The answer depends largely on your situation, but in most cases hiring a lawyer is probably well worth the money. No one can guarantee you that hiring a lawyer will be worth the money, but you are taking a blind risk if you choose to go it alone. If you’re not an electrician, would you do your own wiring? If you don’t know what you are doing, you are taking a significant risk of getting burned.
Clients will often say something like: “we’ve worked out everything, we just need to sign the papers and get a divorce.” But what are you signing? The unknown costs of not getting a lawyer often far exceed the costs of hiring one.
Moreover, it is usually too late (or too expensive) to fix an error after you have made a legal mistake. There are many situations in which the “pennywise and pound foolish” scenario plays out very badly for a person who thought he or she could do it alone.
Child custody, visitation and support; spousal support, division of assets and debts, use and possession of family homes and household furnishings, health and life insurance coverage, retirement accounts, tax filings, returns and deductions, debts, bills and future considerations (and too many other issues to list here) are all potential mine fields for the inexperienced. Each issue contains sub-issues and pitfalls that you may not be aware of until it’s too late.
Aside from not knowing the law involved, there are two additional problems with representing yourself in a separation or divorce case: (1) it is difficult negotiate a good deal for yourself when you don’t know the value of the thing you are buying or selling. If you don’t know what the court in your county is likely to award you or your spouse, you cannot properly evaluate your claims and defenses; and (2) because you cannot effectively represent yourself in court, you must settle the case for the best offer you can get.
If you think that you can hold your own in a contested case against a competent trial attorney, you are fooling yourself. Most non-lawyers couldn’t figure out how to get the judge to consider their evidence. Don’t count on the judge giving you any favors, most judges view non-lawyers as someone who is likely to waste the court’s time.
Whether it is worth it to hire a lawyer depends largely on the lawyer you hire. While it is usually a bad idea to represent yourself, having a bad attorney is no bargain either. Legal fees in this area range from $250 to $400 per hour. A bad attorney can run through tens of thousands of dollars and still get nothing done – or worse – fail to adequately represent you. If your lawyer messes up your case in court, it is usually not correctable so it is imperative that you have a good lawyer working for you.
Like other professionals, some lawyers are outstand and others are awful while most lawyers fall somewhere in between. You can’t afford to judge your lawyer by the outcome of your case. By then, it’s probably too late. Instead, you should evaluate your attorney while he or she is preparing your case and decide whether you are confident that your money is well-spent.
Some simple things to look for when evaluating whether your attorney is doing a good job on your case are: (1) does my attorney know my case (can she discuss the relevant facts); (2) is she going to be prepared for court (is she getting evidence and witnesses ready to present in court); (3) is she prepared for the opposition’s arguments and evidence (and has she prepared you and your witnesses for cross examination); and (4) has your lawyer made a well-reasoned settlement proposal stating your goals and the supporting law.
An attorney who fails to focus the facts of the case and plan for trial, often wastes a great deal of time and money and winds up unprepared for court. Just because your attorney talks to you whenever you call does not mean that she is preparing for court. Often the attorney is running up your bill talking about things that won’t matter in court. You would be surprised how quickly a lawyer can burn through $10,000 without doing any real work.
However, if you have a good lawyer working hard for your interests it is usually well worth the investment. When you are dividing assets accumulated over a long marriage a great deal if often at stake. Child custody not only decides who your children will live with but who will pay child support and how much. The child custody decision often has significant financial consequences. Whatever the issues at stake, if they are worth going to court over then they are worth having a good lawyer on your side.
In the end, you don’t pay for an outcome and no lawyer can guarantee that you will win your case -- but a good lawyer can make sure that your case is heard and understood by the court. If the facts and the law are on your side, then that should be enough. However, if you have a strong case but a weak lawyer who failed to present it properly, then you have little chance of a positive outcome.