The A Team: How to Find the Best Lawyer, Mediator and Therapist

Divorce is a complex process that affects just about every aspect of your life -- from financial to emotional, physical to legal. Unless you've been married for only a short time -- and have no property, assets, or children -- you'll probably need some professional help to get you on track to a healthy, happy post-divorce future.

The central figure in your divorce process -- aside from you and your spouse -- is your lawyer, but other professionals can help to smooth the road ahead of you. If you're still on speaking terms with your spouse, consider the services of a mediator, who will give you the opportunity to negotiate the terms of your divorce settlement outside of a courtroom setting. A therapist can see you through your "emotional divorce," enabling you to start creating a new life for yourself.

While each of these professionals can see you through a stressful transition period, finding the right person can create its own stress. Here's a guide to help you choose a good lawyer, a competent mediator, and the therapist who's right for you:



Finding a Good Lawyer

Choosing which lawyer will represent you may be the most important decision you'll make during your divorce proceedings. As in any profession, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. It's up to you to do your homework -- and to ask the right questions -- to determine which group your attorney belongs to.

"Select a lawyer carefully," advises San Diego attorney Sharon Blanchet. "Make sure you find one you can trust, who matches your philosophy, and one with whom you feel comfortable spending considerable amount of time. Find someone who you feel knows law, knows the system, and has experience in family law."

Look for someone who:

  • Practices family law. A lawyer who specializes in taxation, even if he or she's a close friend, isn't going to be much help to you.
  • Has a lot of experience. If your lawyer is fresh out of law school, make sure he or she has an experienced mentor at the firm -- one with an excellent knowledge of relevant law -- to go over his/her cases.
  • Is a skilled negotiator. If your case can be settled without a protracted court battle, you'll probably save a great deal of time, trouble, and money.
  • Is firm. If you do end up going to court, you don't want your lawyer to crumble at the first obstacle.
  • Is reasonable. You want someone who'll advise you to settle if the offer is fair, and not have the case drag on and on to satisfy your need for revenge -- or the lawyer's need to "win."
  • Is compatible with you. You don't have to become best friends, but you must be comfortable enough with your attorney to be able to tell him or her some of your deepest, darkest secrets. If you can't bring yourself to disclose information relevant to the case, you'll be putting your attorney at an extreme disadvantage. Your lawyer isn't your therapist or confessor, but he or she does need to be aware of all pertinent facts to do a good job for you. "Trust your instincts," advises Los Angeles lawyer Stacy Phillips. "Make sure your lawyer is somebody you can talk to, who knows that there is no such thing as a stupid question."
  • Is totally candid. Your lawyer should be up-front about what he or she thinks your divorce will cost, if there are holes or problems with your case, and whether or not you have any aces up your sleeve.
  • Is not in conflict with your best interests. Don't share a lawyer with your spouse; don't hire your spouse's best friend (even if she's a friend of yours, too), business partner, or any member of your spouse's family to represent you -- even if you're on good terms with them. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest involved, you'll have created enemies -- and probably a whole new family feud -- before your divorce settles.
  • Is more than a pretty face. This may seem painfully obvious, but given our frail human nature, it bears noting here: don't choose a lawyer based on physical attractiveness. You're looking for competence -- not for a date on Saturday night.



Questions to Ask a Prospective Lawyer

The outcome of your divorce proceedings will change the course of your life forever, so invest the time and money to find the lawyer who will do the best job for you. "I usually recommend interviewing three people," says Orange County lawyer Bonnie Baker. "A lot of people make the mistake of hiring the first lawyer they talk to, and they regret it later. It becomes almost a personal relationship, and you want somebody who's going to listen to you."

Here are the questions you should ask during your initial interview:

  • Do you practice family law exclusively? If not, what percentage of your practice is family law?
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • What is your retainer (the initial fee paid -- or, sometimes, the actual contract you sign -- to officially hire a lawyer)? Is this fee refundable? What is your hourly fee?
  • What is your billing technique? You should know what you're paying for, how often you will be billed, and at what rates.
  • About how much will my divorce cost? The lawyer will only be able to provide an estimate based on the information you provide -- and your realistic estimation of how amicable you and your spouse are. If you think your case is extremely simple, but your spouse's lawyer buries your attorney in paperwork, you can expect your costs to increase.
  • What do you think the outcome will be? Remember, you're looking for truthfulness here -- not to be told a happy story. "Some lawyers try to sell cases to clients by exciting them about what they could get, and making it sound better than it really is," says Mark Gross, an L.A.-based attorney and judge pro tem for the L.A. superior court. "But not everybody gets the best-case scenario, and what usually happens is that the clients become unhappy with the results. You need a lawyer who's going to look at the bottom line."
  • If your spouse has retained an attorney, ask your prospective lawyer whether he or she knows this attorney. If so, ask: "Have you worked with him or her before? Do you think the attorney will work to settle the case? And is there anything that would prevent you from working against this attorney?"
  • What percentage of your cases go to trial? You actually want to choose a lawyer with a low percentage here -- a good negotiator who can settle your case without a long, expensive court battle.
  • Are you willing and able to go to court if this case can't be settled any other way? How long will this process take? Again, the answer will be an approximation.
  • What are my rights and obligations during this process?
  • At a full-service firm, ask who will be handling the case: the lawyer you're interviewing, an associate, or a combination of senior and junior lawyers and paralegals? Should I consider mediation? Ask whether your case -- at least in the initial stages -- might be a good one for mediation.
  • What happens now? Do I need to do anything? And when will I hear from you?
  • Finally, if there's something you really need to know, or if you don't understand something the lawyer said, don't be afraid to ask for clarification. There's no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to decisions that will affect the rest of your life.

