In the 1989 black comedy "The War of the Roses," actors Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner played out their scorched-earth divorce to a bitter end. But for real-life couples aiming for a livable outcome, hiring the right lawyers is crucial.
“Look for a lawyer the same way you would look for a surgeon — as if your life depended on it,” says New York attorney Michael P. Mossberg, who has handled his share of cases involving both high-profile and lesser-known couples. “The divorce is not only going to cost you money: Your future depends on how it is resolved.”
Mossberg, also an instructor at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, recommends checking in with your social circle for referrals or even asking patrons at bars and restaurants you frequent. “But don’t go online: It’s all hype, all b.s.,” he adds.
“Ask friends and friends of friends who have gone through a divorce,” says Randall Kessler, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section and author of the forthcoming book "Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids, and Your Future."
Kessler says the ABA, the local bar association, and other lawyers who know which attorneys are respected are also sources but “you will feel much better if a few people suggest the same lawyer or law firm.”
Here are other key factors to consider:
“It’s important that he or she have the ability to listen, to understand, to not talk over you and to explain the process in a simple and understandable way,” says Kessler.
Divorce is a highly emotional matter, but you don’t want a lawyer who mimics your feelings about your spouse. “You are looking for a lawyer who won’t want to fight,” says Mossberg, “because the more you fight, the more it will cost you.”
Take note of bold promises by a lawyer. “Be wary of lawyers who tell you what you want to hear," adds Kessler. "If you want alimony or custody, and five lawyers tell you that you won’t get it, and one says you will, I’d go with the majority opinion.”
A lawyer is only as good as his or her office and staff. Find one that also has partners, associates and support personnel as skilled at their jobs and compassionate about your situation as your own attorney.
“Divorce clients are often isolated and scared,” says Kessler, and they need to feel supported.
Fees can range from a rock-bottom $500 for an uncontested, simple divorce in the middle of the country, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the well-heeled New York and Los Angeles areas.
Ask up front about the fees and ways to keep overall costs in check. For example, you may work mainly with an associate who bills at a lower hourly rate as long as your case’s strategy is overseen by a senior partner. Also, compile any questions and address them in a single phone call or email.
Even if you’ve gone about finding a lawyer systematically and thoughtfully, it just may not work out. It’s wiser to fire the first attorney and hire another one midstream than to wind up with poor results that can affect your life for years.
And if you hesitate to ditch a bad lawyer, try watching "The War of the Roses."