NJ Divorce Chronicles: Hiring a Divorce Attorney, Installment 3

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Welcome to part 3 of our continuing blog series on avoiding common divorce mistakes. In part 1 of our series, we introduced you to our two New Jersey couples: Robert & Sharon and Jason & Melissa. In part 2, we looked at the process Sharon went through in hiring an attorney and her hasty decision to work with a “shark” divorce lawyer. In part 3, we will follow Jason’s process of hiring a divorce attorney and the very different choice in lawyer he makes.

Subject No. 2 – Jason:

With their divorce a reality, Jason does some preliminary research and discovers that he will probably end up paying Melissa alimony and/or child support. While this is troubling, much more troubling is his growing concern that he will not be in a good position to seek joint custody of the children, since even though he is a caring and involved father, Melissa has been their primary caretaker since they were born. He starts to worry that the longer he lets the situation go on as it is, the longer he may have to pay alimony, and the less chance he will have to share child custody. He decides to discuss his concerns with an attorney.

Jason considers several potential NJ family law attorneys and ends up seeking initial consultations with the same two attorneys seen by Sharon. Let’s see what happens in Jason’s consultations:

Consultation with Miranda Mild:

Jason expresses his concern about Melissa’s unemployment. He states that he wishes to avoid paying her long-term alimony. He also says that he very much wants to seek joint custody of the children. Ms. Mild tells him that since Melissa is currently a stay-at-home parent Jason has to anticipate that at least initially he will have to pay some amount of alimony and child support. How much and how long will depend on many factors, including  what kind of employment Melissa can be expected to find, whether she needs any additional education or training to find a suitable job, and how long it might take her to find a job.

Ms. Mild then asks a series of questions about Jason’s history and role as a father. After hearing his answers, she tells him that although there is no way to predict what will happen, they can build a good argument for joint custody, and that even if Melissa does get primary physical custody, she sees no reason at this time why Jason would not get shared legal custody and a significant amount of parenting time. She asks if he has considered private divorce mediation, pointing out the benefits of attempting to minimize conflict where young children are involved. Jason asks her is they can go to mediation for the child custody issue and still go to court on the alimony question if necessary. She tells him yes, they can try to resolve everything through mediation, but if any issue remains unresolved, they can go to court if necessary. Jason expresses interest in looking into mediation, and Ms. Mild gives him the names of several mediators in the area and suggests he talk to Melissa before making any further decisions. She also states that her hourly fee is $300 and that to get started on Jason’s case she would need a retainer of $5,000.

Consultation with Sharon Shark:

Ms. Shark also listens to Jason’s concerns about alimony and child custody very attentively. When he finishes speaking, she remarks that it is a shame that some women just feel entitled to sit back and relax while the man goes to work every day. She then asks a lot of personal questions about Melissa. Does she drink, smoke pot, or use any other kinds of illicit drugs? Has she had any mental health issues? Jason, who thinks that in spite of Melissa’s faults, she is at least a wonderful mother, begins to feel uncomfortable about these questions. He asks Ms. Shark if he is going to have to paint Melissa negatively to have any chance at sharing custody. She responds that this is sometimes how it goes, that even though fathers theoretically have equal rights, courts tend to be a little prejudiced against them as parents of young children, so he had better be ready for a fight. She then adds 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. “It really is important that you move on this right away Jason,” she adds. “The longer you let Melissa continue to act as an unemployed primary parent, the worse your case will look. How about we get an agreement signed right now, and I can start the paperwork for you tomorrow?”

Making a Decision:

Feeling overwhelmed and bewildered, Jason declines to sign anything or advance any money. He walks away from his consultations thinking that:

  • Attorney Mild seems to understand how important it is to protect the children at all costs,
  • He does not want to spring a divorce complaint on Melissa without first asking her if she would consider going to mediation,
  • Attorney Shark might get him a better result in court, but he would rather stay out of court if possible, and
  • If Attorney Shark’s fee is higher because she anticipates spending a lot of time in court, he should definitely wait to find out how much he might need those skills before deciding to let her represent him.

Jason decides to see if Melissa will consider mediation before he hires an attorney and files a complaint.

Is this a better decision than immediately hiring an aggressive attorney? Again, there is no way to know for certain at this point, but the facts so far suggest that it probably is. Jason has at least for the moment avoided the traps that Sharon has fallen into.

Let’s see what happens next in each case… Stay tuned for installment four!