Every so often, we get a call from a woman asking us what our “success” rate is like.
I understand. I’ve seen ads like that, too. A lawyer talks about case results, particularly if a case generated tens of thousands or even millions of dollars in awards for his client. You hear those things, and you’re impressed. You’re looking for a lawyer. It’s probably something you’ve never done before. Right? So, you’re nervous. And you know you’re talking about something that is fairly expensive, and may have a pretty substantial impact on the rest of your life. Divorce is probably, for most adults in America, one of the most profound financial transactions we undertake. It’s bigger than buying a house. It’s bigger than liquidating your retirement accounts. It’s bigger than your student loan debt. (If you’re like me, that’s pretty big.)
Why? Well, mostly, because divorce encompasses all of these things. It involves things that have a lot of financial value (like cars, houses, boats, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and retirement); in fact, in most cases, it involves ALL of those things. All at once. And they, to the extent that they are marital property, are divided up between the two of you.
Of course, divorce also divides things that aren’t financial—like your kids and your pets. But, obviously, just because custody doesn’t have a financial value attached (like, for example, your 401(k) might) doesn’t mean that it’s any less important. In fact, if you ask most parents, it’s the absolute most important thing.
All of that to say that divorce is expensive, both in terms of the amount of money you spend hiring an attorney and in the way that things, even things without obvious monetary value, are ultimately divided. Divorce is a big deal and you, like most savvy consumers out there, want to be sure that who you’re hiring is worth it.
…Only, how do you tell a good attorney from a bad one?
It’s a good question, and you’re right to ask. You’re about to make some big decisions, and you want to be sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself and your family. You know that the attorney you hire can have a big impact on your case. You want to tell the good attorneys from the bad attorneys. You want to be sure that you get good, solid advice, and that your attorney will zealously advocate on your behalf.
If you’ve never hired an attorney before, though, how do you know where to start? How do you tell one attorney from the other? Most attorneys these days have nice, glossy, impressive-looking websites. You read a bio and it’s full of pretty boring but impressive-sounding accolades. But what does it all mean? How does it affect you? How can you judge an attorney quickly and effectively, so that you know who you’re hiring is someone worth trusting?
All good questions. There are lots of ways of telling the good attorneys from the bad attorneys but, in family law at least, it’s kind of difficult to go by cases won.
How do you “win” in divorce?
We don’t really track our cases as wins or losses. In divorce, it really doesn’t work like that. These days, most divorces are settled in a document called a separation agreement; basically, rather than go to court, we negotiate a signed contract that divides a couple’s assets and liabilities between them. In most cases, we don’t go to court, because it’s easier, cheaper, and yields better results when the parties decide how things will be handled. Most of the time, too, we consider that a win—because we’ve gotten the best result possible and spent as little money as possible. Still, for your purposes, it’s not really a “win,” because we didn’t go to court and fight over things and have a judge render an opinion in our favor.
Believe it or not, it doesn’t happen that way all that often. And, even when it does, it rarely goes entirely in one side’s favor. Though you may “win” on some issues, you’ll probably lose on some, too. That’s just the nature of divorce. There’s no one side that is “absolutely right” while the other side is “totally guilty”; family law cases just aren’t that kind. It’s not like a criminal case where the person charged is either guilty or innocent, or a personal injury case where the insurance company is either liable or not. Family law isn’t black and white and, in most cases, both parties will walk away with something from the marriage. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that, most of the time, it looks something like 50/50.
Of course, when I say that, it doesn’t mean things HAVE to be divided 50/50, or that you’ll even necessarily get the 50% that is more important to you. It’s just a reality of this type of law practice. In a divorce, the things that were earned, accumulated, purchased or acquired during the marriage are divided between the parties. One side isn’t a winner while the other side is a loser. So, what you’re asking is nearly impossible to determine (not to mention entirely subjective).
Tracking wins versus losses this way really isn’t all that possible—and it’s certainly not accurate. Probably, if you’ve heard of an attorney’s track record before, you’ve heard it from a personal injury or criminal law attorney. You’d be pretty hard pressed to find a family law attorney who could provide statistics like this and, if you did, I would certainly be skeptical.
Whether you go to court or negotiate an agreement, chances are very good that you’ll get some things and you’ll miss out on some others. It’s just the nature of the type of case.
How many cases have YOU won?
Again, it’s a fair question. You won’t find statistics on a family law firm’s website about cases lost versus cases won, but surely the attorney has a pretty good idea and can tell you a little bit about cases they’ve handled. Right? Yes, probably.
If yours is a specific type of case, the attorney can give you an idea of your likelihood of success based on his or her opinion of the merits of the case. If he or she has handled a case similar to it, it’s fair to ask what happened.
In divorce cases, it’s probably safe to say that, in almost every case, you win some things and you lose other things. There are very few types of cases where there’s an absolute win or loss, and we see this most obviously in custody. If two people are fighting over custody, it’s possible to win or lose. Of course, even in these types of cases, we see judges try to split things fairly right down the middle, too.
