I need a bulldog of a custody lawyer!

Posted on Feb 2, 2024 by Katie Carter

Eeks – the word bulldog!  I hate it.  I really do.  But still, time and time again, that’s what people ask for.  A shark.  A bulldog.  A pitbull.  A no-nonsense, take-no-names, kick-ass lawyer.

I get it.  The stakes are high.  They’re high in any legal case, but they may be especially high in family law.  After all, we’re dividing almost every single bit of money you’ve accumulated throughout your adulthood, not to mention custody, visitation, and support.  There’s a lot involved and its incredibly important to you.

But… a pitbull probably isn’t the answer.

Look, I won’t pretend I don’t know what you mean, or that I don’t think there are lawyers out there to whom I’d apply that label.  I just don’t think that having a ‘pitbull’ on your side is a good thing.

Also – have you met a pitbull?  They’re literally so sweet.  Either that, or they get people evicted, sued, or requiring significant medical attention.  Not to mention the profiling!

A pitbull lawyer is a lot the same, except for the possibility that they might also be sweet.  They’re not.  They’re litigious, aggressive, and extreme.  That all probably sounds good, though, right?  Except that, in most cases, I don’t think this translates into better results for the people involved in the cases.

A Pitbull Attorney Will Likely Cost You a Fortune

Do you have thousands of dollars to spare?  Then maybe you SHOULD consider a pitbull attorney.  But, then again, if you don’t – maybe you should at least hear me out.

Pitbull attorneys often do a lot.  They file a ton of motions, they send nasty letters (which can be very gratifying to read and to imagine your husband and his attorney scrambling to deal with), and they make settlement less likely than ever.

Not only that, but you force his attorney to respond in kind – driving up the cost and further increasing the number of motions, letters, and drama involved in the case.

It’s not uncommon for divorce cases to run as much as $40,000-50,000 or more, with the help of a pitbull attorney – and custody, oftentimes, can run even more because custody, visitation, and child support are modifiable unless and until the child turns 18.

I’ve seen plenty of $100,000+ cases that drag on for years and years and years.

I had a friend who asked me once who the attorney was that I disliked working with the most.  She had an ongoing custody case and an offer on the table that she didn’t like.  I told her, laughing.  “Don’t hire ____,” I said.  But she hired her.  And you know what else?  She spent $80k, and ended up with a very similar proposal to the one she didn’t like in the beginning.

A Pitbull Attorney Will Make Settlement Unlikely

Do you WANT to go to trial?  Or have multiple (unnecessary, expensive) contested hearings?  Then maybe you SHOULD consider a pitbull attorney.

Most people, though, want to reach a relatively amicable resolution.  Not because they like the other party – most don’t, in fact, and find settlement difficult, even under the best circumstances – but because its cheaper, easier, and gives them more control over the outcome.

In court, you generally don’t get the best outcome.  The judge is really only looking at how to resolve the case without giving either party a reason to appeal it.  (And, if you’re in juvenile court and you have an appeal as a matter of right, you can appeal anyway – meaning that you may have to pay for TWO trials on one set of issues.  Fun, right?)

Judges don’t have the time to determine the truth of he said/she said allegations.  If you’re both hurling allegations across the board, you’re likely to both get a stern (expensive) lecture, but it’s probably unlikely to sway the judge towards one or the other of you.  It’s impossible for him to tell who is telling the truth and who is the Karen.  It creates a sort of Johnny Depp/Amber Heard scenario.  We don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but we definitely think they both kinda suck anyway.

The judge doesn’t have time to come up with a truly customizable custody order anyway.  You’ll probably find that it’s sort of a drop down menu, and the judge chooses from a couple pretty typical options.

Primary physical custody often isn’t awarded to one party or the other on the first go, anyway.  I often tell clients to think of custody as more of a sliding scale.  Though it is not required to, the court often starts at shared physical custody.  It can change over time, if there’s a material change in circumstances and the current arrangement isn’t serving the best interests of the children, but shared custody is often a starting point.  Often, we see week on/week off arrangements, too, here in Hampton Roads.

It’s not a guarantee, but… your pitbull lawyer likely won’t make the judge choose a different option from the dropdown menu.  She simply doesn’t have the time (or the knowledge of the parties) to customize something unique to your case and, in any case, if she did, she’d open herself up to more appeals.

A Pitbull Attorney Will Make Coparenting Impossible

Coparenting is difficult under the best circumstances, but its even more difficult after a pitbull attorney has further ruptured the rift between you and your child’s other parent.

