It's not necessary to have a lawyer to use divorce mediation, but here's how consulting a legal advisor can help you.
A legal advisor is a special type of lawyer -- one who is willing to consult with you as an integral part of the mediation process. While business lawyers have long served the role of consultant to their clients, divorce lawyers are accustomed to taking over and handling the entire case. For this reason, many lawyers who have special expertise in the divorce area are unwilling to stay on the sidelines as a consultant. As mediation is used by more and more divorcing couples, however, the need for consulting lawyers also increases. In addition, many divorce lawyers are becoming mediators as the demand for divorce mediation grows, and these lawyers usually are happy to work as consulting lawyers on cases they aren't mediating.
Why Consult a Legal Advisor
At some point before you firm up any settlement agreement in mediation, you may want to consult with someone about your legal rights. While you can learn a lot about your rights from doing your own legal research, consulting with an actual legal advisor can help you get answers that are more specifically tailored to your case.
Your legal advisor can also help predict the range of possible legal outcomes if you were to go to court -- and the cost of paying a lawyer to fight for them. Knowing the possible outcomes can be integral to a successful negotiation. A good legal advisor can coach you in negotiating techniques and can help you think up creative solutions to propose in the mediation that are better than or at least as good as the court outcomes.
Your legal advisor can also act as a law coach on an as-needed basis during the mediation. Even before the mediation, your legal advisor/law coach can help you evaluate the option of mediation, select a mediator and persuade your spouse to mediate. Between sessions, you can consult with your law coach to clarify questions and prepare for negotiations.
Your legal advisor can review any written agreement prepared by the mediator to make sure that what is written down says what you want it to say and will be legally binding once signed.
Finally, your legal advisor can interface with the court, helping you prepare the papers needed for an uncontested divorce once your settlement agreement is signed, if your mediator will not do that for you.
When To Consult a Legal Advisor
Once you find a legal advisor who understands and supports mediation, it is a good idea to have a brief consultation early on during the mediation process. Not only will this give you important information about your legal rights, but it will also allow you to begin building a good working relationship with your legal advisor.
If you wait until you've already negotiated an agreement to consult a legal advisor, you may be in for some surprises about your legal rights that could undermine your commitment to the agreement you've just negotiated. Going back to mediation and trying to renegotiate the agreement at that point is often disastrous.
If you instead start out the process with solid legal information, you can negotiate an agreement that takes into account all your legal rights. This makes it much less likely that the mediation will fall apart at the last minute.
As your mediation progresses, you should feel free to consult with your legal advisor on an as-needed basis in between mediation sessions, whenever you have questions about your legal rights or the legal process.
Qualifications of a Legal Advisor
Your legal advisor will most likely be a lawyer licensed to practice law in your state. But there are some more specific qualifications that you will want to look for.
A lawyer who advises clients going through mediation is often referred to as a consulting lawyer. Just finding someone licensed to practice law is not enough. In addition, you want a lawyer with significant experience in the area of divorce law. In some states, lawyers can obtain certification as specialists in certain fields of the law. If this is true in your state, consider looking for a certified specialist in divorce law or family law or matrimonial law. This may sound extravagant, but many certified specialists are quite knowledgeable about mediation and experienced as consulting lawyers. Their high hourly fee is often justified by the quality and efficiency of their advice.
In addition, your consulting lawyer should have a good reputation for competence, honesty and respectful treatment of clients. Ask your referral sources about these qualities.
It is also critical that your consulting lawyer be experienced in and supportive of mediation. A consulting lawyer who is ignorant of or hostile to mediation can undermine everything you are trying to accomplish in mediating your divorce. For example, a lawyer who doesn't approve of mediation or one who thinks mediation is a good idea but doesn't know enough about it could easily advise you to take a position that is legally correct but extremely adversarial. What you want is advice designed to inform you of your legal rights and to help you promote a reasonable settlement.