    Bring this list of questions -- with additions, if necessary, to suit your individual circumstances -- with you to the initial interview; that way, you'll know if all of your concerns have been handled.

    Sometimes, despite their best efforts, people end up choosing the wrong lawyers. "A lot of people don't trust their gut reactions," says Baker. "I often tell people that they have to trust their feelings about things. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't."



Top Tips from Lawyers

"When interviewing a lawyer, go in with a fixed game plan. Then find out what the lawyer's game plan is from beginning to end. If you don't like the one that the lawyer offers, seek another opinion. Remember that you know your spouse better than the lawyer does, so you have to tell him/her how your spouse is likely to respond to a particular strategy."
-- John Gilligan, lawyer

"In the initial interview, you should ask the attorney how long he has been practicing, how much he knows about the local court system's judges and experts, and how much experience he has in family law. Remember that you're the one doing the hiring: you're the one who's interviewing them."
-- Sharon Blanchet, lawyer

"Never spend 10 dollars to make five. Sometimes people get emotionally caught up in their decisions; they focus on trying to get everything they want. But decisions in divorce are like business decisions: you have to look at the costs and the benefits, and know what expectations are realistic."
-- Mark Gross, lawyer

Finding a Good Mediator

Mediation has become a popular way to settle the terms of a divorce. You and your spouse, with the help of a third-party mediator, work together to negotiate how to live successful lives apart. Mediation can save time and money, and is usually less emotionally damaging than a full-blown court battle. Together, you and your spouse work out an agreement you can both live with -- from the same side of the mediation table rather than from opposing sides of the courtroom.

"A divorce can bruise children, and acrimony around the divorce can cause long-term damage and scarring," says Santa Monica mediator/therapist Dr. Edward Dreyfus. "Parents should keep in mind that they will have a relationship with one another so long as their children are alive."

Mediation isn't an option in all divorce cases, but when both parties are willing to look at the issues instead of the emotions that cloud the issues, mediation is worth a try. Statistics show that when a case is negotiated through a mediator, the parties tend to stay out of court in the future. Another benefit of a mediated settlement is that you and your spouse will learn powerful new communication techniques, which is particularly important if you have children or share business interests.

Mediation doesn't eliminate the need for a lawyer: your lawyer will have to approve any agreements made by you and your spouse before they become legally binding. However, the mediation process can speed up negotiations because you and your spouse communicate directly instead of through a "broken telephone" chain -- your spouse to your spouse's lawyer to your lawyer to you.

A surprising number of family-law practitioners are also trained mediators, so finding a mediator may simply be a question of asking your lawyer about his or her own qualifications.

There are several referral agencies that can provide information about local mediators. When selecting someone to mediate your case, scrutinize the individual's qualifications. Ask to see a resume, how long he/she has been practicing, and whether he/she has ever mediated a case such as yours.

California currently has no official or statutory guidelines for becoming a mediator. "Most mediators have some kind of training," explains Orange County mediator Lynne Diamond, "but there isn't any state license or certification yet." However, both the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the American Bar Association offer extensive courses in divorce mediation. Look for someone who has completed courses offered by reputable organizations when selecting a mediator.

However, the person you're selecting shouldn't simply be someone with more qualifications than you can count. It's important that you find someone who you think can successfully mediate your case. "Choose an experienced mediator who is also trained in dealing with the psychological issues," recommends Dr. Dreyfus. "This can set the stage for a positive future for everyone."

Questions to Ask a Prospective Mediator

Look for someone you can trust and communicate with, and who is empathetic to your concerns. Don't pick someone lightly, or based on the cheapest rate, because he or she will be helping you settle on terms you may have to live with for a long time.

Before you meet with the mediator for the first time, you should prepare some well-thought-out questions. Here are a few suggestions of what to ask:

  • What is your training and experience? Ask about direct experience dealing with cases like yours, especially if there are aspects that make your case unique. Does the mediator have any special skills you may need -- such as the ability to speak another language? Since mediation is based on clarity of communication, it may be important for you to conduct your mediation in a language other than English.
  • What is your approach? Some mediators may want to meet separately with you and your spouse before sitting down with the two of you together; others may want your children involved and attending the mediation sessions. Find out what techniques will be used and how your mediation will be conducted.
  • Do you have any biases? We all have certain viewpoints which cloud our judgment, and mediators are not exempt. You should ask if your mediator has any strong views about the role of mothers or fathers, or about the care of children.
  • Should we have our children involved in the mediation process? If so, how?
  • Should a new partner(s) be involved in the process?
  • What leads to unsuccessful mediation?
  • How much is it going to cost?
  • How much time will the process take?
  • What is the role of my lawyer?



