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What To Look For In A Military Divorce Lawyer

Author: Larry N. Burch Date: 09/26/2019

Categories: Family Law, Military Law

Young male soldier gazing at family photo sadly while at home in living room.

Do military lawyers help with divorce? How long does a divorce take for someone in the military? If you’re in the military (or married to a military service member) and you are going through a divorce, you’re not alone, and you may be asking yourself questions like these. Divorce can be a difficult and painful process and there are unique issues concerning healthcare, pensions, and other benefits that confront military families. Getting the right help essential. This article series is designed to help military families going through divorce. In our first article in the series, I discuss what to look for in a divorce lawyer with experience in military issues. 

Beware The Dog And Pony Show 

Although many attorneys are highly accomplished, in choosing a lawyer, you should look past the “love me” wall with the elegantly-framed degrees, certificates, awards, and photos of the attorney with famous people. An attorney that appears prosperous will not necessarily not work hard for you. Many times, he or she won’t be working on your case much at all but will assign the work to an associate attorney or paralegal (which is not necessarily a bad thing).  You want to ensure that the attorney you choose is surrounded by a motivated and effective team of people and focused on your case.  

Listen to whether the attorney you interview understands the issues in your case.  Too much focus on the wrong thing—the attorney’s accomplishments and awards –could be a red flag. It’s also important to be wary of the attorney who promises to make your dreams come true.  It’s very easy for an attorney to take advantage of the client’s anxiety by telling the prospective client exactly what he or she wants to hear. Also, ask the attorney for the risks you face – for example, what will your spouse’s attorney likely be arguing?  This evaluation of the potential upsides and risks of your case allows you to make informed decisions about your case. Don’t fall for the unrealistic promises of a cheerleader whose main interest is in getting you to pay their retainer fee! 

Ensure They Have the Right Jurisdiction 

The first requirement of a domestic relations (or family law) attorney in your area is that the lawyer actually practices domestic relations law in your city or county courthouse.  An attorney who practices family law regularly can often handle those cases more efficiently – at less cost to you! If an attorney has just a few family law clients each year and usually works on criminal or personal injury cases, he or she may not practice family law enough to really know the law in this area, or have experience with how judges in your county decide family law cases. 

Many of the lawyers I encounter who practice family law as a sideline seem uncertain of what to do and put their clients at a significant disadvantage both in court as well as in settlement negotiations. In addition to being familiar with the latest family law cases and statutes, an attorney should be familiar with the court he or she is practicing before. Many of the issues in a divorce are decided based on the judge’s personal prejudices. Knowing a judge or Magistrates past rulings (or the general disposition of the court) towards awarding alimony, child custody, division of assets and debts and other issues provides valuable insight. You don’t want to spend a lot of money seeking relief from a judge who almost never awards the relief you are seeking.  Only a family law attorney who has experience in the local courthouse will have this valuable insight.

In This Case, Specializing Is Best 

Many attorneys list a wide variety of practice areas as their areas of expertise. While an attorney may be able to represent clients in a few related practice areas (for example, many probate attorneys also have a trusts and estates practice), an attorney who claims to practice in 8 or 9 different areas of law probably is mediocre in at least half. You would not seek treatment from a neurologist who also claims to specialize in cardiology, podiatry and psychology. Be wary of the lawyer who specializes in almost everything. 

If you are a military service member, retiree, dependent, uniformed service employee, or federal government employee, there are particular rules that may dramatically affect your case. Also, if you have a security clearance facts may come to light that could jeopardize your clearance (and your career). In many cases, it may be to your financial advantage to avoid a final divorce. You should inquire about the attorney’s background and experience in handling military divorce cases. Ask if he or she is aware of the impact of divorce on your military benefits, pension and career. 

Preparation Is Key 

The right attorney will be prepared and know the facts of your case.  When both lawyers are prepared for trial, it is the facts that matter most. However, if one side is unprepared then the evidence takes a backseat to the advocacy (or lack of it). I have been in court many times opposing a lawyer who clearly did not understand the relevant law, did not know the facts of the case, or just did not know how to present his or her client’s case. 

Frequently, the client (or a key witness) is not prepared for cross examination and comes apart on the witness stand. That collapse is usually the attorney’s responsibility. The client and key witnesses should be well-prepared to answer difficult questions on cross examination. In the end, effective lawyering is probably 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration.

Find Someone Who Will Tell the Truth 

Finally, a lawyer is your advocate in the courthouse but your counselor in his office.  In court, the lawyer should be zealous and emphatic in his support for their client’s position but in the office the lawyer should be advising the client objectively. If you are wrong or your argument has major holes in it, you should find that out in your lawyer’s office and notin court.. Evaluate whether your lawyer is going to be someone who will tell you the truth about your case. The attorney who lets you go into court with a losing case is not doing you any favors.  In the end, he will blame the bad outcome on the judge and start setting bait for his next fish.

If you are going through a divorce and you are the military (or you are married to a military service member), I can help guide you with the process. Contact me by email at lburch@mcmillanmetro.com or by phone at 301-251-1180 with this or any other military legal issues.