“For the [guild of lawyers], their work is very much what it is for all lawyers, which is to say, doing things slowly for a lot of money“ – Terry Pratchett
Let’s face it, lawyers have a bad reputation. They are pedantic, argumentative, use ten words when two will do, and they charge a fortune – and that’s the good ones!
The trouble is that lawyers know that the devil is in the detail – cases are won and lost on the interpretation of words, and a big feature of the law is how it is interpreted.
They know that if they get this wrong, or miss a crucial point, they can be sued, and rightly so. One reason lawyers charge the fees they do is because of their massive insurance premiums.
I’ll let you into a secret – the reason lawyers are so cautious is because they are terrified of being sued. So while they want to give you a good service, they also go to great lengths to avoid a law suit. Even the wording I am using in this article has to be carefully considered because of a reference to a real case.
Family lawyers are no different. In some respects they are worse because the work they do is personal and packed full of emotion – people who are divorcing are fragile and emotional – and the outcome they get for their clients will impact the rest of their lives. So there is a lot at stake. Emotional fragile people who don’t get what they want are likely to sue, or at least complain.
Human nature being what it is, just as probate lawyers are happy when there’s a cold winter, certain family lawyers can be happy when they meet one half of a warring couple because they see an opportunity to make money.
Family law is undergoing massive changes.
The focus on mediation, trying to get families to sort out their issues without going to court, means that family law is not as lucrative as it used to be, and yet, lawyers still need to perform and meet their billing targets.
As a member of Resolution I am firmly committed to doing all I can to take the heat out of the situation so that even if a court hearing is needed the process is still polite, respectful and as amicable as possible. But sadly there are some lawyers who see a warring couple and take the opportunity to up the ante, inflame a bad situation to make it worse – so that they can make more money.
I came across a very blatant example of this recently. I was consulted by a wife who had been separated from her husband for a number of years. He had been working abroad and so saw his children only sporadically – but they had been able to make those arrangements themselves with no problem.
He had recently lost his job so had returned to the UK and now wanted to establish a more stable, fortnightly contact regime with two children who are pre- and mid-teens. I was contacted by his lawyer about specific contact arrangements, intent on convincing me that my client was refusing contact. This was far from the case. My client was willing to encourage whatever contact the children wanted, but she knew that, given their own activities, social lives and opinions, they were only going to want to see him about once a month.
It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to have responded in kind, but I resisted the temptation.
I told the lawyer that this was not a discussion for us to be having. This was not a newly separated couple who were so highly conflicted that they needed their lawyers to micromanage their contact arrangements. These were not children who were so young that they couldn’t decide for or speak for themselves.
I made it clear that I was not going to get involved in protracted correspondence when this couple were perfectly capable of speaking to each other and to the children to sort it all out for themselves.
In relation to financial issues, this same couple have already done their basic deal. She has capital, he has pensions: no further intervention is needed, and they are both happy with that arrangement. Yet this lawyer was still suggesting full disclosure when all they need is a simple order that says neither person can make a claim against the other in the future.
Because I too am cautious, I have asked my client to sign a disclaimer confirming that she understands that as there has been no disclosure I have not been able to advise her on whether the agreement they have reached is fair, and that she understands that if she later finds out he had assets she didn’t know about, she can’t make a claim against them.
She is happy to sign this because she knows he doesn’t have anything else and even if he did, she doesn’t want it. But again it would have been very easy to agree that full disclosure was required, just to check, and let’s take a few months over it and write some expensive snotty letters in the meantime.
This strikes me as a classic case of a lawyer trying to get more out of their client’s divorce than the client is getting.
How can you tell if that is happening to you? Well, here are some things to look for:
- Are you being asked to produce all of your bank statements and documents even though you know all about your ex’s finances and have reached a deal you are happy with?
- Is your lawyer insisting on fighting small points you don’t really care about?
- Is your lawyer telling you not to speak to your ex even though both of you are quite comfortable doing so?
- Are you being encouraged to start court proceedings when you still want to try to negotiate?
- Is your lawyer not listening to you?
As with anything in life, listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you are being advised to do something you are uncomfortable with, don’t do it.
A fundamental rule of the solicitor/client relationship is that the lawyer advises, you instruct. In other words the lawyer is there to do what you want them to do, having first explained the law and the legal repercussions of whatever options may be available to you so that you can make an informed decision.
Divorce is a stressful time. Sometimes you need someone to be a buffer between you and your ex because you simply can’t handle them anymore.
Lawyers are great for that, but it is important to remember that it is your agenda, not the lawyer’s, and if you are finding that your agenda has fallen by the wayside, don’t be afraid to say, ‘thank you but goodbye’, and find someone else who will put your needs, and your pocket, first.
Karen Wallace qualified as a solicitor in 1993 and has practiced Family Law throughout her career, initially as part of a general litigation practice and then specialising from 2004.
As a divorced parent she has considerable insight into the issues faced by divorcing couples. Karen uses this insight to help a wide range of families successfully through the legal maze of divorce with as little expense and trauma as possible – www.syjlaw.co.uk