If you make good use of this site and our divorce solutions, you might not need help, but for sure you will need less of it and you will know what kind of help you want and how to find it.
Who you call depends on what kind of help you want (item 1).
Items 2 – 4 suggest who you can call and the services they offer.
- Help with what?
- Divorce Helpline (CA cases)
- Legal Documents Preparers (typists, paralegals)
- Friends and relatives
- How to shop for a professional
- How to fire your attorney
- Advice. To understand your legal rights, practical options, how to solve problems and figure out the best thing to do next, look for a family law attorney who specializes primarily or entirely in mediation. This way, the advice you get will more likely be oriented toward solving problems rather than fighting in court. For California cases, the best thing you can do is call Divorce Helpline.Some attorneys will do the first interview for a fairly small fee or nothing at all, but too often they spend that time convincing you that you need them to handle your case rather than giving you useful answers to your questions. Getting practical, useful information and advice from attorneys without retaining him/her can be tricky, because they don’t really want to help you help yourself, they want to be retained to do it all because that’s where the big money is—your big money. You do not want to retain an attorney unless you have no other choice. Read the Steps through Step 5 before you call an attorney.When you interview attorneys, looking for the person you want to work with, explain that you are looking primarily for someone to give you information and advice that will lead to a negotiated or mediated settlement, that you do not want to be represented yet or take your case to court at this time. See what they say.
- Court orders for support or child custody and visitation or to freeze all financial transfers. Getting orders from court automatically takes your case into battle mode from which it is hard to get back out. But if you are sure there is no other way to work out some temporary arrangements, or if you are sure your spouse will do something underhanded, then it might be necessary go quickly to court for temporary orders. Look for a family law attorney who does a lot of mediation but also some litigation and try to work into mediation mode as soon as possible.
- Battle. If you are sure from the beginning that you won’t be able to avoid a fight, you’ll be shopping for a litigator—an attorney who fights cases in court and plays hard to win. But litigation is so stressful, destructive, time consuming and terribly expensive that you should read through Make Any Divorce Better to see all the things you can do to avoid a legal battle. If you end up going to court, pay special attention chapter 10, How to Win a Legal Battle, to learn how to protect yourself and your children and how to make the best of a very difficult situation.
If your case is in California, and you would like help with solving divorce problems without going to court, call Divorce Helpline at (800) 359-7004 to talk to a top quality family law attorney who will act as your coach or guide, help solve problems, develop options, talk to your spouse, mediate, arbitrate, settle, write your agreement and do all paperwork to get your judgment. They don’t go to court because they don’t believe in it, but are expert at finding other option and ways to reach a fair outcome.
Taking your divorce to an attorney before you know what you are doing is the worst thing you can do—a well-trod path into escalating conflict. So, unless you have an immediate emergency like those described in my article What’s an Emergency?, or unless you are very certain that your spouse is likely to act badly, like take all the money or the kids and run, then do not call an attorney until you read Make Any Divorce Better and find out things you need to know before you take this perilous step.
What to look for. A good attorney, especially an attorney-mediator, should help you clarify your situation, develop your choices and options and suggest possible solutions for problems that do not involve going to court. If the attorney seems to make things more complicated rather than less, seems ready to start filing papers and thus head straight to court when it might not be absolutely necessary, and especially if he/she does not help you develop some options and suggest various solutions for your problems, then you are in the wrong office. Keep looking.
Attorneys take a variety of approaches to divorce that defines the way they will handle your case if you decide to call on them for help.
- A mediator specializes in helping you work out an agreement that you can both accept and live by. Many attorneys claim to mediate, but you want a family law specialist who is primarily a mediator and no litigation at all. There are also some excellent non-attorney mediators but in general, these are preferred when the issues of your case are limited to personal discord and parenting. If your case involves money, property or support issues, you’d be better off with an attorney mediator who can bring knowledge of state law and local judges into the discussion. Ask if they do that, because many mediators will not bring in legal information even if they could, preferring each party to have separate counsel, something that greatly increases your cost.
- A collaborative law attorney represents you and speaks for you, but they enter into a written agreement with the other side not to go to court or threaten to go to court, concentrating on negotiation and mediation. Depending on your case, they might form a team with an accountant, therapist, child specialist, or financial planner. This approach only works if attorneys on both sides are willing to enter into this arrangement. Collaborative divorce has a good track record and, even with all the professional services it will still cost less than a court battle. This is a new but rapidly growing sub-specialty, so it is not certain there will collaborative lawyers near you. Go on the Internet and search “collaborative law” plus the name of your state, or call the local bar or other attorneys and ask if they know of any collaborative divorce lawyers near you. When you talk to one, find out how many other such cases they have conducted.
