Leah, from South Africa, told me that she and her husband shared a lawyer during their divorce. "He told me it would be cheaper to use one lawyer and have a ‘friendly divorce.’ I thought he was representing both of us. I didn't realize until after it was over that he was only representing my ex! I got such a bad deal. And then, get this - after it was over the lawyer had the nerve to ask me out!"
Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not Use the Same Attorney
Friend, I don't care how much money you think you're saving, please do not use the same lawyer! First of all, “sharing” a lawyer (as in the same lawyer representing both of you) isn’t even permissible. It's a conflict of interests.
If it’s not allowed, then why are we even talking about this? Because often people think they’re sharing a lawyer when in reality the lawyer is only representing their spouse. I’ve had women tell me over the years they had one lawyer and I’ve had to say “No, you didn’t! He had a lawyer. You weren’t represented.” Ouch.
You may be wondering why it’s so important to have your own lawyer if you’re agreeing to everything anyway.
We get it: you want to be amicable. We want that for you too. But you're getting a divorce. You want a certain outcome, like the house, or custody of your children. Your spouse may not want to give those things to you. It’s not about whether he wants to be fair. Even if he truly does, you’re not sitting on the same side of the negotiating table. Plus, I’ve often found in divorce that each spouse’s idea of what’s “fair” is not the same.
Having your own lawyer does not have to mean war, or that you can’t settle on terms you both agree to. It means making sure someone is looking out for your interests (legally) in one of the biggest decisions of your life.
The underlying reason most people choose to “use one lawyer” is to save money. So what do you do if you can’t afford to hire two lawyers? While the best option is for each of you to be represented, there are other choices if you need them:
1. If there’s only enough money to hire one lawyer, let it be yours!
That way, the marriage will save money and you’ll know your interests are being protected. It’s ok to say “I understand we can’t afford two lawyers. But I’m really uncomfortable signing off on an agreement without someone advising me about it. Would you agree that the lawyer we hire will represent me?”
2. Ask the court for help.
Just because your spouse is telling you there’s not enough money for you to hire a lawyer, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, courts can award a party money to pay her legal fees to “level the playing field.” You’ll have to do this by filing a motion and going before the judge. Scary as that sounds, asking for legal fees is pretty straightforward. Be prepared to tell the judge a) who you’d like to hire, b) how much you need for an initial retainer, and c) what resources you and your spouse each have (both through income and access to your financial accounts). The latter is so the Judge can access your financial need for fees and your spouse’s ability to pay them.
3. Consider going to mediation without lawyers.
This isn’t my first choice, but at least it levels the playing field in another way. Let your spouse know that you’re willing to go to a divorce mediator together, but that has to mean neither of you go with a lawyer. Remember that a mediator is neutral and can’t give you legal advice. If you go to mediation without your own lawyer, then who you choose as the mediator is even more important. So take the time to ask for referrals - from your D-Squad, from lawyer friends you know, and do your own research online. Read reviews. Also, consider hiring two mediators. A great financial mediator may not be the best custody mediator and vice versa. It’s better to hire the best of each.
4. At a minimum, have a consultation.
If you do nothing else, before signing off on an agreement, have it reviewed by a lawyer of your choosing. True, a lawyer probably can’t tell you if it’s a good or bad deal in an hour. You’re looking for issue spotting - to have an expert point out both the obvious and subtle things that you may not even know to look for. Be prepared to pay for this - you’re gaining valuable information and it’s well worth the cost of the consult.
Also, be sure to check this out for great tips on how to stretch your legal dollars.
Remember, it is possible to have a "friendly" divorce while still looking out for yourself.