It may not seem important now, but it absolutely is.  Many families experience a period of heightened tension around their active case, but settle into a ‘new normal’ within a few months or years afterwards.  Many develop collaborative relationships that allow them to disregard the custody agreement entirely!

If you hope to develop any kind flexibility, cordiality, or respectful back and forth, a pitbull attorney is going to amplify tensions and make that exponentially more difficult.  You children will be damaged and you will likely find yourself in court over and over.

In any family law case, there are a range of alternatives.

Have a conversation with an attorney and find out what a realistic arrangement might look like in your case, even if you get information that you want to hear.  It’s never easy to tell a mom that we think 50/50 custody is likely when she wants primary physical custody but, in those cases, its not as though the more argumentative and aggressive style of the pitbull attorney will make you more likely to get what you want.

Sure, a not-so-good attorney can make mistakes, cause you case to linger too long, or be ineffective against the constant barrage from his attorney.  But that’s not to say that you need a pitbull in order not to hire a not-so-good attorney.  You don’t!

Don’t mistake attorney theatrics for skill.

You know what they say?  If the facts are on your side, pound the facts.  If the law is on your side, pound the law.  If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table?

Table pounding doesn’t help.  You might feel good, as a client, watching your attorney pound the table.  But that’s not the same thing as actually being effective.  (Did I mention?  It’s often extremely expensive, too!)

Good attorneys can move the case forward without pounding the table, filing unnecessary motions, or insulting everyone on the other side of counsel table.  Though it might feel less satisfying, it also ultimately will probably yield the same (if not better) results for a fraction of the price.  The casualties are less, too – both in terms of your blood pressure and mental health, but in the cost of the litigation on your children and, yes, even your children’s father.

We may not care about him, per se, but it is beneficial to be able to set up a productive coparenting relationship after the fact.  And, if he’s less threatened by the process, he’s much more likely to be able to cooperate with you later on down the line.

The attorney you hire should be as skilled in negotiations as she is in the courtroom.

Litigation isn’t the only alternative!  Though you probably want to hire someone who is confident and comfortable in the courtroom, negotiation is often where things really get done.

A pitbull attorney will likely focus mostly on her courtroom experience, but it’s important to get a sense of the attorney’s skills in a wider context.  Can she hold her own in negotiations?  How many of her cases are able to settle?  What percentage go to court?  What do average costs look like in those cases?  There are a lot of variables, and you’re smart to ask about it!

Most of the time, family law cases settle.  Litigation is expensive and results are generally poorer, so many families decide at some point that working together will yield the best result.  It’s not that settlement isn’t difficult, but that, on balance, it makes the most sense and prioritizes the most important things.

I don’t say ‘settlement,’ as though it’s a bad thing, either.  In many cases, the BEST results come from settlement, because the control is in the hands of the parties, rather than a judge (who doesn’t have time to dedicate to coming up with unique solutions anyway).  Being able to decide for yourselves how you’ll parent your children is important, and an attorney who can help you craft an agreement to reflect your specific concerns is invaluable.  It’s more subtle than table-banging, though – in my opinion – far, far, FAR more indicative of the skill level of the attorneys involved.

Your attorney should be talking to you about your goals, encouraging you to consider unique solutions, and helping you present those to the other side.  Your attorney should be working with you to address your concerns and finding ways to alleviate them.  It’s YOUR case, after all – it should reflect you, your husband, your children.  Your priorities.

Find out what a reasonable range of alternatives might look like in your situation. 

First step’s first: understand the law and what will likely happen in your case, based on the specific facts involved. You can download a copy of our custody book for Virginia moms, or consider attending an upcoming custody seminar.  (The divorce seminars are great, too, if your custody case is part of a larger divorce action.)

Both the divorce and custody seminars allow you the opportunity to ask questions – live! – to one of our licensed, experienced Virginia women-only divorce and custody attorneys.

You may also want to have an initial consultation, too, especially if your child’s other parent is a high conflict personality.  It’s definitely challenging to deal with high conflict people in a divorce case, but that doesn’t mean that the only recourse you have available to you is to hire the nastier attorney.

Make sure you understand what the range of outcomes might look like in your case and make a careful decision about who to hire as your attorney.

At the very least, get the facts.  Then, you can decide.  (For the record, though I would point out that many of our attorneys are incredibly effective, I would not insult them by referring to them as pitbulls.)  If that’s what you’re looking for – well, you may be in the wrong place.