New Jersey Divorce Chronicles, Part 2: Watch Out For Sharks!

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In part 2 of our continuing blog series on avoiding common divorce mistakes, we take look at something most people do early on in the divorce process: hire an attorney. In part 1 of our series, we introduced you to our two New Jersey couples: Robert & Sharon and Jason & Melissa. In part 2, we will see what happens when one of our subjects tries to make a decision about hiring an attorney

Subject No. 1 – Sharon:
Now that Sharon and Robert have decided to divorce, Sharon talks to her close friends and family members and does a little on-line research. She discovers that since she is the higher earner, she could end up paying Robert alimony and/or child support. She decides that she should proceed with divorce as quickly as possible before Robert’s income drops any further. She also decides to seek primary custody of the children. In Sharon’s mind, Robert is not a good father because he is unstable, abuses alcohol, and may have a gambling problem. Is this actually true? It’s very hard to know without a lot more information. It is true that Sharon has seen Robert drink heavily and act inebriated at home several times over the past few years. On the other hand, Robert has never been abusive, does not drive under the influence or neglect the children, and has never had any complaints from supervisors about on-the-job behavior. Some of Sharon’s friends, wanting to be supportive in her time of need, agree with her about Robert’s parental unfitness and call him horrible names. Robert’s friends, on the other hand, would say that he is a great guy and a wonderful father, and that Sharon is “crazy.” They point out that Robert only drinks beer, that the “gambling problem” is only a weekly poker game, and that Robert owes no more than a couple of hundred dollars to friends.

Sharon eventually consults with two attorneys.

Consultation with Miranda Mild:
Sharon shares her complaints about Robert with Ms. Mild and states that she wishes to avoid paying him any alimony and that she “must” have primary custody of the children. Ms. Mild listens very closely and then tells Sharon that a decision about alimony will be based on many factors and they will need to collect complete information about Robert’s work history and the availability to him of suitable employment before she can make any predictions. She then asks a careful series of follow-up questions about Robert’s history and role as a father. After ascertaining that there are no specific problems—no DUI’s or instances of Robert using alcohol excessively around the children, for example—and also learning that Robert has always been very involved in childcare, she states that while they can certainly examine the issue more thoroughly and try to build a good strong case for primary custody, she cannot guarantee any specific results.

Ms. Mild then asks Sharon if she has considered private mediation, pointing out that with two young children, keeping conflict low and avoiding court as much as possible may be a worthy aim. She also points out that the court will require them to attend a mediation session in any case if they cannot agree on a parenting plan. Sharon says that she would rather not consider private mediation and would prefer to get going in court as soon as possible. Ms. Mild states that her hourly fee is $300 and that to get started on Sharon’s case she would need a retainer of $5,000.

Consultation with Samantha Shark:
Ms. Shark also listens to Sharon very attentively. When Sharon has finished speaking, Ms. Shark remarks that it must have been very hard for Sharon to live for this long with an alcoholic. She adds that it is a real shame that men these days are not willing to step up and be responsible. “These kinds of men” she says, “can be such a bad influence on children. I will do everything that I can to make sure that you get primary custody so that they don’t suffer from his terrible habits and poor parenting.” She tells Sharon that she is a very skilled litigator who wins most of her court battles. Her hourly fee is $450 and she requires a retainer of $10,000.

Making a Decision:
Sharon, who is nursing a lot of anger and hurt feelings, walks away from her consultations thinking that:
– Attorney Mild does not seem to understand how things really are for her,
– Attorney Shark clearly does understand,
– Attorney Shark will fight harder for what Sharon really wants, and
– Attorney Shark is probably a better attorney, because she charges a higher fee.

Sharon decides to hire Attorney Shark. Is this a mistake? We can’t know for sure at this point, but there are several signs that it might be. Sharon has fallen into several traps. The first trap is believing that a higher price automatically means better quality. While more experienced attorneys do tend to charge higher fees, Sharon is incorrectly assuming that attorney Shark must be better than attorney Mild based on the fee alone. Sharon has also fallen into the trap of believing that Ms. Shark is a gladiator coming to her rescue. Ms. Shark said she has great skills and usually wins. Ms. Mild, on the other hand, attempted to caution Sharon about reality and provide her with real information, outlining the factors that will actually influence the results in her case. She raised mediation as a possible course of action that would keep the conflict away from the children. Although Ms. Shark won favor by seeming to express empathy, what she really did was manipulate Sharon’s emotions, increase her anger and sense of injustice, and create false expectations. By stating that she usually wins, she insinuated that Sharon has a good chance of succeeding with her goals, when in fact, the strength of Sharon’s case at this point cannot possibly be determined without a lot more information.

How can you avoid the trap Sharon seems to have just fallen in? In part 3, we’ll take a look at what Jason experiences when searching for an attorney and the decisions he makes.

Keep reading our next installment!

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