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Ten Things Your Lawyer Wishes You Knew

By Amy A. Edwards

# 1. WARN US. If you have assaulted your spouse, been arrested or highly intoxicated in the presence of the kids, had compromising photos taken of yourself, or struggled with substance abuse, we need to know! People are naturally reluctant to tell us the negative or embarrassing things they have done. If you are embarrassed to discuss something, tell us by e-mail or in a letter. Truly, we’ve seen it all. Your ex knows about it which means the other attorney knows. The only person who can help you wade through it is your lawyer, who can’t help you if he or she is the only one in the room who is clueless about what happened. In that event, we are left to watch as you crash and burn during cross examination. With advance notice, we can try to minimize it or at least take out the sting. We might be able to ask you questions about it in court first, allowing you to explain it in your own terms, robbing the other attorney of the chance to frame it the way he or she chooses.

#2. YOU ARE AN OPEN BOOK. In divorce court, there is no such thing as privacy. Bank statements, credit card statements, e-mails and any number of other things will be analyzed. In a custody case, is it noticeable that you eat fast food every day for dinner? Do you use your credit card at the liquor store twice a week? Did you buy flowers for your girlfriend with whom you are cheating? Will your bank account statement indicate payment for a membership for an online dating account or pornography? Believe it or not, this happens all the time.

#3. PICK YOUR BATTLES. A good (or at least a better) outcome might mean cutting your losses. Unlike personal injury cases, where the insurance companies are essentially paying the tab, divorce and family law cases are paid out of pocket by individuals who are going through what is probably the most emotionally and financially stressful time of their lives. Even if finances are not a problem, don’t waste your money paying the hourly rate of several hundred dollars to  argue over a five year old lawn mower or a coffee maker. I actually had a client who added gravy mix to her list of property. In custody cases, consider whether it is worth it to have a trial on whether you get three weeks of me in the summer or four weeks. Are you paying your attorney $2,500.00 to argue over a $25.00 per month difference in child support ($300 per year)? Think about the original goals of your case.

#4. WATCH YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA. Anything you post on social media is fair game. If you have a photo of yourself at a barbecue drinking a beer, don’t be surprised if it drifts back to you during cross examination as an 8×10 glossy to maximize the effect of the picture in the custody case or other case involving marital fault. It doesn’t look innocent in the cold glare of the fluorescent light of the courtroom sitting two feet away from the judge. Will your kids see it? Remember that cursing, acting flirty, staying out at night, going to bars, or wearing a t-shirt with an inappropriate picture or vulgar language can also create mischief. Perhaps most importantly, monitor what your kids are posting.

#5. PAY US. Talk with your attorney about his or her fees when you see the first sign of financial strain, not after there is a problem. When you ignore the situation, it doesn’t just go away. It makes the situation worse. If the attorney isn’t getting paid, he or she is not going to make your case a priority. Find out whether a payment plan is available before the money runs out. Otherwise, the attorney will usually stop working and if there is a pending lawsuit, make a motion to be relieved as counsel in your case. Sometimes, an attorney can help you figure out an express lane version of your case if there is one. Maybe it is time to look at the big picture instead of arguing about details or sticking to a bottom line. But we can’t help you if you don’t tell us in advance, while you still have options.

#6. WE CAN’T CHANGE THE LAW OR YOUR EX.  The spouse with the great income and assets in his or her name is often rudely awakened by the fact that he or she will lose half of the assets even though the other spouse was irresponsible, lazy, mean or wasteful. We can’t help that. The rude awakening doesn’t always stop there, especially with the reality of alimony or bankruptcy. A former client of mine was angry and very insistent, insisting “But I do NOT want to give him any of my retirement.” Yes, we know. No one does. The other parent might get a D if you were grading him or her as a parent, and the in-laws might all be graded with an F, but the other parent is going to get visitation even if your child doesn’t like it.

#7. TIME IS MONEY. Clients sometimes forget we are on the clock whenever work on their cases. Think about this when you begin the attorney client relationship. You can call your attorney every few days if you choose to do so but your bill will reflect it. Talking with office staff might be the quickest and least expensive way to address your question. Better yet, a twenty minute phone call might be a five minute e-mail. When we need documents, we need them in a usable way, not crumpled up in a ball upside down in a shoe box out of order. If you don’t know the billing procedures, just ask. Most attorneys sign a contract with their clients at the beginning of the case. Read it for further information.

#8. SHARE YOUR GOALS. Tell your attorney what your goals are, both short term and long term. This might seem obvious, but people don’t always take an active role in their cases. Are you hoping to move to another state to be near your family? Is a long term co-parenting relationship a priority for you at the expense of getting every single thing you want in the visitation plan? Maybe you want a visitation schedule that is flexible enough to accommodate you as you take night classes so you can advance in your career? Is it important to try mediation and avoid the courtroom? We need to know what your goals are so we can make them ours.

#9. CONSIDER COUNSELING. Put your hard-earned dollars to the best use, especially when you are at the end of your rope. Consider visiting a counselor or therapist to help you deal with the emotional trauma that accompanies the separation or custody battle. Your attorney is not qualified to help you with the sadness, anger, or grieving process. You don’t want to pay your attorney the hourly rate to listen to what a jerk your ex is. But believe me, we see it too.

# 10. SOMETIMES THE OPTIONS ARE BAD. In family law cases, sometimes you have to make a decision between two bad options. Many couples have huge disputes about finances. “The last straw” can be triggered by a major purchase one spouse discovers debts hidden by the other, or an adulterous relationship. Relationships and finances change, as do the family members. Finances aren’t enhanced by divorce. On top of that, when one household becomes one of two, the same limited incomes must support two households instead of one. You might have to sell your home or lose half of your 401(k). Other times, a divorce leads to bankruptcy. When your attorney advises you about different ways to approach your case, remember your choices won’t always be easy ones. 

Amy A. Edwards is a family law attorney in Greenville, NC, certified by the NC State Bar Board of Legal Specialization as a Family Law Specialist, and is licensed only in NC.  www.AmyEdwardsFamilyLaw.com © 2017.

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