Going through a divorce is trying—even if you never go to trial. But decisions you make can and will influence whether your trip from unhappily ever after to suddenly single is as smooth as a German high speed rail or as hectic as a crazy train complete with Ozzy Osbourne as the engineer.
Divorce Boot Camp is designed to coach you up on how to get from here to there without going off the rails. In Session One we focused on getting in top condition. In Session Two we covered how to manage your relationship with others.
In this final session, the focus in on how to execute the very important exercise of lawyering up; and once you do, how to get the most for your money. Your lawyer can have a huge impact on which train you board. So, before you sign an engagement letter, run through the following analysis to make sure you're buying a ticket for the ride you want.
- Not all lawyers are created equal. It goes without saying that you want someone experienced in family law. But how much experience depends on how complicated your situation is. No kids? No property? No debt? No problem! But if you and your husband started a computer company that is now the world’s largest enslaver—I mean, employer—you’re going to need a lawyer with a little more experience.
- Know what you want. Give some thought to what you want from your lawyer. Are you looking for a lawyer who can first and foremost make your ex’s life a living hell and getting divorced is more of a secondary concern; or do you want a lawyer who specializes in guiding you through the process with as little trauma and bloodshed as possible for all involved? If you’re looking for someone to sock it to your soon-to-be ex, then don’t be surprised when things get ugly, cost more and take longer.
- Ask around. Ask your friends for recommendations—both in terms of who to use and who to stay away from. But just as important as who they recommend is why they recommend her. Is it because the lawyer was a tenacious fighter? Or was your friend impressed with her lawyer's ability to deescalate tensions and find common ground? Finding out why a friend recommends a particular lawyer will allow you to assess whether that matches up with the kind of representation you’re looking for.
- Personality matters. Experience is important, but don’t overlook the personality factor. Think about the people you know who have gotten a divorce. How did you feel about these people before, during and after their divorce? Who seemed like a tool and who seemed reasonable? Which friends hated each other’s guts during their divorces? Which ones still hate each other years after their divorce is final? If they both seemed reasonable before the divorce, but ended up hating each other afterwards, it may be that the divorce lawyer’s style is to blame. So, figure out which lawyers were involved in each of those scenarios, factor in the personalities, and make your list of possible lawyers accordingly. Then narrow it down to a short list of a few candidates, interview them and pick one.
- Money matters. Unless your case is pro-bono, your lawyer isn’t going to represent you for free. But prices do vary, and if a divorce lawyer has a reputation of being ridiculously over-priced and motivated exclusively by money, she may not be above stirring the pot and fanning the flames of animosity between you and your future ex, which in turn will create more drama and cost more money. In most cases, the funds that will cover lawyer fees come out of community property; so the more your lawyer costs, the less there is to go around when it’s all over. And if a lawyer won’t even talk to you before her underling conducts a telephone interview to determine your net worth, feel free to read into that. If you nonetheless go with a lawyer with a money-grubbing reputation, at least pick one who supports causes that you like. That way, when you drive by Ballet Austin’s Butler Dance Education Center in your 2005 Ford Focus and are temporarily blinded by the gold-plated paver with your lawyer's name engraved in it, you can take some comfort in knowing that you helped pay for that.
- Don’t try this at home. Choose your lawyer carefully then let her do her job. Communicating directly with your future ex about topics that are germane to the divorce can complicate the process, drive up your attorney fees and make the whole thing take longer. Don’t initiate or get sucked into discussions with your future ex about details of financial settlements, custody arrangements, child support or any other matter that your attorney is handling. No matter what you think, your involvement rarely helps the process along.
- Don’t have your lawyer on speed dial. Don’t call your lawyer every time your ex says something jerky to you. Your lawyer knows you think your ex is a tool. After all, you’re paying her good money to get him out of your life. Every time you call or email your attorney it takes up her time, which in turn costs you money. You want the time that you’re paying for to be spent on things that actually advance the ball. So, if you need to talk about the nuts and bolts of your divorce, by all means, call your attorney. But if you need to rant about what a nut your ex is, call your best friend. And if you can’t figure out what you need, call your therapist.
- If at first you don’t succeed. Lifestyle changes are hard to implement and human beings make mistakes. People who are trying to lose weight sometimes blow their diet. Folks who have quit drinking sometimes fall off the wagon. When that happens, people tend to either beat themselves up or give up altogether. Neither approach is constructive. What I’m trying to say here is results may vary—both from day to day and from person to person. If you botch one (or all) of the steps in this (or any) session, just rinse and repeat. No one expects you to be perfect. What we’re aiming for here is consistent effort.
Congratulations! You survived Divorce Boot Camp. Now do your best to make the skills you learned part of your daily life and you will get through your divorce quickly with both your soul and your self-respect intact. Remember, the best way to avoid having to explain your behavior is to not do anything that requires an explanation. Live your life in positive way, both for your sake and the sake of your kids. As Aibileen said to Mae Mobley in The Help, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." Oh—and you is strong, too. Never forget that. And what about your ex? Who the hell cares about him? Oops! See what I mean about change being hard? In all seriousness, while the only behavior you can control is your own, maybe your ex will read this, too, and you both will be committed to making your divorce as painless as possible. Good luck!