Should You Represent Yourself in Your Memphis Divorce?

The following post was originally written by Houston divorce attorney Scott Morgan.
Click Here to visit his Houston Divorce Blog.

In recent years I have noticed an ever increasing number of pro se litigants (people who represent themselves) at the family law courthouse. I mentioned this to a judge who estimated that 50% of her docket was comprised of pro se cases.

For several years now the basement of the Family Law Center has been occupied by a staff member of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers whose basic job is to assist the pro se litigants with the numerous document errors that are caught by the judges during what are supposed to be quick, easy uncontested prove up hearings.

It is my understanding that most of these people are using divorce form websites. They pay approximately $200 or so for the fill-in-the-blank divorce forms that are supposed to be acceptable in their jurisdiction.

Among the many problems of a divorce form website is the obvious difficulty in creating documents that are effective and current in all 50 states, not to mention addressing the various peculiarities of individual counties and individual judges. The fact that judges can and usually do find numerous errors in the documents during a very brief scanning at the prove up hearing is evidence of just how bad a job these form websites do.

My basic view on representing yourself is this: if you have no assets, no liabilities, no children, and you are just unable to financially afford a lawyer, then go ahead take a stab at representing yourself. However, for most people their divorce case will be the most significant financial and legal event of their life and it needs to be handled correctly. If it is not handled correctly the hidden error is likely to reveal itself at some later date.

Here is an example. Early in my career I was visited by a lady who had been divorced several years prior. Her ex-husband was now retired from the military and receiving his pension. During the divorce neither party had been represented by an attorney and the husband had handled the paperwork. She admitted to me that at the time she would have signed any document he asked her to and given him anything he wanted. She just wanted out of the marriage, an attitude shared by many going through divorce who later regret it.

Now she wondered if she had any right to a portion of his pension, since they had been married for about 15 of his 20 years of military service. I expected to find in the Decree the standard boilerplate language awarding all of retirement assets to the party in whose name it was held.

To my amazement the Decree was silent on the issue of retirement benefits division. It simply did not address that asset. You can guess the rest of the story. I filed a petition to divide undivided property and within a relatively short time she was receiving nearly $1000 a month out of husband’s pension.

In this case the end result was a just one and I was happy to help her achieve it. But you can bet her ex-husband felt otherwise. He could have easily avoided the result by not being so cheap and hiring a lawyer. Even the most mediocre of family law attorneys would not have made that mistake. Over the course of his life that error could end up costing him $100,000, $200,000, or more.

While this might seem like a dramatic example of a pro se error, I can give you many, many more just from the ones I have personally seen. The errors involve child support, visitation, conservatorship, alimony, property division, etc., you name it.

The bottom line is that your divorce case is far too significant and important to just hope you get it right. You need to be certain that it is handled correctly and you can only do this by hiring a quality divorce lawyer.

Selecting the Right Memphis or Mississippi Divorce Attorney

Going through a divorce will be one of the most difficult undertakings in your life. So selecting the right divorce lawyer in Memphis or Desoto County to represent you is a very important decision. The following are a few criteria for use in helping to decide on the right divorce attorney.Experience

Any divorce lawyer you consider should have significant experience handling cases in your geographical area. A divorce lawyer who is experienced in your county will be familiar with the tendencies of that county’s judges and will be able to use this knowledge to your advantage. Additionally, that lawyer should practice primarily (preferably, exclusively) as a family law attorney. Frequently people will hire someone whose practice is mostly in another area of the law, thinking that any lawyer will do. However, family law is extremely specialized and in most states the statutes are modified frequently. It is a field that requires a constant study and a certain skill set in order to best represent a client.

Past Client Testimonials

Probably the best way to determine which lawyer is right for your is to hear what past clients have to say about the lawyer. While divorce can often be unpleasant, some divorce attorneys have more success at satisfying their clients. If you do not personally know someone who has been a client of a particular lawyer, you should consider asking for client testimonials. A good lawyer should have at least a few former clients who are willing to vouch for him or her.

Accessible

One of the most common complaints made by clients who become dissatisfied with their divorce attorney is that they were unable to communicate with the lawyer. It is very important that your divorce lawyer or someone on the staff be accessible and prompt in responding to your phone calls, emails, and requests for meetings. While you can ask about the office policy, this is another area where you can best evaluate by hearing what past clients have to say.

Fees

It is extremely important that you have a frank discussion with the lawyer about fees and what you can expect. Typically, the divorce lawyer will require the payment of a substantial retainer up front, against which that lawyer’s hourly rate and expenses will be charged. You should find out what the hourly rate is, how much the retainer will be, whether any portion of the retainer is refundable if it is not fully used, and how frequently you will receive invoices detailing the hourly charges and expenses. You should also find out how detailed and clear the invoices will be. Again, this is an area where you can get excellent information from past clients.

Are You Comfortable with the Lawyer?

While all the other issues are very important, there is one ultimate question you should ask yourself before hiring your divorce lawyer: are you comfortable with that lawyer and are you confident in his or her abilities? If the answer is anything other than a resounding “yes, absolutely” you should keep looking. Your case is too important to hire someone who does not inspire your confidence.

Houston divorce lawyer Scott Morgan originally posted this to his Houston divorce blog and his original post can be found by clicking on this sentence.