considering a divorce in california

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Top Ten Things to Look For in a Divorce Attorney

By: Jay A. Rigdon
Rockhill Pinnick LLP

I have found that when most people are looking for a lawyer to handle their divorce, custody modification, or other related family law issues, they often ask whether the other attorney is tough, a fighter, or will tell me that they heard that their wife's attorney is a shark (or worse).


Everyone wants a family law attorney who can handle the stress and strain of the courtroom appearance, and any lawyer can claim that he is tough, just like any politician can claim that he or she will represent you. Being tough almost goes without saying, and it is too easy to say.


Persons looking for a family law attorney should instead be aware of the following qualities. These are all things that a client can assess on his or her own relatively quickly, and should discover before it is too late.

I. Stays Calm

Think of your tax returns as the map to a treasure trove. They show much more information than merely the amount of money you and your spouse make. These returns can lead the attorney to pension plans, investment accounts, and other assets. The tax returns may also assist the attorney in determining how much alimony and child support you might receive, or might have to pay.


It is helpful to provide the attorney with the last three years of tax returns.

II. Is Willing to Say No…. Even to You

A good attorney is candid about your chances in obtaining an outcome on a particular issue. That attorney should also tell you if you are doing something wrong, or if you are wasting your time. Simply because a client wants something does not mean that it is the best thing for a client, or that it is the right thing to do.


While some clients get upset when they find out that their attorney will not do everything that they are told, this is just the type of attorney that you should be seeking. Otherwise, your attorney will quickly get a reputation of asking for frivolous things or taking positions on issues that he knows the court will not adopt. That makes it tougher for that attorney to be successful on truly close issues. Also, you are paying good money for that attorney, and you deserve the best advice, not just what you want to hear.

III. Uses Technology

Property division, pension allocation, child support issues, and many other matters relating to divorce and custody rely on software programs to make efficient, intelligent decisions. If your attorney is not up-to-date on these issues, and is still using pencil and paper to formulate a property division, he is behind the times. He should also be able to communicate with you by email, and discuss the opportunities and advantages of electronic communication when parents and children are living apart. If your attorney has not kept up-to-date on technical issues, it is unlikely that he has kept up-to-date on legal issues either.

IV. Knows the Playing Field

Your attorney will not be able to predict the future. He will not always know how a particular issue will be decided. He should have enough experience with the judge, with the law, and with the other lawyer to intelligently analyze the probabilities.


If you are asking your attorney to travel to another county or jurisdiction, he should discuss with you what he knows, and doesn’t know, about the judges and lawyers in that area.

V. Puts Your Children First

The client’s children need to be the number one priority for both the client and the attorney. No one should abuse, misuse, or manipulate the children in a divorce case. It is really that simple.

VI. Keeps His Eyes on Important Issues

I once had an opposing attorney send me a letter vilifying my client, and demanding that I take action to make sure that my client (who was living in the marital home and had the family’s personal computer) immediately EMAIL her client’s resume to her. Given the fact that the woman was less than 25 years of age, I would have thought that she could probably remember where she went to high school, and what jobs she had held. This attorney was simply not willing to tell her client that this was not an important issue in the greater scheme of things, and that she should probably save her money for more important issues. Likewise, a client once asked me to file a contempt action after a final hearing in a divorce action. When the personal property was divided by the court, the client was to get a 60-foot garden hose from the side of the garage; he was certain that the garden hose’s disappearance was an intentional act to irritate him. I explained to him that it would have to be one heck of a garden hose to justify filing a contempt action, and again suggested that he spend his money in a more important area. An attorney who gets distracted in court by pursuing arguments about whether a bicycle should be in the mother’s home or the father’s home will not be as effective in front of most trial judges in dealing with the more important issue of where the child should be.

VII. Is Open to Questions

Your attorney should answer your questions. If he cannot, he should tell you why not. If you do not think that you are getting a fair answer to your question, then write him a letter or send an email. Frequently attorneys think that they have answered questions, but the client is still confused. Do yourself a favor and the attorney a favor and be sure to ask again. If you cannot receive an answer after that, then that attorney may not be for you. (Caveat: remember, your attorney cannot predict the future. If he could, he would be betting on football games in Las Vegas, not meeting with you at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon when the sun is shining, the fish are biting, and the beer is cold).

VIII. Makes a Good Presentation to You

Remember, as a potential client, you are a potential boss. If an attorney does not behave, dress, and talk in a manner that provides good presentation to you, what makes you think he will do any better to a judge?

IX. Is Trustworthy

In the popular media, sometimes people think the best lawyer is the one who is the sneakiest, or plays the closest to the edge of ethical, moral, or legal behavior. Resist the temptation to hire an attorney who acts like that. Judges will not let attorneys get away with that behavior for very long; opposing counsel will be much more difficult to work with (meaning you will be spending a lot more money); and ultimately you will have a more contentious divorce, with nothing to be gained to compensate you for the increased bitterness and expense.

X. Solves Problems

If the attorney you are interviewing for hire simply talks in terms of winning and losing, get up and leave. By definition, every person going through a divorce suffers some loss, and certainly children are losers no matter what the outcome. What you want is an attorney who works to identify the problems and solve the problems. Solutions to these problems may come by counseling, a word of wise advice to you, patience, mediation, or possible trial in front of a judge. No options should be foreclosed. Five years after the divorce, you will not be able to remember who “won” or “lost,” but you will remember whether the divorce was too expensive, whether your financial settlement or division was extremely unbalanced, and how your children either suffered or survived after resolution of your case. An attorney who does not work to solve problems before going to court will not be a good family law attorney.