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Hi, everyone, and thank you so much for tuning in to the Divorce Field Guide. My name is Ani Mason, and I am a divorce mediator and attorney, and I am also the creator of this podcast.
Today we’re in Episode 10, and we are going to be talking about the process of hiring a professional to help you in your divorce.
I want to say at the outset that, I think it is probably already obvious to you, that choosing and hiring a professional for your divorce is a really big, important decision. It’s one that, it not only impacts the experience of your divorce process as you’re going through it, but it also can have quite a significant impact on the ultimate outcome of your divorce. So, to the extent that you can, you really want to get it right, so to speak.
At the same time, if you are in a position of going through a divorce for the first time, you really face a challenge in hiring somebody because, unless you are a divorce attorney or mediator, you are not familiar with the professional landscape of divorce attorneys and mediators. And that’s normal. Hardly anybody going through a divorce would be familiar with the industry of divorce attorneys or divorce mediators.
You also have one crack at the apple, so to speak. Divorce is not a process that you will go through on an annual basis. Thank God, on the one hand. But, at the same time, it doesn’t really give you the opportunity to go through the process, learn some good lessons, and apply them to your next divorce experience. You hopefully will only have one experience with divorce, but you’re called on at the very outset of that process to make a decision, in hiring a divorce professional, that’s really impactful, really important, and that you are not well-equipped to do if you’re not a divorce attorney or mediator, which I’m assuming that you’re not.
What I want to do in this episode is to give you some tips for how to approach the process of how to hire a divorce attorney or mediator, and to shed some light on how I might approach the process myself, if this were not my industry.
CHOOSE YOUR DIVORCE PROCESS, THEN YOUR DIVORCE PROFESSIONAL
What I want to start off by saying is that, I think it is important and really valuable to try to get clarity on what divorce process you are interested in before you hire a divorce professional. And that’s because, if you know what process you want to be in, you want to try to hire somebody with expertise in that process.
Within the industry of divorce mediators and attorneys, there’s a real variety in the focus of people’s practices, and in their particular expertise. You would not want to hire somebody who focuses solely on collaborative law, for instance, to assist you in a highly litigated case. That wouldn’t make sense. And so, in clarifying for yourself, “What is the process that I think will best serve me in my divorce,” you can then better target the professionals whom you would like to consider working with for your divorce process.
You might be saying, “Okay, but wait a minute. I don’t know what process I want to participate in for my divorce, so how in the heck am I supposed to figure that out without deciding which attorney or mediator I’m going to work with?” And I think that a lot of people are in that situation. If you are not sure what process you want to choose at the outset, set up an initial consult with somebody who ideally can speak to all the different processes, so that you can get a balanced perspective on what might work best for you. If you’re meeting with someone, like me, who is a mediator and a collaborative lawyer, just bear in mind that that person is going to have a slight bias in favor of mediation and collaborative law as processes. And vice versa, if you’re meeting with a litigator, bear in mind that they are going to have a slight preference in favor of litigation and settlement negotiation over mediation and collaborative law.
MEET WITH MULTIPLE PEOPLE
In addition to trying to get clarity on the kind of divorce process that you want to have before you commit to working with a professional, I would also strongly recommend that you meet with multiple people before you settle on working with a particular person.
I know that the prospect of meeting with multiple divorce mediators or multiple divorce attorneys is not attractive. But, in light of the fact that most people going through a divorce process have so little experience working with divorce professionals – and again that’s totally normal. Why would you have experience working with a divorce attorney or mediator if you haven’t been through a divorce? – but your sample set of experience is so small that I think it really positively impacts your ability to be able to sense the differences between different professionals, and to have a stronger sense for which person is the right fit for you, if you’ve met with multiple people.
So, I really encourage you to do that, even though I can imagine that at the outset of a divorce process, that feels like the last thing you would want to add to your plate. But I do think it’s helpful.
ASSESSING FOR COMPETENCE & PERSONAL FIT
For me, the two most important components or attributes of a divorce professional, if I were in a role of hiring somebody, would be, number one, are they good at their job, so looking at their skill, at their competence, and then number two, looking at whether this person is a fit for me, personally. And if you’re going through a mediation, that inquiry becomes whether this person is a fit for you and a fit for your spouse.
