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With or Without? Do I Need a Lawyer for my Family Law Case?

professor-at-work-1430040By: Janette Jordan

According to the Colorado Judicial Branch 2016 Annual Statistical Report, starting at page 32, there were 34,966 family law court filings in 2016.   In speaking with court clerks, some will say that up to 70 percent of those are done by people without attorneys.  We’ve written on the subject of proceeding without an attorney several years ago, but I figured an update was in order. The legal system is a unique area of practice in that it allows for individuals to represent themselves (a term referred to as appearing “pro se”) in a Court of Law. This holds true for Denver family law cases. However, the court will still hold them to the same standard as a practicing, licensed attorney. So, what do you do when you find yourself being brought to court or needing to take someone to court with a family law dispute?

It takes two to tango and the same can be said for a non-contested case. More often than not, there are going to be issues that the parties cannot agree on or may be entirely unaware of.  The court cannot give you legal advice, so where do you turn to ensure that your rights and interests are being protected? That’s where having an attorney is invaluable. Having an an experienced family law attorney in your corner adds that extra layer of protection and insight.

The unfortunate reality is that conflict has a cost. Abraham Lincoln said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” Attorneys do not work for free and they cannot finance your case for you. However, the way I recommend clients look at it is as an investment in their future. You are retaining an attorney for their expertise and ability to get you through this process. A majority of the work that I do on a daily basis is trying to undue or fix past outcomes because a person did not have a lawyer and tried to do it themselves. Some of the hardest cases for me to turn down are ones where a person calls because they have a final hearing coming up last minute and are not prepared.  If available, I will certainly take those cases on.   However, when an attorney is not available for a last minute hearing, the litigant may end up having to do the case on their own.  The hope and goal are that you only have to go through this process once, so let’s do it right the first time.

You also need to make sure you take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. This is not an easy process and often times, the looming requirements, deadlines, and generic forms available to pro se parties going through a Colorado divorce or child custody case can be overwhelming and stressful. Coupled with the fact that it is also extremely emotional and personal, it can be hard, if you represent yourself, to be objective. While you cannot control the actions of the other party, you can work to control yours by getting representation as soon as possible.   Separating your emotions from the business aspects of your case matters in that you need to be guided by logic and strategy, not emotion.  Ensuring prompt communication, document preparation, and following some of that darn-good legal advice and attorney can give, will place you ahead of the game.

Most law firms will allow you to come in and meet with an attorney, at a reduced hourly rate, to talk about your case during what is called an “initial consultation.” This is a great opportunity for you to ask questions and get a sense of what your case really entails. It is important for you to find an attorney that actually listens to you, is able to explain the legal process to you, and that you feel comfortable with. The synergy you have with your attorney, will translate to your case.
Your attorney is now the one responsible for drafting petitions, motions, agreements, and scheduling mediation, status conferences, court hearings, and meeting court deadlines. Your attorney is also going to know the ways to streamline your case and avoid any mistakes. For example, in most cases, you have to provide the court with your Sworn Financial Statement and Mandatory 16.2 documents. If you miss a deadline, fail to disclose an asset, or inaccurately estimate the value of your property, then there can be serious consequences and delays that will result.

The decision of whether or not to hire an attorney is yours alone and is an opportunity for you to take control of the situation before critical mistakes are made. Having an attorney in your divorce, custody, or child support case now can prevent years of problems and the expenditure of potentially thousands of dollars down the road. There is an old saying made up by someone long before any of us were born, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I’m not sure who this quote is attributed, but it sure seems smart to me. Maybe they were a family law attorney?

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