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A Way Through the Weeds:

Guidance for women navigating divorce and abuse

Do I Really Need my Own Lawyer?

Updated: Mar 20, 2018

**Remember, I am not a lawyer. Consult an actual lawyer before making any permanent determinations about your divorce. The following reflects my experience in Rhode Island, USA; other states and countries may have different procedures.**

A common question when going through a divorce is, “Do I really need my own lawyer?” My layperson’s answer is a qualified Yes.

Before waxing eloquent on this subject, allow me to share a real-life illustration. I was sitting in Family Court one day awaiting my turn before the judge when a couple went up for a nominal divorce. She was a lawyer--though not a family court regular--and was handling the divorce for herself and her husband.

She did not know the procedure, so the judge gave her a list of the standard questions. The wife was in tears. The husband was in tears. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were getting divorced, since they were both so torn up.

Finally the judge gently asked her to go outside and get composed. She did, but returned in as poor shape as before. I have never in my life felt so badly for a perfect stranger. It was heartbreaking.

At the same time, I was incredibly grateful for the presence of my own lawyer who, with clinical precision, reduced my need to speak to single-syllable answers: yes and no.

If a lawyer has such a difficult time handling her own divorce, how would most of the rest of us manage?

Admittedly, there are many reasons people might choose to forego lawyers, but I believe it often comes down to cost: that $2,000 price tag can be a huge deterrent.

Before I tell you why I think you should invest in your own lawyer, let's look at some of the alternatives.

Hire one lawyer for the couple and split the cost of the lawyer.

This was the approach my ex and I took: he asked for the divorce; I ran out and hired the lawyer. There are some definite benefits to this approach:

  1. One lawyer costs half as much as two.

  2. Only one person has to spend their time meeting with the lawyer.

  3. There is an expert on hand to offer guidance on child support worksheets, alimony payments, complaint creation and filing, and the actual courtroom process.

If you have a relatively amicable relationship with your spouse, the assets can be easily and equitably divided, and there are no serious disagreements over things like custody and placement, this may be a viable option.

However, please remember that in this scenario, only one party actually has a lawyer. The other is representing him/herself. It is not unreasonable to assume that the party without the lawyer could get a raw deal (e.g. no alimony, no house, limited financial assets, etc.).

Work with a mediator to create the divorce agreement.

Mediation is a process by which an impartial third party sits down with two parties to negotiate a mutually-acceptable agreement. This could be a viable option if conditions are similar to those above.

The benefits are also similar to above, as a divorce mediator should be experienced in issues of child support, alimony, etc. There are some other added benefits:

  1. Mediators generally cost less than lawyers.

  2. Mediators are neutral third parties; they are trained not to favor one party over the other.

However, because mediators are neutral, they will not necessarily advocate for your best interests. If you are in a frame of mind to get the negotiations over as quickly as you can and are willing to make outrageous concessions to do so, a mediator won't talk you out of it. They will ask "truth-testing" questions to try ensuring you really know what you want, but they probably will not tell you you're making a dumb decision.

Represent yourself.

Representing yourself is definitely the cheapest the short term. It may even be a viable option if you've been down the divorce path before, are comfortable in your ability to look out for your own interests, and can navigate the court setting with equanimity.

However, even people with intimate knowledge of the legal system can fall apart in the courtroom when their marriage is dissolving. How much more for those of us with no experience in that setting?

So why do I think each party in a divorce should generally hire their own lawyer?

  1. Divorce is a potentially traumatic experience that can hinder the brain's ability to process rationally. When my lawyer brought up alimony, for example, all I could think was, "I don't want anything from someone who doesn't want me." I was soon to be a single, stay-at-home mom with no established income, and I was going to refuse alimony. Crazy. My lawyer finally talked me into a nominal amount for a limited time to get me through the transition stage. I know other women who have rejected alimony on similar emotional grounds only to regret it later.

  2. As with any other new situation, you don't know what you don't know til it's too late. Do you know how your state determines child support? Alimony? Distribution of cash assets? Do you know how to assess the cost/benefits to keeping or selling your home? Do you know the difference between custody, visitation, and placement? Do you want to have to become an expert in these while suffering one of the most devastating events in your life? Neither did I.

  3. You don't know someone until you divorce them. This is a trite saying, but true. In the first flush of divorce-planning, grief may make your spouse amenable to whatever you suggest. As the process drags on, you many discover unexpected push-back on issues you thought were already decided. You may also discover hidden truths about your spouse that transform feelings of pity or understanding to rage or disgust. It is useful to have an expert alongside you to moderate those feelings and encourage rational decision-making.

You may be reading this and thinking, "UGH! I've already filed my complaint for divorce! I didn't get a lawyer! I didn't ask for alimony! I wish I had read this before!"


If your divorce has not yet been finalized, you can always amend your complaint for divorce. A mistake can be rectified right up to the final decree. (I personally think that is the real reason for the waiting period in most states, to give the stress hormones time to subside and the rational brain time to start functioning again.)

What if your divorce has already been finalized? Tough luck, huh? Not necessarily. If your concerns are child-related, you can always revisit the issue, even years after the divorce. Depending upon the situation, other issues can also be addressed post-finalization, but it might be more difficult.

So the final take-away is this: make use of lawyers' free consultation as needed before, during, or after your divorce proceedings. If you are uncertain about any aspect of the divorce process, hire a lawyer. The short-term cost is nothing compared to the potential long-term consequences.

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