recently about Bill Diehl, who was an extremely well known domestic attorney in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, who often charged a thousand dollars an hour. And he would require a sizable retainer be placed with the firm before you could ever meet with him. So there’s a large spectrum of pricing and cost for attorneys. And this is the time when you figure out how much money can I dedicate to getting this initial advice, and you want to find the best that you can afford.

And I will tell you that I caution people about going for free consultations because attorneys earn their living by charging for their advice and the time that they spend giving their advice. So when someone is giving it to you for free, there should be some question about the experience level or the amount of advice you might get at that initial consultation, because it just works against the way that the profession actually makes a living and those professionals feed their family. So I do think that there is some expectation setting that you need to have if you’re going in for a free consultation, but by all means, any consultation is better than no consultation. So if that’s the best you can afford, take the time to do it and take away as much of it as you can, but basically go find the most experienced family lawyer that you can to have your consultation.

Now people might say, but I don’t have a lot of money and I can’t afford a thousand dollars an hour attorney. And I will as a note say there’s not many, if any, thousand dollar an hour divorce attorneys running around anymore. But the issue is you want to get the most experienced one for your consultation because the more experienced they are, the more nuanced they are. The more they have seen over the course of their representation, the more they’re going to pick up on. So a more experienced family lawyer, when you’re going through your fact pattern, they’re going to pick up those little nuggets that someone who’s only maybe been out for a year might miss, because they just haven’t seen it yet or they don’t know about it. They just haven’t run into it and had to deal with it, and it may be something that isn’t really taught specifically in a class, and it may not be something that is defined in a real clear manner in a statute or case law. It’s just something that someone who does it over and over and over again and has done it at a really high level starts seeing as a problem and knows that it needs to be addressed.

So when you’re trying to decide what kind of attorney you need, you want to go ahead and pick someone that can let you know, do you have a complicated issue or not, or have a simple issue? And the more experienced person is going to be able to break that down for you better.

And here’s the other trick. If you’ve got a super experienced well versed family lawyer, they don’t need to milk somebody. They’re not trying to take advantage of anybody. Most all attorneys are incredibly ethical and really do want to help their clients, especially domestic attorneys. No one’s trying to take advantage of you and bill you more than you should be billed. And the first thing I know I do, if I see somebody who’s got something a very simple and I don’t think they need my level of skill to handle their case, I tell them. I’m like, “Oh, you know what? I really think that a good fit for you would be,” and I’ll refer them to an associate in my firm. And if I really don’t even think there’s a good fit in my firm for them, I have no problem referring them to a colleague who I think is a good match for them both for experience and price point. So that’s why I think that it’s money well spent.

And you can tell the attorney you’re consulting with what your price point is and what resources you have to hire an attorney and they’re going to be upfront with you about whether or not that’s going to be a problem with that particular attorney.

So you don’t have to hire the attorney you consult with. You could make a different choice after the consultation and maybe learn more about it, but the more experienced attorney can tell you what you need, what your options are, what you should expect to spend, what you can afford, what the cost might be to you if you don’t have somebody help you with it, and even if they believe you can handle it yourself. So that’s probably the best advice I can give anyone, is just seek the most expensive consultation you can afford, with the most experienced attorney.

So a lot of people are gonna say, well, how do you know? How do you know who is a really experienced attorney? Well most attorneys these days do you have websites. And I encourage you to really do some investigation. Look at the websites and look for their experience level. And one thing you’ll note is that the experienced attorneys are talking about how long they’ve been practicing. The non-experienced attorneys, it’s very silent. There’s no date of when they graduated from law school. There’s no date when they took the bar exam. There’s no date when they were licensed. Is real vague in terms of how long they’ve been in practice. But somebody who’s been practicing family law for 10 years, it’s going to be clearly stated that they’ve been practicing it for 10 years, and when they graduated. So it’s not a hidden fact on the website of an experienced attorney.

The other thing you can do is just ask around, seek personal referrals. If you know of people who’ve been through a divorce and separation, talk to them about their experience. How was their attorney? Were they comfortable with the way it was handled? Did they feel like that they were well represented? Did they feel like they got good sound advice? And just ask. And you can ask confidentially and you can have a friend ask or another family member ask for you if that’s important.

There are some online review sites and they can be helpful. I wouldn’t take them completely as the gospel so to speak, but there are sites where people do review and you can read those reviews and that might give you some insight.

There are various recognitions and awards that are available, and many people have won them or been recognized, and those can be helpful as a marker of their abilities and their recognition. I would not discount people who have not won them, to be honest, because there is a little bit of a popularity contest component to some of these awards, in the sense that I believe that there are many, many fabulous attorneys out there who haven’t been selected and it just may mean that they don’t understand the selection process or they’re just not working in the right circles to be nominated for these things. And I have received these recognitions and it’s a lovely pat on the back. But I know that I was not a markedly less experienced skilled attorney the year before I was selected than I was the year I was selected. And I know so many people whom I think are really, really fine attorneys. So it’s something to look at and consider for sure, but I wouldn’t not choose somebody who’s very experienced, who was recommended to you, simply because they hadn’t been on some list anywhere.

