What Are The Benefits To Hiring A Divorce Lawyer?

A common question I hear is, "Why hire a lawyer? I can do this myself." In our do-it- yourself society, that almost makes sense. Of course, no one would seriously consider operating upon themselves, but law isn't brain surgery, right? My answer to this question revolves around the things that are important to a person. In family law, we deal with children, houses, pensions, support, domestic violence, cars, insurance of all forms, bank accounts, stock portfolios, debts of all kinds and many other issues.

It is true some people do not have many assets. Just as our courts have a small claims division for small lawsuits, the Family Court has something similar: Summary Dissolution. (We have a link to the Summary Dissolution booklet on our website.) A Summary Dissolution is for parties who have been married fewer than five years, have no children and less than a certain dollar amount in assets. With the exception of these parties, all other married couples must go through a full dissolution of marriage process. Whether you have one child and no assets or five children and millions of dollars, the legal process is the same.

But can you "do your own divorce?"

There are various methods now available to help you. The Internet has a vast library of people and resources available. You can also seek the assistance of the Family Law Facilitator office at the court. The FLF is a free service of the court that theoretically can help parties prosecute their divorce. But these services all have severe limitations, the most basic of which is you must already know what you are doing within the system or confusion will immediately overtake you.

Let's start with the law.

The California Family Law Code stretches from Section 1 to Section 20043. That is a vast amount of data. And remember, if you represent yourself, you are held to the same standard as a lawyer appearing before the court. In addition to the Family Law Code, there are the California Rules of Court, relevant sections of the California Rules of Civil Procedure and also the Evidence Codes. This is a staggering amount of information that can be very important to your case. This does not even include issues of taxation, both federal and state, as well as issues of deferred compensation under the ERISA portions of the Internal Revenue Code.

With all this information that must be dealt with, how effective are self-help books and the FLF? When I think of the various self-help books and articles I have reviewed, they remind me of the do-it-yourself books about computer programming. After awhile, they seem understandable, but there are numerous confusing points and much trial by error. When you are dealing with your children, trial by error is not a very good idea.

Part of the problem is that issues can be so complex or subtle you may not even see the problem until it is too late. People sometimes say to me, "Attorneys just think up problems that I did not even know I had!" The truth is that lawyers are trained to foresee legal problems and make predictions of the outcome based upon the law, the facts and the parties involved. At the Law Office of Brian Cochran, when you hire us, we make sure you see all the relevant issues and problems before you make a decision. The decision will be yours to make, but it is important for you to see the full issues before you decide.

This is why "do-it-yourself" books and aids do not work. They cannot discern the facts of your case and help you make informed choices. They are canned media that work in those situations exactly like the author is discussing. After more than 30 years of practicing family law in San Diego, I can tell you almost every client has some unique feature to his or her case.

What about using a paralegal service?

This is a point every potential litigant must understand: It is ILLEGAL in the state of California for anyone other than a validly licensed attorney to give legal advice. This law is not to protect attorneys, but rather to protect the public against incompetent and wrong legal advice. If you hire a paralegal, all he or she can do is type paperwork for you. If he or she tries to tell you how property is divided, define what constitutes community and separate property, or calculate child or spousal support, then he or she has just committed a crime and you are getting bad advice from someone willing to break the law to give it to you. I have seen dozens of clients over the years who have been ruined in court due to paralegals giving wrong advice. These people come to our office and seek to correct or undo the damage that has been created. It is always unfortunate and often tragic.

One word about the proper use of paralegals. I do not want anyone to think I am against the use of paralegals. I have used paralegals for many years and most law offices would be lost without them. My paralegal and I work as a team to serve the client's interests. It is more cost effective for clients and allows me to be in court and do those things only a lawyer can do for a client. This is the way the paralegal operates within the legal profession: operating under the guidance of an attorney who oversees all functions of the case and is the only person actually giving legal advice.