Most divorce lawyers charge an hourly fee. Most of them also expect to be paid an initial large retainer (advance deposit) of several thousand to cover the cost of beginning a contested case. Because mediating your case hopefully will lead to an agreement for an uncontested divorce, you shouldn't have to pay a large retainer. Look for a consulting lawyer who will charge you on by the hour without demanding a big retainer. Even so, be prepared for the hourly fee to range as high as $250 to $500, especially in major metropolitan areas. When you do find a consulting lawyer who charges by the hour without requiring a retainer, it's a good idea to confirm the fee arrangement in writing.
Locating a Legal Advisor
The best way to find a good legal advisor is through referrals. Your mediator may be able to give you a list of potential consulting lawyers he or she knows. Or if you are working with a counselor, or financial or other advisor, you may be able to obtain referrals that way. You may have come across the names of good consulting lawyers in your search for a mediator. Many lawyer-mediators offer their services as consulting lawyers too. This is also where friends, family and acquaintances can come in handy, especially if they have been through mediation themselves and understand how helpful a good consulting lawyer can be.
In addition to referrals, you might try contacting your local bar association, professional mediation association or mediation center. Finally, you can get listings of lawyers by geographical area in something called Martindale-Hubbell, a national lawyer directory available in many public libraries and law libraries, and on the Internet at http://www.martindale.com.
Interviewing and Selecting a Legal Advisor
Once you have a list of names to choose from, pick the one who seems best to contact first. Or if you can afford it, consider meeting with the top two or three candidates in order to select the one you want to work with. It may seem like a waste of money, but considering the cost of adversarial litigation, paying a few hundred dollars to find a good consulting lawyer you're comfortable with is a bargain.
Here are some questions to ask when you meet with a potential consulting lawyer.
If you are uncomfortable with how things went in the interview, continue looking. To make the best of time spent with a consulting lawyer, it's important to find someone you feel good about.
Working With a Legal Advisor
You can expect some basic things from your legal advisor. And you can take some actions to make the most of the time and money you spend on consulting with your legal advisor.
Communication. First, your legal advisor should communicate clearly and in plain English. By the same token, you'll need to take responsibility for your end of the communications. If you don't understand something, say so. Be persistent. Ask questions until you are sure you get it. Your advisor should be open to your questions.
Responsiveness. Expect your legal advisor to respond to your telephone calls or letters within a reasonable time, usually two or three days for non-urgent phone messages and a week or so for letters. You are not your legal advisor's only client, so there will be times when you can't reach your advisor right away. You can and should expect to hear back within a reasonable time, however. If a special urgency or deadline arises, include that information in your message.
Questions. Before meeting with your legal advisor, write down your questions and concerns. Leave room to jot down your advisor's answers and note what you plan to do next. Bring the list with you to the appointment. Tell your advisor that you have a list of questions and double-check the list at the end of the meeting. Write down notes of your advisor's answers as you go along. Go as slowly as you need to.
Support persons. If you're having trouble focusing and find it difficult to remember your questions or the answers, consider bringing a support person -- a friend or family member -- with you. Be sure to clear this with your advisor ahead of time. Ask your support person to take notes for you during the meeting. Some people find it helpful to tape record their meetings with their legal advisor. If you think this would be useful, be sure to discuss it with your advisor in advance.
Before you leave. Before you leave, go back over what's been discussed and ask your advisor to help you come up with a plan of action based on the advice you've been given. This might consist of getting certain information together, or having a plan for things to say and questions to ask at the next mediation session. Write down notes of your plan of action.
Using the advice. Take seriously the advice you get. You are paying a professional to give you advice you wouldn't think of on your own. Make sure you understand the advice and the reasons for it. Consider it carefully before accepting or rejecting it. Bear in mind that you may not always like what you hear from your legal advisor. Some legal rules may not seem fair to you. You still need to know them in order to maintain a realistic approach in the mediation.
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