These days, in contested custody cases (meaning cases where the parents can’t reach an agreement), we see more and more cases where the judges order shared custody. Shared custody basically means that the non-custodial parent (the parent who has the child less) has 90 or more days with the child in a calendar year. It doesn’t necessarily mean custody is 50/50, or week on/week off, though it could be. It just means that, to some degree or other, the parents share the time with the children more than they would if one parent had primary physical custody (defined as 89 or fewer days with the child during a calendar year for the non-custodial parent). It’s when shared custody isn’t really a possibility that we see custody cases where there are pretty obviously winners and losers.
If mom and dad don’t live in the same area, for example, or if one parent is petitioning the court to ask to move away from the area with the children, we see wins and losses. Obviously, then, if you don’t get what you ask the court for, you lose.
Relocation cases are extremely difficult to win, because, frankly, the law is stacked against the relocating parent. Even an experienced, extremely effective attorney can put on an awesome case and still lose, because the standards are set so unbelievably high in these types of cases.
It’s reasonable, if you’re facing a case like this, to ask whether your attorney has handled a case like yours. Has your attorney ever won a relocation case, for example, if that’s what you’re facing? A fair question. How was that case similar to or different from your case? What does your attorney think will happen in your case? A good attorney won’t just tell you what you want to hear; they’ll give you a full and realistic explanation of the law and explain your likelihood of success based on the merits of your case. That may or may not be what you want to hear, but it will help you begin to make decisions about whether your case is worth pursuing or not.
So, basically, to recap for you… Most of the time, we don’t consider our cases as wins or losses, because, in many ways, they go both ways. It’s kind of the nature of divorce and custody cases. We get some things, and we don’t get others. Even where custody is concerned, it’s possible to both win and lose. Maybe you’re the primary physical custodian, but dad gets four uninterrupted weeks with the kids every summer. For many moms, those kinds of conditions in a custody and visitation order are really sobering fact (even if the main goal of the case—to get primary physical custody—is achieved).
By all means, ask your attorney about his or her track record. But be prepared to get a complicated and multi-faceted answer.
Why can’t you win it all? Well, mostly because most judges don’t want one side to walk away with a windfall.
What do you mean by a “windfall?” Why can’t I get one?
A windfall means, generally, an unexpected and overwhelming good fortune. (Usually, it refers to money.) In a divorce, a judge doesn’t want one side to walk away with most of the things; it’s just not fair. Maybe “fair” isn’t a good word choice; in Virginia, we would say that’s not “equitable.” Why should one party get more and the other party walk away with virtually nothing? Though our laws allow the judge to take a party’s fault or negative monetary and nonmonetary contributions into account when determining how things will be divided, most of the time the division is fairly close to 50/50. Why? Because the parties were married and earned the things together, so both parties walk away with roughly half of the benefit of the marriage.
It’s not like a personal injury case where you can walk away with a million dollars, unless, of course, there’s two million dollars to divide in your divorce case. You won’t get more than what you have; in fact, you’ll get LESS than what you have, because it’ll have to be split in two and then used to maintain two separate households.
Divorce is not a money making proposition. In most cases, it’s financially difficult. You can’t really get a windfall because it just doesn’t exist.
So, how CAN I tell a good attorney from a bad one?
Asking about wins and losses is a difficult way to get good information, but it is great that you’re asking these questions. You’re a concerned and conscientious consumer, and you should be.
There are lots of ways to tell good attorneys from bad ones, and you should definitely be doing your research. So, where’s a great place to start?
I wrote a book, “The Woman’s Guide to Hiring an Outstanding Family Law Attorney,” and it’s a great (and free!) place to start. It will provide you with all sorts of pointers, including how to tell attorney ranking sites (like Martindale Hubble and Avvo) apart (and make sense of what they say), what questions to ask your attorney during an initial consultation, help you decide whether you even want to hire an attorney (or prefer to handle things on your own), teach you how to save money on attorneys fees, and even provides you with a scoresheet you can use to bring with you to your initial consultations (so you can compare different attorneys at a glance).
It’s a pretty quick, easy read, but it’s chock full of valuable information you’ll need to be sure that you’re hiring the right guy (or gal) to help you. To get your free copy now, click here.
As soon as you fill out our online form, you’ll get an e-copy of the book, delivered to the email address you provide. If you live in our immediate area, you’ll also receive another email, asking for your physical address, so we can mail you a hard copy of the book. (We’re old hats at this; we won’t send it in an envelope that identifies us as the senders. We’ll send it in an unmarked, inoffensive, unobtrusive plain white envelope.) That way, you can read it, highlighter in hand (that’s what I like to do), and make your notes in the margins.
Like I said, you’re right to be asking these questions. It’s awesome that you are! I want to make sure you get the right information to begin your search, and I think my book will really help you get the answers you’re looking for. Whether or not you decide to hire me, my firm, or any attorney at all, I sincerely wish you the best! Good luck to you.