The challenges with the Family Law Facilitator Program

Finally, we come to the use of the Family Law Facilitator. A little history may help here. During the 1990s the courts began to see many people trying to represent themselves. The judges asked experienced family law practitioners to volunteer time to help with this overload. This was called the Family Law Access Project, or FLAP. I was happy to help in this endeavor, but we attorneys quickly saw the issues could not be given the proper attention they deserved in this format. However, the courts were encouraged, and formulated a plan to create a bureaucracy to help the pro per or self-represented litigants, as they came to be called. Thus, the Family Law Facilitator office was born.

Here is the basic problem with the FLF: There are no financial guidelines for using the FLF. At first glance, this may seem fair but one needs to see how the office operates. People wait in line and may be in line most of the day to get assistance. Matters such as domestic violence have priority, as well as cases coming out of the courtrooms. When one finally gets assistance, it usually is for only an hour at most. The FLF does not have the staff to offer more time. And since anyone can seek their assistance, indigent people as well as wealthy people with vast assets go to the FLF.

The office was never meant to handle complex litigation. In fact, it is very important to understand that the FLF does not represent anyone at all. They are there only to give advice and help with paperwork. They do not help with any discovery. They do not seek further information beyond what the person brings to them. They do not appear in court nor offer any help with the court appearance. For all work in the court, the person is on his or her own. Since there are no limits as to assets or any qualifications by issues, the FLF is inundated and cannot possibly fulfill their charge to the public. If the FLF were able to just address those cases with little in the way of assets and debts, they could be a vital help to the public. But as the system now operates, no one in the system believes that they can do all things for all people. Yet the public relies upon the office, since it is free.

Perhaps cost is the bottom line for most litigants. There is no question that lawyers cost money. Just like doctors, we are highly trained and have experience in our fields. (I will address how to hire a lawyer in another blog.) In my case, not only did I attend law school and pass the California State Bar exam, but after years of practicing family law, and taking numerous advanced legal courses, I passed an advanced State Bar exam as a Certified Family Law Specialist. Specialization requires proving a history of negotiating cases, conducting hearings and trials, as well as passing a peer review process.

So, why hire a family law attorney?

Education, experience and cost savings. It is clear that the amount of statutes and case law, as well as Rules of Court, make it nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to begin to digest and understand them fully. Knowledge is power, and without a strong understanding of the law and the procedures, you risk all you have accumulated and even time with your children, as well as paying far too much in support or equalization. If this sounds pessimistic and even dire, just spend some time in any of the family law courtrooms in San Diego County. You will quickly see how difficult it is for someone to represent themselves.

Over and over, you will hear litigants say to the judge, "I am not an attorney," to which the judge will say "You are held to the same standard," or "I suggest you hire a lawyer." You need someone who understands the law and can help you navigate the legal issues in your case.

Is education enough?

No. The state of California recognizes 11 areas of the law so complex that specialization has been set up by the State Bar. These are areas where case law is numerous and frequent, and mandatory continuing education is extensive. When you hire a lawyer, you want someone who truly understands the area of law that concerns you. The first step is looking at a Certified Family Law Specialist. But even this is not enough. You want to hire someone who has handled cases like yours. Someone who knows the local Courts and the judicial officers. You literally need someone who knows how to get things done in your case. Brian Cochran has been doing exactly that for more than 30 years.

How does hiring a lawyer save you money?

If you do not understand your rights fully, you can give up far too much and cost yourself thousands of dollars in unnecessary debt, support and loss of property. Very often clients will tell me they thought they had to do this or that, because some friend did or someone told them, "That is the law." Often the situation is so depressing they do not even see the way around a problem. Clients are too close to the situation and have no objectivity. We are able to explain the law, go over their rights and formulate a plan that will bring the most effective results.

In the end, the time and money you save by hiring our law office will far outweigh the fees that will be paid. Knowing you are getting the best legal advice will provide peace of mind as well as a satisfactory conclusion to your case. Learn how I can help you by calling 619-567-5703 or contacting my law firm online.