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When Do you Need to Hire a Divorce Litigator?

Elise Pettus

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—I'm hearing a lot of my divorcing friends say things that make me nervous. They say they want to go the mediation or the collaborative route ... because they don't want fireworks. They don't want a "big crazy angry mess," as one girlfriend put it.

What this really means is they want to be nice. Of course they do, that's part of why they are my friends. And of course, being my friends, they are usually in the right, meaning it was the other spouse who left or cheated or gambled them into bankruptcy. But I'm nervous, because I want them to be O.K. when they get through this whole process, and I think some of them might require bigger guns.

Also see: The ABC's of Affordable Divorce

To all of my friends, and all of you other nice people who are divorcing, take a look at the following. Here, gathered from attorneys in mediation, collaboration and litigation are some key indicators that you might need to double check your arsenal as you head to the negotiation battlefield.

Also see: Divorce and the New Wheels Dilemma

If any of the above is true for you, think hard before choosing the soft route.

Divorce is the moment to stop being nice. And if you can't stop being nice, then you might need to hire a mean lawyer. Did I say "mean"? I meant strong. As in powerful, experienced, smart and able, if necessary, to take your spouse to court. I probably don't need to mention that this lawyer will also be expensive (unless you have one in your immediate family). Not all expensive lawyers are good, but almost all good lawyers are expensive. And it's a painful truth that a cheaper lawyer, especially if he or she is a sole operator, can often cost you more in the end. Divorce chat rooms are rife with stories of people hiring the inexpensive lawyer only to have to start over with a pricier one in the end.

In most cases, you'll have to cough up a hefty retainer. "Some people get sticker shock--it's true," says Alyssa Rower of Aronson, Mayefsky and Sloan, the firm that represented Katie Holmes in her split with Tom Cruise. At $500 per hour, Rower is the cheap lawyer in her office (the partners charge $750). But along with that price tag, she says, you get the firm's depth of experience, reputation and resources.

Another upside of hiring a powerful firm, she says, is that they are not out to milk every case. Nobody wants to be milked. So what can you do to curb costs as you enter this most precious partnership?

Also see: Is the $399 Divorce for Real?

Enlist your lawyer's help in trying to stay within the retainer's parameters. He or she may be able to tell you when you are getting close to the end of it, or how you might save their time by using another, less expensive professional.

Nobody will come out and say it, but when it comes to divorce, it sort of boils down to this: The nicer you are, the more likely you are to need a "mean" lawyer. When it comes to paying them, you want to make sure the lawyer does their best to be nice to you.

Also see: Divorcing Toward a Barter Life

  • 1. Your spouse has, or makes way more money than you do.
  • 2. You both have money, but he works in finance and you know nothing about money other than the best ways to spend it.
  • 3. You both have a lot of money, property and other types of assets, which makes it, well, complicated.
  • 4. Your spouse is an unreasonable bully.
  • 5. You have reason to believe that your spouse may be hiding assets.
  • 6. Your spouse is not just unreasonable, but sometimes seriously out to lunch, and might even be dangerous at times, either to himself, to you or to your kids.
  • 7. Your spouse has a different passport than you do and enough money to purchase plane tickets (for himself and the kids) to someplace he or she can call home and you can't.
  • 8. Your spouse is a chronic ditherer OR has reason to want to stretch out this process indefinitely, to your disadvantage.
  • Get your documents ready. Don't throw piles of unsorted papers at your attorney, unless you want to pay an assistant attorney $100 per hour to sequence and file them. If you feel too unhinged to do it right now, or it just isn't your strong suit, get the help of an organizing assistant, a bookkeeper or maybe just a Virgo friend.
  • Don't use your lawyer as a therapist. At barely 5'0" with eager eyes and a friendly, outgoing demeanor, Rower could hardly be described as mean. In fact, like many divorce attorneys, she went into divorce law, because she wanted to help people. But while she may have endless compassion and patience, she is not a trained therapist, and she'll cost you more than twice the price!
  • Be a conscientious communicator. Take time to think about what you want to say, but don't take too much time saying it. Don't hold back your questions, but consider drafting them ahead of time for meetings or bouncing them off a relative or friend. Try gathering your questions and sending out one email a week or a day, rather than as soon as each question comes up. In turn, answer your attorney's questions as promptly and succinctly as you can. In general, staying on topic and focused can save you thousands in attorney's fees.

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