- Limited representation. A small but growing number of lawyers are offering representation limited to specific tasks or portions of your case while you keep overall responsibility. For example, they will draft your agreement, or file and appear on one motion. This is not available everywhere, but it is becoming more common. If you want a bit of advice or service from a family law attorney, ask if they offer “limited representation” or “unbundling.”
- Aggressive litigation. A litigator fights aggressively in court and plays hardball to win. By definition, this means arguing with the other side, threatening legal action, and fighting in court. Most attorneys take this approach but most are not good at it. It’s hard to find top quality, even if you pay top dollar. Most have too many cases and too little time, so after the initial interview, don’t expect a lot of personal attention, good customer service, or your phone calls returned promptly.
In really bad cases where you are already under attack, or where you are very sure your spouse will do something sneaky or underhanded, this might be what you need, but if you are looking for balanced advice that might lead to peaceful (inexpensive) solutions to your problems, this is not the kind of attorney you want to consult.
If you know pretty much how you want to settle your marital affairs, and if you don’t need legal advice or problem solving or help with drafting a settlement agreement, and if you are very sure your spouse will not file papers in court to oppose your divorce action, then perhaps all you need is help with typing and processing the legal documents that will get you a judgment (or decree) of divorce (or dissolution).
Non-attorneys who offer legal forms services directly to the public go by different names from state to state. Here, we’ll call them Legal Documents Assistants (LDAs), but you might find them listed in yellow pages as:
- Divorce Assistance
- Document Preparation Service
- Legal Clinics
- Legal Documents Assistants (or Preparers)
- Legal Services
- Typing Service
- Word Processing Service
For a list of professionals near you who can help you do your divorce, click here.
Look in your local yellow pages under the categories listed above. Some LDAs are members of the National Association of Legal Documents Preparers. To look for them at the NALDP site, click here.
In theory, you tell an LDA what you want to say on which forms, then they type them up and handle the secretarial work. In practice, they provide more guidance. Rates are anywhere from $200 to $800 or more for doing divorce paperwork. We introduced this innovation in legal service in 1973 and it has since changed the face of the legal map across the United States.
No particular education or training is required to be an LDA, but in some states they have created professional associations that offer training and certification. For example, the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA), offers its members training and promotes high standards in education, ethics and business practices. We are a Sustaining Member of CALDA.
LDAs cannot give you reliable legal advice, nor should you have one prepare your settlement agreement unless they are using Nolo’s DealMaker software or closely following the example in our book. Just as when hiring a lawyer or mechanic, be careful who you hire. Ask how long he/she has been in business and check references. Read section 5 below for tips on how to find any kind of professional.
This is your least reliable source of advice. Take all the moral support you can get, but when you get advice about how to handle your case, smile and say “Thank you,” but keep in mind that they might be dead wrong. However well-meaning, family and friends are often misinformed and for sure they lack a professional’s depth and breadth of knowledge.
If you didn’t get it from this site or our books or a family law specialist attorney, don’t trust it! Just because you like or trust someone doesn’t make them right. If you take bad advice, you are the one who pays the price, so be careful.
The best way to find professional help is by personal reputation. Licenses and certificates are important but do not guarantee that the practitioner will be good or the right person for you. Here are some approaches you can use:
- Try to get a recommendation from someone reliable. Talk to other professionals in related fields or call local divorce support groups. Look in the yellow pages under Divorce Assistance, Attorneys, Mediators, or Counselors.
- Interview more than one prospective professional.
- Ask about their fees, their training and background. Are they licensed? How long have they been in business? Do they do it full time?
- Ask about their area of expertise, what their goals are and what approach they would use in cases like yours
- Ask if they are willing to give you information and advice without taking your case on retainer, if they offer limited representation or practice collaborative law.
- Do they ask you questions, too, to find out if their service and style is the most appropriate for you?
- Does their work place feel calm and private?
- Do they discuss your options with you?
Finally, the most important thing is not a rational process at all—the person you work with has to feel right. Mediation, counseling, even litigation, are intensely personal. Whatever it is that works happens on the level of personalities—yours and theirs. You need to find a professional with strength of character, experience, wisdom, and a personality that suits you. Without these, not all the techniques and education in the world will do the trick.
In most cases, it would be better to get help from an attorney without actually retaining him or her to represent you, that is, to “take” your case and act on your behalf in your divorce. Far better if you pay for whatever advice or limited service you decide you need. But it often happens that people retain an attorney and later find out that they are not getting good service. You need to know that it is easy to fire your attorney and, if you do, the attorney is obligated to turn all your files over to you with any part of your retainer that has not yet been spent. You have to decide whether or not to send a warning message, such as “If you don’t act promptly in my case and return my calls within 24 hours, I will be looking for someone else to represent me.” If you decide you no longer want to work with your attorney, read How to fire your attorney.