After your decision to separate, what’s the next most important, most impactful decision you will make? You may not realise it now but my pick is it will be choosing the professionals who will help you untangle your marriage or relationship. With all the decisions and changes you face, why is this so important? Because your choice of professionals will largely determine which process you work through in your separation and together, your choice of professionals and process, will have a profound impact on what your divorce story is.
If you’ve seen the recent film Marriage Story you will totally get what I am saying!
In Marriage Story, Charlie and Nicole want an amicable separation - one that is respectful, doesn’t cost the world and probably doesn’t involve lawyers. You know the sort of separation and divorce – its probably not unlike the one you ideally hope for. Pretty quickly on, you start to witness Charlie and Nicole descend into a personal hell. They each lawyer up and have their common sense taken over by fear as they travel through a painful (excruciatingly so), adversarial and costly divorce process. Its all the more painful to watch because their post-separation letters to one another that the film opens with speak of their ongoing love, respect and admiration for one another. But all that gets lost sight of once fear and frustration set in and their lawyers are engaged.
How could it have been different for Charlie and Nicole? Well, they could have appreciated the significance of who they chose as their lawyers and made that choice far more carefully. They could have chosen lawyers who would support their pursuit of their ‘ideal’ divorce and take them through a process that capitalised on, and promoted, the goodwill and respect they shared (no matter small that may have got), rather than feed their fears and destructively inflame relations between them. At a very surface level, Charlie and Nicole's lawyers looked as if they had their client's best interests at heart – they were going to make sure their client came out on top! However, this bore little resemblance to what was really important to Charlie and Nicole and fostered an adversarial climate of distrust and fear.
Both Nicole and Charlie thought they were doing the right thing. Nicole was guided in her choice of lawyer by the recommendation by a colleague. Charlie realised his first choice of lawyer was going to take him down a path that he didn’t want (and couldn't afford) so he found someone who really cared but who ultimately didn't have the processes or tools to help Charlie through his divorce any other way than at the level they were pulled into.
So, how do you avoid this and go about getting this decision right? The first professional you engage may be a lawyer but it could also be a mediator, divorce coach, counsellor, financial expert or psychologist. All of these professionals have a lot to offer anyone going through a separation but I’m going to focus on the importance of getting your choice of lawyer right because (a) I am a lawyer so it is what I know and (b) every day I see the impact that the choice of lawyer has on families and people going through a separation or divorce.
When it comes to choosing a lawyer, now is not the time to simply see your parent’s lawyer or the neighbourhood lawyer who helped when you bought your first home. If you needed to have your tonsils removed, would you have your family doctor or GP do it? No, you would choose an ENT specialist who has spent most of her professional days removing tonsils, right?! The same should be true of the lawyer you choose - Family Law is a specialised field.
Once you have found some options for lawyers who are specialised in family law, take time to find one that:
is able to work together with you in a way that aligns with what is important to you, your values and your goals and takes the time, at the outset and throughout, to understand these and help you to understand them.
is trained in other dispute resolution processes so you can be offered more than litigation or lawyer-led negotiation for resolving matters. As a last resort, you may need litigious processes but first hear all the options from a lawyer who regularly works using mediation and collaborative practice. Even if you don’t end up using mediation or collaborative process, the skills your lawyer has from working in these areas will serve you well.
tells you what you NEED to hear, not what you WANT to hear. The best lawyers are the ones who advise their clients honestly and frankly. Such a lawyer will look at your situation from all angles, identify the weaknesses, have a strong BS radar and won’t sell you false hope.
ensures you completely understand all your options for how you move your family through this time and the advice you are being given, taking the time to walk you through it until you do.
is someone you feel comfortable working with.
recognises that she cannot be “all things to all people”. She will see the value of you engaging with other professionals that may best serve you at this time.
Guides you like a GPS and doesn’t take over the steering wheel from you. This way, you are supported to make the decisions you need to make about how you work through your separation or divorce.
Treat your first consultation as the lawyer interviewing for a job with you. (Don’t be afraid to do this with several lawyers until you find the right fit for you). If the lawyer you see only offers a couple of resolution options, interview another one who offers other options so you can make a fully informed process choice. If the lawyer you see doesn't take time to fully understand what is important to you about how you work through your divorce (beneath the 'facts' and legal issues) then interview another one who does.
Putting careful consideration into your choice of lawyer after separating can make for a more peaceful, cost effective and respectful divorce story that you can be proud of.