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Do I need a lawyer?

Property settlements, support and child custody disputes can be very complicated. A lawyer can tell you how a judge may divide your property and help you put your property settlement agreement into writing. A lawyer can help you understand your rights and duties concerning your children. A lawyer can assist you if an unexpected problem comes up. And a lawyer can advise you on how much money, if any, you should pay or receive for spousal or child support.

Lawyers who handle dissolution and custody cases are called family law attorneys. Some are “certified specialists” in family law. This means that they have met the State Bar’s standards for certification. Keep in mind, however, that there are lawyers with experience in family law who have not sought such certification.

In addition, there are alternatives to hiring a lawyer who will represent you throughout all stages of your divorce. You could, for example, choose limited representation instead—hiring an attorney who will assist you at particular stages of your divorce. Whether this would be a good option for you could depend on the complexity of your case and your financial situation. Generally, limited representation involves less cost.

While some attorneys will not work solely on portions of a case, others will agree to act as collaborative attorneys or consulting attorneys (also called coaches or providers of unbundled legal services).

  • Collaborative attorney. The role of a collaborative attorney is to work with you, your spouse and your spouse’s attorney towards the goal of reaching a settlement on all issues. This could involve exchanging necessary information, selecting common experts and focusing on negotiating family issues in a cooperative, informal manner. Because collaborative attorneys will not represent you in court on any unresolved issues, you and your spouse must agree initially to retain new attorneys if you need to go to court to resolve remaining issues.
  • Consulting attorney. The role of the consulting attorney, unlike a collaborative attorney, is to assist you on a limited basis. A consulting attorney does not take on full responsibility for overseeing or handling your case. The limits of the representation are set by agreement. You should make sure that you understand the extent of the attorney’s services. Such services might include, for example, helping you to develop a negotiation strategy, teaching you how to present an argument in court, accompanying you to mediation or “signing off” on any agreement.

Or you might consider hiring a lawyer who can act as a neutral mediator between you and your spouse. A lawyer/mediator can provide you with legal information, as well as some creative alternatives for handling your divorce. This is not a substitute for legal advice.