In terms of assessing the competence of a particular attorney or mediator whom you are considering hiring, I want to recognize at the outset that you’re in a tough position to do that if you don’t practice in this particular industry. It’s hard to know whether or not somebody has a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the more complex points of divorce when you don’t have that understanding to be able to assess theirs with. Or, do they do a great job at contract drafting? Well, if you don’t draft divorce contacts regularly, you might not be in a great position by which to assess the quality of their contract drafting.
With the acknowledgement that it is really hard to assess competence, I want to give some thoughts to things that you can keep in mind, to sort of have on your radar, so to speak, to try to assess whether or not the person you’re considering is good at what they do.
COMPETENCE: RELEVANT SPECIALTY
Central among those, is going to be expertise in a particular process you’re interested in. And we’ve already spoken to that. So, if you are looking to be in a mediation process, look for somebody who devotes a substantial percentage of their practice to mediating. The same goes for collaborative law or a settlement negotiation process. You want to look for people, certainly, with experience in the process that you’re interested in, number one.
COMPETENCE: PERSONAL REFERRALS
And then I think another great way to assess competence is really through trusted referral, and I’ll tell you why.
If you have a friend or a family member who has gone through an entire divorce process with somebody, meaning they spent some substantial time with that person, likely over the course of more than a year, and have seen them not only at the outset of a case, but also in the long middle of a case, and how they interact and how they treat their clients over time, that person is in a very, very knowledgeable position to be able to say, “You know what? This individual was terrific to work with, for the following reasons.” Or they might say, “Avoid that person. They really weren’t good to work with. They were great at the outset, and then they were disorganized and didn’t return my calls,” for instance.
I think personal referral from a trusted source. You want to go to people whom you - I don’t know that it’s so much have things in common with – but whom you could imagine would approach their divorce in a way that resonates with you. You might not love the same attorney that your friend loved, where your friend had a very high-conflict, heavily litigated divorce. And vice versa, your friend who went to a really amicable mediation that was low-key might have loved their mediator, and that might not be the right person to litigate your case if you know that your case is going to court.
So keep in mind the source of the referral. But generally speaking, if it’s coming from a friend, or a family member, someone who loves and cares about you, they have all the motivation in the world to make sure that you get connected with the right person.
COMPETENCE: ATTORNEY REFERRALS
Actually, right up there in terms of trusted referral source would be if you have a friend or know someone who is an attorney. Not a divorce attorney necessarily, or maybe they are a divorce attorney in a different state, or a mediator in a different state, or they do commercial mediation but not family mediation.
Those people can be great resources for you to reach out to and say, “Can you recommend a divorce attorney or mediator?” Because typically, through a degree or two of separation, they’ll be able to ask a trusted friend, either they may know somebody themselves, or if they don’t, they can ask a trusted colleague who can make a referral.
COMPETENCE: THERAPIST REFERRALS
I think another great resource is also, if you are in therapy, therapists can be a great resource of referrals, both to divorce mediators and divorce attorneys. Because, in the course of their practice, I guarantee that you are not the first person who has gone through a divorce process and asked them for a referral. So, they have more of that repeat-player experience in sourcing good professionals, good divorce professionals, than somebody who is just going through the process themselves and has not been called on by their clients over the years to give referrals.
So that’s another great resource, I think, if you are in the therapy process, or even if you have a family member or a close friend that’s in a therapy process. Asking their therapist for a referral could be really helpful.
COMPETENCE: WEBSITE REFERRALS
Ideally, you get a trusted referral from somebody. And if you don’t have that, I think the next best resource is where they have websites that are devoted to, say, divorced and separated parents, or going through the divorce process whether or not you have children. Often times, those websites will have a resources tab, or a recommendations tab, regarding mediator or attorney referrals for their members.
I like that kind of resource. I don’t think it’s perfect by any means, especially where you don’t know the person who’s making the recommendation. They might have been through that very high-conflict litigation and loved their bulldog attorney, and it might be a total misfit for you. However, what I like about that kind of resource, where it’s sort of a community website, giving tips to other members of the community, is that it feels to me very unbiased and very neutral. That is to say the people making the recommendation have nothing to gain by making the recommendation other than just speaking truthfully from their own experience.