Top Tips from Mediators

"Try mediation early, and keep faith in the process even when the clouds are black and stormy. Resolving the situation within your family, with the help of a mediator, will help you and your children now and for decades to come."
-- Forrest Mosten, mediator and lawyer

"Go to some marital therapy to make sure that divorce is the way you want to go -- especially if there are children involved. Is it just a mid-life crisis you're going through? Also, do your own individual therapy. Ask yourself: is it the other person or is it me?"
-- Mari Frank, mediator and lawyer

Finding a Good Therapist

Until you achieve your "emotional divorce," you won't truly be free to create a fulfilling new life for yourself. A qualified therapist can help you work through the issues that are holding you back -- and keeping you stuck in the past.

"Your therapist can help you deal with feelings of disappointment, your broken dreams, and your anger, as well as those of your children," says Los Angeles psychologist Andrea Brandt. "Parents should deal with their anger separately from the children, who shouldn't be burdened with it."

Setting realistic limits and goals is an important part of the therapist's services. Good therapists are willing to listen, but they don't always have to agree with you.

"The hardest thing about finding the right therapist is that you generally need one when you're not in your top form," says Tina Crowe, an L.A.-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker. "When you're in need or in crisis, you're very vulnerable, and it's hard for you to objectively evaluate who's the best therapist for you. The best way to find one is word of mouth." A good place to start your search is with your family doctor or other health-care professional you know and respect. You could also ask a friend, or a member of your divorce support group if he/she would recommend his/her counselor. "Sometimes one name comes up from several people -- somebody who's well known," says Crowe.

The process of finding the right therapist can be frustrating for another reason: anyone can call him or herself a "therapist" regardless of background or training, so do your due diligence to find someone competent. It's important that you ask about your potential counselor's credentials. A therapist with an "MD" after his/her name is a psychiatrist; one with a "Ph.D." is a psychologist. If you see the letters "MSW," it means this person has a Master's degree in social work; an "LCSW" is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. If possible, choose a therapist who specializes in marriage and divorce.

Questions to ask a prospective therapist:

  • What are your credentials/affiliations?
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • How does therapy work (in your practice)?
  • Do you have any experience working with separated/divorced people? Do you "specialize" in a particular area (e.g., stepfamily issues, domestic violence, children and divorce, etc.)?
  • What is your fee (hourly rate, sliding scale, etc.)?
  • Will my insurance cover my sessions with you? What are your hours? Do you work any evenings or weekends?
  • How long do you expect my therapy will last?
  • Will you try to get my spouse and me to reconcile?
  • Can I call you between sessions? If so, do you charge for these calls?
  • Will you keep our sessions confidential?
  • How accessible is your office (close to parking, public transport; wheelchair accessible; etc.)? Is it located in a safe neighborhood?



Top Tips from Counselors

A good therapist will encourage questions that indicate you're interested in your own recovery. As you glance around the therapist's office, try to imagine yourself coming here every week for several months. Do you feel relatively comfortable here? "You know you have a bad therapist if he or she is aggressive or pushy, too confrontive or too passive," says Bleema Moss, a licensed family therapist practicing in San Diego, "or if you don't feel respected. There are some who just listen, which is not enough, and there are some who are too quick to give advice without considering the case."

During and after your initial consultation, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this person listening to me? Is he/she speaking at me, down to me, or with me?
  • Is this a caring person I can trust?
  • Does he/she seem professional (in terms of manner and appearance)?
  • Does he/she interrupt my session to take phone calls or pages?
  • Does he/she touch me in ways that seem inappropriate, or suggest we see each other socially?
  • Does he/she just plain give me the heebie-jeebies?

    Remember, it can take three to five sessions before you have a clear idea of whether this therapist is the right one for you. But if you really don't like your answers to these questions, then trust your inner voice -- thank the counselor for his/her time and interview the next candidate.

    "Make sure you are surrounded by the best resources you can have," says Dr. Brandt. "You need to be surrounded by people who will hear you and be in your corner; make sure you're with people who really understand you."
    -- With files from Jeffrey Cottrill

    Top tips from counselors

    "Unless you work through your divorce-related emotions, you'll carry all the unresolved conflicts, grief, and pain into your next relationship. It colors how you see the new people coming into your life. You end up acting out your anger instead of working it out."
    -- Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., licensed marriage, family, and child therapist

    "Breathe. In a divorce, there are so many decisions to make, and so many feelings that take you in a variety of directions. When you're under stress, you tend to hold your breath a bit."
    -- Tina Crowe, LCSW

    "You need a certain connection with your therapist. Do you feel respected? How you feel as a result of therapy is also important. Not that therapy always feels good, since sometimes you have to work through a lot of pain. But does this person give you some hope for healing?"
    -- Bleema Moss, therapist/mediator

    Divorce Magazine provides advice and support for those coping with separation, divorce, and remarriage. For more tips and stories, visit www.DivorceMagazine.com.
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