If your car breaks down, you hire a mechanic. If your heart is fluttering, you see a doctor. If you are getting divorced, you consult an attorney, right? Generally speaking this is correct. But it isn’t quite this simple.
Like mechanics who specialize in repairing Jaguars and cardiac surgeons who repair heart valves, most lawyers today have specialized practices. For example, lawyers specialize in personal injury, medical malpractice, and family law. Within these practices, attorneys may further specialize and/or offer a wide variety of new services that were not previously available to divorcing people.
For example, a divorce attorney may specialize in complex divorces while another may limit their practice to child custody disputes. Divorce attorneys also may dedicate their practices to one method of divorce resolution, such as the collaborative divorce model, while others may avail themselves to any of the dispute resolution methods best suited to their client’s needs and personalities. This diversity, while wonderful to have at one’s disposal, can be confusing. Hence, I provide you with an overview of the array of attorneys vying for your business and a few insider tips to help you make your selection.
Types of Divorce Attorneys and Specialty Attorneys in California
California Certified Family Law Specialists – Upon satisfying the requirements established by the State Bar of California and successfully passing an examination, a family law attorney may identify him or herself as a Certified Family Law Specialist. A California Certified Family Law Specialist is an attorney who has been substantially involved in the practice of family law for five years immediately preceding specialization and has experience with essentially every family law issue.
Because certification in California requires an attorney to lodge a significant number of hours in divorce court before specialization, attorneys who are dedicated to divorce mediation and collaborative divorce may never become eligible for certification. Thus, while Certification is a factor to consider when hiring a divorce attorney, if it is the only or primary factor, you will miss the opportunity to work with many extraordinary and very competent attorneys. Also it is important to note that the State’s certification does not guarantee an attorney’s expertise.
Child Custody Attorneys – Limiting their practices to issues of child custody and child support only, child custody attorneys usually serve as co-counsel with divorce attorneys who handle the remaining issues including, but not limited to property division and spousal support. Child custody attorneys are often hired in contentious or complex cases when sufficient resources are available.
Consulting Attorneys – The range of services provided by consulting attorneys like me is wide and varied. Most will give legal advice, prepare legal pleadings, explain court procedures, and review legal documents. Some may also represent men and women in divorce mediation and/or settlement conferences and/or appear in court for hearings or trials. Consulting attorneys may be involved in a case from start to finish or may only provide one consultation – ultimately it depends on the client’s needs and attorney’s willingness to meet all or some of those needs. Working with a consulting attorney can reduce legal fees and/or give you the opportunity to work with more than one attorney during divorce without having both attorneys as attorneys of record.
Collaborative Divorce Attorneys – True collaborative divorce attorneys participate in one of the newest methods of alternative dispute resolution methods available to divorcing parties. I use the word “true” because an attorney may hold him or herself out as a collaborative divorce attorney, but refuse to sign a “Participation Agreement”. A “Participation Agreement” plays a critical role in the collaborative divorce process because, once signed, it prohibits the collaborative attorneys from serving as trial attorneys if the parties are unable to reach a settlement agreement and choose to go to court. An attorney’s willingness to sign a Participation Agreement is significant because that signature demonstrates a high level of commitment to the process, which is needed to properly carry out the collaborative divorce process. So, all of that said, a true collaborative divorce attorney is an attorney who is willing to represent clients in the collaborative divorce process, which differs in a variety of ways from mediation and litigation. (You can learn more about the collaborative divorce process here.) If you wish to use the collaborative divorce process, which I believe can be a good option, hiring a true collaborative divorce attorney makes the most sense. You may find that collaborative divorce attorneys are not Certified Family Law Specialists, but don’t be surprised. California currently requires attorneys to litigate cases before becoming eligible to be a Specialist and some collaborative divorce attorneys never go to court because it is contrary to the collaborative divorce process. A lack of certification as a Family Law Specialist should not negate an experienced and highly recommended collaborative divorce attorney.
Divorce Attorneys – Attorneys who handle divorces are often referred to as divorce attorneys, but they may handle other family law issues like legal separation, prenuptial agreements, paternity actions, child support cases, annulments, domestic violence, and a myriad of other related issues. In your search for an attorney you may use the keywords divorce, attorney, and lawyer as a starting point, but you also can use “family law” as the words are interchangeably used in divorce. In California the legal process of getting divorced is called the Dissolution of Marriage, but these keywords aren’t commonly used outside of the courtroom except by and between divorce professionals. While divorce attorneys usually handle all of the legal issues that arise in a divorce, it is not uncommon for a divorce attorney to suggest that a client retain a second attorney to assist with certain issues like establishing child custody or preparing a Qualified Domestic Relations Order.
Estate Planning Attorneys – Somehow somewhere along the line people started thinking that estate planning attorneys handle divorces. This may have something to do with men and women telling their fiancées that they need to do estate planning when they actually want a prenuptial agreement. To clarify, estate planning attorneys handle issues pertaining to death and managing your estate and life in anticipation of death, not divorce.
Family Attorneys – Almost a thing of the past, family attorneys are just that, a family’s go-to attorney. The attorney they call first when they have legal problems. Some family attorneys are general practitioners, which means they may do a little of everything. Other family attorneys may act as the go-to attorney who helps a family find the specialized attorney that the family needs. So generally speaking, a family attorney does not in anyway guarantee or mean that the attorney handles divorces.
Family Law Attorneys – There are many legal issues that fall under the umbrella of family law including, but not limited to, divorce, legal separation, annulment, and paternity. Some family law attorneys will specialize and limit their practice to divorce while others will provide an array of services. It isn’t uncommon for a divorce attorney to be referred to as a family law attorney, the descriptors are interchangeable but it is possible that a family law attorney may not handle divorces.
Trial Attorneys – With criminal trials being broadcast almost daily in America, you have probably seen a trial attorney in action. Trial attorneys prepare for, and take cases to court usually for hearings and, or trials. While some states have jury trials for divorces, most do not, including California. So unlike the televised trials with empaneled jurors, divorce hearings and trials are before Judges who have the power to make rulings and legally binding decisions. A client usually hires a trial attorney if his or her divorce is contentious and appears to be headed to divorce court. Trial attorneys may also serve as Collaborative Divorce Attorneys, Consulting Attorneys, and, or mediators.