But once you’ve gone to that attorney, what you’re looking for at that consultation is a rapport. Do you trust this person? Do you feel that you can talk to this person? Does this person listen to you? Is the approach that they are recommending and suggesting to you something that is comfortable to you? Do you have questions about what they’re doing and they’re not willing to discuss it to your satisfaction?

You really want to, at that point, be establishing as much of a rapport as vetting their expertise. I know if I have a a workman come into my house and I’m trying to get quotes on a job to be done at my house, I often feel at a serious disadvantage because I don’t know how to do it myself, so I don’t know how to determine whether that person is going to be a better fit for the job that I’m trying to do as another. Because I can’t do it myself. And it’s really going to be the same thing for you when you’re talking to an attorney. It’s going to be a little difficult for you to vet whether or not their answers are right because if you already had a law degree, you would be in a very different place than you are when most of the people are sitting in my chair. But you can ask around and you can just get a really good feel and a good instinct about the answers that you’re getting and the trust level that you have with this person.

It is essential when you’re working with an attorney that you be open and honest with them and you tell them everything that they need to know to best represent you. And if you do not feel comfortable with that person and you don’t have enough of a rapport … And I’m not talking about a friendship. This is not looking for somebody that you’re gonna go play golf with or go to the movies with. I can’t think of a single client that wants to have a thing to do with me when I’m finished with their case, because I am a pretty visible reminder of a very unpleasant part of their lives. So it’s not about establishing a friendship with this person.

But I do need somebody who trusts me enough to tell me things that they may not have even told their own parents. The kind of things you talk about in a confessional with a priest, but the things that your spouse knows because you’ve been intimate with them, you’ve been completely tangled up in a life with them for a long time. And if you think that hiding it from me is going to help your case when they know it, you’re wrong. But if you don’t trust me to have your best interest, then you’re not going to tell me these kinds of things. So you want want to look to make sure that you have a communication style that matches that attorney and that you have a rapport and that you have a trust and that you know that you feel like you’re in good hands and you will accept the advice and the instructions of this attorney.

So don’t just pick someone because they were referred to you as a good attorney. Don’t pick somebody just because their reputation is being a bulldog or being the greatest. If you don’t a good feeling in that meeting, then you want to keep going.

I think that having a couple of consultations can be helpful for people if they have the time and the money to do it. But if you have a good feeling about the first one, I don’t think you need to go shopping, but if you don’t have a good feeling about someone you meet with, you definitely need to keep shopping.

The type of attorney you choose is going to really determine the direction that your case can go. I see it all the time. When one person chooses a particular type of attorney, then the other spouse will go and try to match or up that attorney. So if you pick somebody who is incredibly aggressive in their approach for all cases and that’s their reputation then your spouse is going to go get somebody equally aggressive or more aggressive. And sometimes that’s appropriate for the situation. Most of the time it’s not, not in family law situations. So you want somebody generally speaking who matches your situation.

But you do need to choose carefully because whatever you pick, you’re going to get back in return. So if your goal is to pick the most obstinate, ornery, aggravating, difficult person to make your spouse’s life miserable, sit back and enjoy the ride because you’re getting ready to get hit up with exactly the same thing. So that’s sort of the sad part about matching attorneys in domestic cases is that you are going to get back what you pick. So do be careful in some respects.

And remember that if your situation changes, you can always make an adjustment. There is not an attorney out there that takes it personally if a client decides that they need to change direction. We want what’s best for our clients in all situations. And if a client doesn’t feel that we can meet their needs, you know what, there’s a lot of really competent divorce attorneys out there and I will be the first one to make a recommendation for a client of mine, the things they need the change, because I truly do want what’s best for them. And if it’s not me, I am perfectly happy to make sure that it’s somebody else.

So remember that it’s not if you want an attorney, it’s which attorney do you want. And always, always consider the fact that you need to have an attorney review anything before you sign it. That’s my public service announcement for the day. Do not ever sign a legal document without taking it to an attorney and have him review it. And I don’t care if your spouse hands you something and says it’s simple and it’s easy and you don’t need an attorney to review it. Yes you do.

So there you have it, another neighborhood of Splitsville explored. There’s still so much to learn here, so I hope you’ll tune into the next episode. While Splitsville is not a fun place to be, thankfully it is full of helpful people, valuable resources and sound advice, if you know where to look. See you next time.

The insights and presented in Welcome to Splitsville are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning into this podcast constitute an attorney/client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey, contact Leigh Sellers and her team at touchstonefamilylaw.com.