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What Is a “Good” Lawyer?

When you are seeking a divorce, obviously you want to hire a “good” lawyer. But this is where it gets complicated–what is a “good” lawyer?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “good” covers a lot of ground: “of a favorable character or tendency”; “that can be relied on”; “agreeable, pleasant”; “honorable”; “deserving of respect”; “commendable”; “competent, skillful”; etc. As a lawyer, these are traits that I aspire to and believe the profession was originally based on.

But what does a person seeking a divorce normally mean when they say they want a “good” lawyer? From having met with many, many folks seeking divorce over the 30 plus years of my practice, I have found that many are looking for something different from the traditional meanings of “good”.

Because divorce can be frightening on many levels (emotional, financial, legal), many people approach it primarily from a state of fear (even those with a lot of power and self-confidence). For those folks, protection from an unknown process and unknown future is a primary goal. Unfortunately, this is where the definition of “good” in this person’s mind gets a little off-base in my opinion.

When you are making decisions from fear, seeking maximum “protection”, then you tend to believe that the best lawyer is the “meanest” or “toughest”—sometimes known as the “junkyard dog” (by the way, “tough” in the sense of “strong” is a trait of a good lawyer, but this is different from “mean or nasty”). And, so, many folks seek this type of lawyer. Is this a “good” lawyer?

My opinion is that there are only a very narrow set of circumstances where the “junkyard dog” lawyer can be effective. This is in the rare situation where the other party, and the other party’s attorney, are unwilling to stand up to harassing tactics, threats, etc. Although many folks seeking divorce believe that their spouse will “tuck and run” when certain pressures are applied, after handling hundreds of divorces, I have very rarely seen it occur. It just doesn’t happen.

So, what is wrong with hiring this type of lawyer, if there is even some small chance of getting what you want based on pressure and threats? Again, based on my experience, the “junkyard dog” lawyer almost always causes more damage to the divorce process than he or she helps achieve the client’s goals. This is for several reasons. First, this approach is not respected by Judges. As a result, if a Judge makes decisions in this scenario, the client is frequently associated with the characteristics of his or her lawyer. This can result in rulings that are very unfavorable to the client. Second, this approach can be, and almost always is, very expensive. If you are trying to affect the outcome by putting pressure on the other party, you have to take legal actions that might create that pressure (pervasive discovery requests; depositions of numerous individuals; multiple threatening, written communications; multiple hearings, etc.). Third, it takes a certain type of personality for a lawyer to approach his or her cases this way, so that it is not uncommon for the lawyer to exhibit the same sort of behavior in relationship to the client, especially if things are not going well, or the client questions the lawyer’s decisions, etc.

What is a “good” lawyer, then? A good lawyer is no different than a good person in any other profession, except that he or she must have all of the necessary training and legal skills to do the job. In addition, a good lawyer should be focused on the client’s specific goals from the very beginning of the engagement, and all actions should be focused on those goals. What most clients want is a fair result, achieved in as short as possible time, for a reasonable cost. A good lawyer should always be focused on these goals, but in addition, he or she should be aware of any specific goals of this client. Not everyone wants the same thing in the same circumstance, so it is important to help the client understand and express their goals at the very beginning. Beyond this, the “very good” lawyer is also aware of the “whole client” and makes sure the client receives whatever service would improve his or her life—whether it is counseling, targeted reading materials, financial advice, estate planning, etc. There are many services which support a client’s life which may not be provided by the divorce lawyer, but the divorce lawyer is in a position to see this more clearly than the client and should make every effort to help the client come out of the divorce with an improved life, in whatever way that may be achieved.