COMPETENCE: PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS & BIOS
If you are in a position where, for whatever reason, you’re not able to get a referral, I would suggest that you look at the website of the professional association for divorce attorneys and divorce mediators in your area. It’s different in each state, but for instance, there might be a local association of divorce mediators. That is a great resource to at least give you the names of people who practice divorce mediation in your area.
Typically, it will have, on that organization’s website, links to bios for all the members and you can read through their bios and look at, has this person won any awards, or gotten any sort of different honors or accolades? What other types of groups have they been associated or taken on leadership roles with? Whether that be going as far back to, I don’t know if where they went to college is necessarily relevant, but it’s a data point.
None of this is perfect. It’s just gathering data. Maybe you look at what their educational background is, where they went to law school, what kinds of things they participated in in law school. If they worked for a firm after law school, what firm did they work for? And again, this is sort of a secondary source of information. It’s not telling you anything directly about that person. But, if they happened to work at the top law firm in your area, well that’s a data point. That they went through a hiring process, and the attorneys at that firm thought that they were qualified and skilled enough to hire.
So it’s positive. It’s not dispositive, meaning, it doesn’t necessarily tell you that they will be perfect fit for you, but it lets you know that they have had peers of theirs in their industry who thought that they were skilled. And that’s a good thing.
COMPETENCE: IN-PERSON MEETING
Then, when you have identified, ideally, several individuals you’d like to meet with (or maybe it’s just one, and I completely understand if that’s all the bandwidth that you have to spend time with divorce professionals is to just meet with one), you want to go in to that meeting, really, with your observational magnifying glass and your antenna up, to pick up on all the cues and all the information that you will get from the very minute that you reach out to the individual or their office all the way up through and including your meeting with them, and after your meeting, in the follow-up that there is from that person, at the conclusion of your meeting.
What I believe is that there is a ton of valuable information that you can gather from your interactions with somebody, even though they be very limited. And I think you want to study those interactions, the phone call to their office, and how the receptionist interfaces with you, or maybe it’s they directly who talk with you. If emails are sent to you, taking a look at the content of the email, the style of how it’s written, what is included with it. And then certainly looking at all of that very closely in your in-person consult.
So, those are sort of the ways that you would try to assess whether somebody is skilled at what they do.
ASSESSING FOR FIT
Then, the second component that you want to assess when figuring out who you would hire is whether they’re good fit for you personally. And this is really, this is subjective.
Every person who goes through a divorce is different. They have different needs. They have a different experience of the process. They have different goals for the process, different concerns, and their own personal style. And what you want to try to assess at the outset is whether the personal and more professional style of your mediator or attorney is going to be a fit for you.
As I observe the industry of divorce mediators and divorce attorneys, I’m just going to give you a list, and it’s in no particular order, of a couple of the areas of distinction between professionals that I would think of, myself, when assessing whether or not somebody was going to be personal fit for me.
STYLISTIC FIT: FORMALITY LEVEL
The first thing that comes to mind is where they fall on the spectrum of formal to informal, in terms of how they interact with you. So, for you, do you want somebody who has a very formal approach to interacting with clients, keeps a very formal relationship, is maybe a bit more reserved, or would you feel more comfortable somebody who’s a bit warmer and less formal?
For some people, having that relationship with a lot of formality really instills confidence in them, and that’s what they want and expect from their lawyer or their mediator. And for other people, that can feel quite cold and distant, and they might want somebody who feels more approachable and relatable to them.
STYLISTIC FIT: LEVEL OF COLLABORATION WITH CLIENTS
I think another area of real difference between the way, not so much mediators, but attorneys approach a divorce case, is whether they take an approach of, “I got this. I’m handling it for you,” or whether it’s more the two of you, as partners, walking through this process. I think in the latter style, you would have to be somebody wants to – you may not want to be going through a divorce process – but if you are going through a divorce process, you foresee your role as being actively involved in the process.
Whereas, if you are somebody who feels like, “You know what, I want to be as little involved in this processes as possible, and to the extent that my attorney can handle it for me, I don’t want anything to do with the process.” That would be more of a fit for somebody who says, “Hey, I’ll take the lead. I’ll take charge, and I’ll get it done for you.”
Where you’re in a mediation process, there’s not really a role for a mediator to get the process done for you. The mediator is very much a partner in your divorce process, so you have to be comfortable with that.
