Do I need an attorney in my Virginia divorce case?

Posted on Apr 6, 2016 by Katie Carter

As a group, attorneys have a pretty bad reputation. I, personally, think that’s pretty darn unfair, considering all the awesome things that attorneys, as a group, are able to do for their clients. Sure, we can argue both sides of most issues (including, as it happens, the side that you don’t particularly agree with, which may account for your feelings towards attorneys as a group), but that’s no reason to perpetuate all of those horrible lawyer jokes that my uncles have delighted in telling me at major holiday get togethers ever since I told the family I was going to law school. As hilarious as lawyer jokes may be, there are a lot of lawyers out there in the world doing a whole lot of good for people.
I may be biased, but I think my law firm is no exception. We represent women exclusively (that’s right, we have no men clients at all, and never have) in divorce and custody cases.
If you’re a woman, preparing to go through a divorce or custody case, or if you’ve already been through one, you know that it’s a pretty difficult time. There’s a lot at stake, including child support, custody, visitation, spousal support, and division of all the assets.
Of course, you don’t have to use an attorney to get a divorce. Virginia law allows you to handle your divorce or custody case entirely on your own, if that’s what you want to do. It’s entirely up to you. Different people make different decisions, even under pretty similar circumstances; whether you decide to hire an attorney (or not) all depends on you.

Do I even need an attorney?

That really all depends on what you mean by “need.” Technically speaking, in Virginia, you can represent yourself in a divorce action. So, if you’re sticking to a fairly literal definition of need, you don’t have to have an attorney go to court for you. Or negotiate for you. Or, really, do anything—because you are legally allowed to represent yourself. It’s not like, without an attorney, you won’t have access to the court system. You will.
Still, it’s not always that easy to represent yourself. As you can probably imagine, going to court is complicated. It’s not just about oral advocacy (you know, presenting your case in front of the judge and opposing counsel); it’s about knowing the rules, what to file, when to file, and how to accomplish your objectives. It’s not just as easy as showing up in court and asking for what you want; you have to properly file and plead your case before you even walk into a courtroom. Procedurally, it’s fairly complicated. And, besides that, it’s constantly changing.

So, do I need an attorney?

I think, most of the time, it comes down to exactly how difficult your case might be. For people who will have to resort to the court system to divide everything, hiring an attorney is probably wise.
You see, there’s a couple different ways to get divorced. Most people don’t get divorced at a divorce trial; in fact, trials are pretty rare. Most people negotiate and settle their divorces outside of court. Why? For a lot of reasons, but mostly because it’s cheaper, easier, and quicker. Besides that, it also tends to yield better results.
Think about it. If you fight over your divorce, what happens? You take lots of time. You spend lots of money. And, if you let a judge decide how to divide everything, you don’t actually have any say in who gets what. Of course, it’s probably safe to say most divorces end up with things divided fairly close to 50/50, but there’s no question that WHICH 50% is important. If you really start to think about it, there are some things that mean more to you than others. The mark of a good divorce is when you walk away with the 50% that means the most to you. There’s definite serious value in that.
Of course, it’s not always easy to know ahead of time whether your divorce will be one where you fight it out until the bitter end. Most divorces start out fairly contentious in the beginning and then settle down over time.
Ultimately, though, it’s a guess. We guess all the time when we start out planning a divorce. Will your case settle? Will we have to go to court? We have to start somewhere so, based on what you tell us in an initial consultation, we guess. So, if you’re planning for yourself where to start, it’s okay if you’re just guessing.
The thing is, it almost doesn’t matter where you start. Although there may be different costs associated with each choice, there’s nothing that will force you to stick it out there if it isn’t working out. Start out fighting and end up settling? That’s fine. Hope to settle, but things are just too sticky and you need to go to court? Easy enough.
At the end of the day, though, the choices you make at the beginning are educated guesses, based on whether you think you and your husband will be capable of negotiating an agreement—or whether you’ll need to go to court.
If you’re negotiating an agreement, you may choose to hire an attorney. But if you’re hoping to NOT hire an attorney, this is the type of case where you’ll more than likely be able to handle things on your own—of course, that’s assuming that you’re relatively familiar with the most up to date version of the Virginia Code, you know what you can expect, you’re aware that there are certain things that the court will automatically award you… Basically, you need to know up to date, Virginia specific information that will help you negotiate a rock solid result for yourself.
You know, divorce is the biggest financial transaction in most adult’s lives. Buying a house or a car is a big deal, but divorce divides both of those things—plus kids, if you have them, and retirement accounts. And more, of course, but those are some of the biggies we often see. It’s a huge deal, so you need to know how to draft an agreement for yourself that is as good as what an attorney would draft for you—and not as bad as one your husband’s attorney might draft for you!
There’s a lot of information out there to help you, if you’re hoping to do it on your own. But you’ll have to use your best judgment in a lot of ways, too, to make sure that you’re getting all the information you need to make the type of decisions you’ll need to make.
Afraid to do it alone? You’re not alone in that, and you’re right to worry a little. After all, attorneys do a lot of valuable things.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do things alone, if that’s what you want.

You don’t have to hire an attorney if that’s not what you want. It’s up to you, but if your divorce is uncontested, you may be able to do it yourself. For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.