There are four guiding principles in selecting a divorce lawyer in Northern Virginia:
- Know yourself;
- Know your spouse;
- Know the various processes;
- Know the ways lawyers are rated and organized.
First, know yourself. What are your goals? Do you want primary physical custody or are you okay with sharing custody 50/50? Do you want spousal support? Do you want more than 50% of the marital estate, or are you okay with 50%? What is your conflict style: accommodating, competitive, assertive, conflict avoidant, passive/aggressive?
Second, know your spouse. What are his or her goals, or what will they likely be? How will he likely seek those goals? How will he respond to your goals? What is his conflict style? How will his goals, your goals, his conflict style, and your conflict style likely play out in different contexts?
Third, given your knowledge of your spouse and yourself, which process(es) will best suit you both?
For situations involving a highly secretive, contentious or self-interested spouse, who is unlikely to be led to see harmonious solutions, litigation is a viable option. It is expensive and likely to cause you and your kids to be more affected than you would be in other processes; however, it may be less expensive than wasting time and money on sure-to-fail cooperative approaches, when you have such a spouse.
For people who tend not to hold onto disagreements for long and who have relatively equal knowledge and personal power, mediation is a fine option. The mediator will explain to you that you ought, in addition, to hire counsel, and, in this regard, to hire the type of counsel who does not lead you away from your goals or push you into a conflictual approach that does not suit you or the situation.
For normally conflictual spouses, with somewhat competing goals and styles, but without insuperable barriers to resolution, mediation and collaborative divorce are good options. Whether the lawyers ought to be present in the mediation should depend on money, the relative knowledge of the parties about income and assets, and the relative personal power of the spouses. It is important for both spouses to hire competent and reasonable lawyers, not scorched-earth litigators, if you are in this category, or the lawyers may ratchet up the conflict or aggravate the positional differences.
Fourth, know how divorce lawyers in your area are rated and organized. There are at least three reputable rating services: (1) Best Lawyers, owned by U.S. News & World Report; (2) Martindale-Hubbell, owned by Lawyers.com; and (3) Super Lawyers. Of the three, Best Lawyers is by far the most exclusive. If you live in a larger city or county that has a divorce lawyer listed in Best Lawyers, consider hiring him or her, or, depending on finances, a lawyer with more than five years of experience working under him or her, provided the lawyer’s practice style is compatible with your style and goals. But confirm the Best Lawyers rating by making sure that the lead lawyer is also AV-rated in Martindale, and listed in Super Lawyers.
However, if you live in a large metropolitan area and have multiple options, review the website of each law firm whose lead lawyer(s) are in Best Lawyers. If you have decided that litigation is your only realistic option, hire a litigator. If you have decided that litigation is a possibility, but so is mediation or collaborative divorce, hire a balanced lawyer or law firm which resolves situations in various modalities. Note that many of the prominent lawyers in Northern Virginia resolve cases in only two ways: litigation and settlement/mediation in the context of litigation. However, the coming crop’s divorce lawyers will be multi-faceted and flexible and will resolve situations in almost all of the processes/modalities.
Why should you hire a divorce lawyer with these criteria? There are a lot of lawyers, and Best Lawyers reduces the pool to one percent of the total population. The finest lawyers are more likely to demonstrate and insist upon the highest level of practice by their associates. And the most talented associates are likely to want to work for the finest lawyers. Parenthetically, lawyers with less than five years of experience are generally too junior to be flying solo: there is too much to learn, and command over divorce law and over the skills involved in negotiating disputes does not come overnight. The associates in well-regarded firms see the best practices modeled every day.
But the world is changing. The vast majority of spouses now work to reduce the conflict and costs in their divorces, and see litigation as overkill. Unfortunately, the rating agencies rate based on past performance, so there are too few collaborative and cooperative lawyers in the ratings, and too many conflict-tolerant litigators in the ratings, so, read the lawyer’s websites closely. Generally, the writing will tell you who the lawyers are or, at least, who they aspire to be. The best divorce lawyers in Northern Virginia realize that eighty percent of the time a family dispute can be resolved within three months; however, only a handful of such lawyers have structured their practices in such a way. Why? Because it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
Prominent litigators in Northern Virginia learned to settle cases at the end of a 12 – 18 month divisive, litigation process. On the other hand, mediators and collaborative divorce lawyers can be, by training and temperament, too deferential to the stated goals of the parties, even when the parties’ goals are irreconcilable. The balanced lawyer’s approach is to defer when it is possible and fair, and to assert herself when it is ethically or morally important to do so. So, you ought to select the best-trained and most competent person you can afford, but it’s a very human business. Make sure you find the lawyer likeable, persuasive and balanced. If you like and respect the lawyer, it’s a fair conclusion that other lawyers and judges will as well.