STYLISTIC FIT: COMFORT WITH EMOTIONS
I would say another area of real difference between attorneys – divorce attorneys and divorce mediators – is the degree to which a particular person that you’re working with, is comfortable with the presence of emotions in the room when they do come up.
It’s kind of balance that you have to feel out and to assess for yourself. How important is it to you that your attorney be able to comfortably sit with you if you get upset, or to comfortably address your anger if it comes up? Versus being able to work with somebody who’s much more focused on the purely legal and financial issues that arise in a divorce, and for everything else, for the emotional and psychological will say, “You know, that’s not my terrain. You need to talk with a therapist about that.”
STYLISTIC FIT: LEVEL OF ORGANIZATION
Another difference that I see among divorce professionals is their level of organization. And I think that this may be something that you notice if it’s your own inclination to be more organized about things.
There are some attorneys and mediators who are extremely organized. They’ve got their files kept in a very precise order. They have their notes in order. And they remember the details of what you talked about. And there are other professionals who, they’re good at what they do, but their style is much more like a shoot from the hip. They might have a lot of scattered of papers everywhere. Etc.
And I guess my own bias is probably coming through here, in that I think it’s really important to be very, very organized in navigating the complexities of a divorce case. But that might not be your style, and it might not be something that you’re looking for in a divorce professional. But I think it’s helpful to know at the outset whether or not that’s something you care about. And if it is, you can use your experience interacting with the professional’s office, interacting with the professional in the meeting, seeing what the follow-up email from the mediator or the attorney is like. Is it an organized email, does it address all the things that they said they would address?
So, I guess it’s not just organization, but maybe looking for consistency and follow-through in reliably doing what they say they’ll do. If they meet with you for a consult, and they say they will follow up with you tomorrow with a retainer letter, or referrals to consulting attorneys, do they do that? I think that’s very valuable information for you to have at the outset.
STYLISTIC FIT: CONFLICT STYLE
Finally, I would say that a big distinguishing factor between professionals is their own personal approach to conflict. This is more relevant when you are looking to hire an attorney, I would say, as opposed to a mediator. And I’ll speak to a mediation component in a second.
When you’re looking to hire an attorney, attorneys, just like people, fall all along the spectrum between the most collaborative and cooperative in the face of conflict, and the most aggressive and competitive in the face of conflict. So you really want to be clear on what style of attorney you are looking for.
Are you looking for a total bulldog, pitbull? If so, you really want to assess when you meet with that person, is that their style? Or is their style more collaborative in conflict, and for you that’s going to feel like not advocating for you, and not sufficiently pursuing the things that are important to you?
Or, vice versa, do you feel like it’s really important to you that your attorney be collaborative? That they advocate for your interest, but that they certainly be collaborative in conflict, so as to not fan the flames of conflict unnecessarily, or unnecessarily prolong the process? And if you were matched with somebody who is a total pitbull, you would, in fact, feel frustrated that it seems like they are creating conflict just to create conflict.
Getting clear with your own stylistic preference there is very helpful, and then you can tune in very closely when you meet with somebody to what their own style is. I would actually say, with regard to that, you could say to somebody, “Look, I know that people fall along a spectrum between totally cooperative and collaborative in conflict, and more competitive or aggressive, and where would you put yourself along that spectrum?”
Obviously, attorneys and mediators are not the only divorce professionals out there, and there may be people, like a financial professional or a child therapist, who feel very relevant and helpful to have on your divorce team. We don’t really have the bandwidth in this episode to get into how you go about hiring people like that, but I think asking your divorce attorney or mediator, asking your therapist if you have one, if you have a CPA or a financial planner whom you really like, asking them for recommendations, is probably your best bet. Generally speaking, if you don’t have a therapist, you don’t have a CPA or a financial planner whom you trust, once you’ve found your divorce mediator or attorney, they should be able to make recommendations for pretty much any of the professional needs outside of the legal than can come up in a divorce.
So that is it for Episode 10 on how to hire a divorce professional. Next up in Episode 11, we are going to take a look at what you can expect in a first consultation with somebody. So thank you so much for tuning in. I hope this episode was helpful to you, and I will look forward to speaking to you again in Episode 11.