Divorce Horror Story: Attack of the Shark Attorney

attack great white shark

When Peter and Brenna separated after 13 years of marriage, they had some issues to work out. Peter’s investment portfolio included several pieces of real estate. Brenna had left her career to stay home with the children (an eight year old and three year old twins) and was worried about how she would support herself. Still, they were sure they could come to an amicable resolution. Peter told Brenna that he was willing to pay her alimony, give her primary custody of the children, and try to figure out a way for her to stay in the family home.

Brenna’s friends, Lisa and Kristie, who were both divorced, warned her not to trust Peter. Lisa gave Brenna the name of an attorney who was supposedly “a real gladiator—someone who will protect you in court.” Brenna really didn’t want to start a contentious process, but talking to Lisa and Kristie unnerved her, so she decided to give Ms. Cutthroat a call. She told Peter she planned to consult with an attorney, and he decided to do the same.

Ms. Cutthroat listened carefully. She expressed sympathy for Brenna, remarking on how difficult it must have been for her to be married to Peter. “Typical workaholic absent father,” she commented, rolling her eyes. Then she offered Brenna some specific advice: “Make sure you get half of all of the property, and alimony for the length of your marriage. Stay-at-home mothers who go to mediation,” she continued, with a deep sigh and a shake of her head “often give up too much. Don’t do it. Make sure you get at least x dollars and that the duration is close to 13 years, or else come back and let me file a motion for you in court. It’s just one motion, it won’t cost that much.”

Brenna thought she saw a strange gleam in Ms. Cutthroat’s eye, but decided that it was probably just a reflection from the full moon. She returned home and laid down her terms.

Peter was aghast. His attorney had assured him that since Brenna had been professionally employed for more than 10 years and a stay-at-home mother for only 5 years, he would not have to pay alimony for more than a few years. His lawyer had also told him that some of the property—real estate that had been in Peter’s family for years—belonged to him alone. Feeling pressured and attacked, Peter began to reconsider the custody arrangement they had already worked out. Why should he work full-time and only get to see the kids a few times a month? Maybe Brenna should start looking for work right now, and they could share custody?

Now it was Brenna’s turn to be appalled. Go back to work right now? Who was going to parent the children? Share custody? Peter was hardly ever even home! After an unproductive discussion that eventually turned into an angry shouting match, Brenna ran back to Ms. Cutthroat’s office and asked her to file a motion for spousal support.

A vocational analysis, a custody evaluation, two more motions, and roughly $100,000 later, Peter and Brenna finally settled their case.

Did Brenna get 13 years of alimony? No. At the final support hearing, the judge decided that she was quite capable of looking for part-time work immediately and full-time work as soon as the twins were settled into elementary school. She ended up with 6 years of durational alimony. Nor did Brenna receive half of the property. New Jersey law doesn’t guarantee an equal division of marital property in the first place, and in this case, most of the property belonged to Peter alone, as he had owned it separately before marriage. Brenna did keep primary custody of the children, but now that she is on her own and looking for work, she sometimes wonders why this seemed so important to her. Maybe she could actually use another day off each week?

Brenna was not to blame, however, for either the escalation of conflict or the exorbitant legal fees. She had unwittingly run across that most devious of species: The Shark Attorney.

How could she have avoided this trap? By knowing some of the signs:

  • Shark attorneys are overly combative and often give off an aggressive vibe during the initial consultation. Be on the lookout for this. You do want a lawyer who is ready and willing to put up a fight when necessary, but you don’t want someone spending time and money taking irrational or unnecessarily aggressive positions. Family law attorneys who have their clients’ best interests at heart start by looking for ways to work things out without spending a lot of time in court. They will often suggest mediation as an appropriate option.
  • A shark attorney often looks for ways to fire up your anger at your soon-to-be ex. This makes it more likely that you will want to file motion after motion in court. The more paperwork and court time involved in your case, the more you will end up paying your attorney. An attorney who listens closely to your concerns and makes a lot of effort to understand your side of the story is a very good thing—but be careful if an attorney seems to be trying to manipulate your negative emotions.

Brenna’s friends were not wrong to urge her to consult with an attorney, but had she not encountered a shark attorney, she would never have returned home and started making one-sided demands. She and Peter could probably have settled their case much less expensively in mediation had Brenna interviewed two or three attorneys and then chosen one with a less contentious demeanor.

How can you avoid Brenna’s fate? Here are some helpful tips for avoiding shark attorneys and hiring the right lawyer for your needs: How to Find the Best Divorce or Family Law Attorney.