What makes an attorney a “good divorce lawyer”? Think about all the lawyers you’ve seen on TV or in movies. Of course, there’s Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Maybe your parents or grandparents liked to watch “Matlock”, “Perry Mason” or enjoyed Paul Newman in “The Verdict” and Jimmy Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder”. Did you grow up watching “Law and Order”, “Boston Legal” or “The Practice”? Jack McCoy and Denny Crane were always interesting and/or entertaining. Do you like to watch Suits? Harvey Specter is fierce and Tom Cruise was enthralling in “A Few Good Men” and “The Firm” before people became distracted by his religion and enthusiastic jumping on Oprah’s couch.
Really, we could rattle off the names of fictional attorneys from movies, television and John Grisham novels for hours. We’re lawyers and many of these characters inspired us to join this profession. When we think about it though, hardly any of these iconic characters were divorce lawyers. Even the buffoons like Dan Fielding from “Night Court” and “Franklin and Bash” were prosecutors or criminal defense attorneys. After kicking it around, we realized that the only famous fictional divorce lawyer that came to mind was Arnie Becker from “L.A. Law”. We guess it could be argued that Lionel Hutz from the Simpsons practiced family law but he also seemed to practice every other kind of law as well and wasn’t good at any of it.
So how well did Arnie Becker, played by Corbin Bernsen, represent our profession? From a dramatic television kind of standpoint he was awesome. He was the first character introduced in the premier episode and you got a sense of the kind of moral ambiguity he would bring to the role when he called “dibs” on one of the other partner’s offices as they were rolling his body out of it following a fatal heart attack. He was successful as an attorney but lived almost entirely in the gray areas when it came to following the law and rules in general. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do in pursuing romantic conquests and career success. The show ran for eight seasons and Arnie never really seemed to improve much as a human being. He was teetering on the brink of destruction from his behavior and choices right to the very end. In short, he didn’t really do much for the public image of divorce attorneys but he was definitely fun to watch.
We don’t know how many of you reading this ever saw that program. It certainly made an impression on us and if you were alive and had even a passing awareness of pop culture between the years of 1986 and 1994, you were most certainly aware of it. Unfortunately, when it went into syndication, for some reason nearly the only channel carrying it was the Lifetime Network which is a decidedly “non-dude friendly” channel so a lot of younger men haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy the greatness that was that program. The show was applauded for showing a realistic view of lawyers and Harry Hamlin, who played Michael Kuzak on the program, once stated on the Tonight Show that he regularly received fan mail from real lawyers stating that they had used his character as inspiration when preparing their closing arguments. Johnny Carson seemed pretty impressed with that and if you remember him, anyone who ever went on that show lived to impress Johnny.
Unfortunately, most of the accuracy on that program was again centered around criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors. The Arnie Becker character was a total, unrepentant dirt bag who couldn’t possibly be further in character from any attorney in our firm or most other divorce attorneys we know for that matter. When you think about it, even non-series regulars who pop up from time to time on different shows playing divorce attorneys are not caste in a favorable light. So why does Hollywood either ignore or throw shade at our profession in almost every situation?
We’ll indulge in a little speculation for a moment. Could it be because, as we all know, life is different in tinseltown and marriage has a short shelf life for many of its occupants? If you’re a Hollywood writer, producer or showrunner, you may well have encountered a fierce divorce attorney during the dissolution of your own marriage and you may have an ax to grind. If you look at the history of Hollywood, the majority of the interactions between power players and their spouses divorce attorneys haven’t gone very well for them. As we said, this is just speculation but in lawyer speak, the facts and evidence make a strong case.
So what does a good divorce lawyer look like in the real world? What traits do they have and what sort of character? As far as we’re concerned, our attorneys are far more like Atticus Finch and the polar opposite of Arnie Becker but don’t take our word for it. The occasional bad review we get in social media tends to come from the opposing party or clients who refused to follow our counsel. If you look into us we tend to be loyal and staunch advocates of our clients rights. Our internal culture is very family-centric. We are a family and the success and happiness of each individual member of the firm’s families is of primary importance to all of us.
How does that compare to the public expectation of what qualities it takes to be a successful lawyer? Let’s look at the top five:
- Are they available? If you hire a successful, in demand attorney, does he/she have the time to attend to and oversee your case personally? If you’re just paying for a name but getting a second string player, are you getting what you pay for? Of course, some firms have no “B team” but the point is, if you needed a criminal defense, personal injury attorney or tort lawyer and hired Melvin Belli, William Kunstler or F. Lee Bailey, you would probably be unhappy if they never gave you any face time and had their paralegals do all the work and meetings for them.
- Do they have skill and experience? This one is fairly self explanatory but it’s always a good idea to check the track record of your attorney with cases similar to yours before retaining them.
- How well do they communicate? This applies to their communication with you, your spouse and their attorney as well as the court. If they fall short in any of those areas, you should be concerned. They should be able to understand and state back what you are communicating to them in a way that demonstrates that they understand what you are saying. If they misinterpret something that your spouse’s lawyer or the court is communicating to them, it could be catastrophic for your case. If you notice that they’re not picking up what you’re putting down, that’s your first clue.
- How is their composure? Having a “hot head” for an attorney won’t do your case any favors. You need someone who has the composure of Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 or lobbyist Nick Naylor from “Thank You for Smoking”. In other words, someone who isn’t easily rattled or provoked. Staying calm and rational is an essential skill for a lawyer.
- Do they have the resources and support they will need to successfully handle your specific case? It is important that your attorney have not just time, knowledge and skill but also the ability to give your case the attention it needs for success. If your lawyer is a one man show but has multiple clients, will they be able to serve everyone’s needs? Do they have the connections and infrastructure to get the job done?
So there you go. If you’ve never had to hire a lawyer before and you’ve realized there aren’t even very many fictional divorce lawyers available to look to for ideas, this should give you a template to use. The right lawyer is your metaphorical life preserver in the stormy sea that is getting a divorce.