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Divorce Attorney Red Flags: Should You Switch Lawyers?

Video Transcript:

Chaim Steinberger:

If my own lawyers aren’t listening to my argument and my own lawyers don’t get me, how can I expect the judge to ever hear what my position is?

Judy Maggio:

What do you do if you think your divorce attorney isn't fighting for you? We'll find out on this episode of Ask the Lawyer.

Hi everyone, I’m Judy Maggio and my guest today is New York City attorney Chaim Steinberger, and we want to remind everybody first about asking questions on your specific situation. Just go to askthelawyers.com, go to the top and click on the button at the top of the page that says, “Ask a Lawyer”, and it will walk you through the process.

Chaim, thank you so much for being with us today.

Chaim Steinberger:

It’s always my pleasure sharing this about this complicated issue in how to select a divorce lawyer and how to navigate the complicated legal system; it's a very difficult task for even the smartest among us.

Judy Maggio:

It is complicated, and one of the questions people often ask or a common complaint they have is, “My divorce attorney just isn't fighting for me.” What do you think about that? And why do you think a number of divorcing spouses complain that way?

Chaim Steinberger:

There could be a number of reasons and it becomes difficult to sort of answer without knowing the specifics because, of course, it's like asking a non-doctor to pass an opinion on whether the doctor did their work right. There's so much that you need to know before you can tell whether the lawyer is doing it right or not. However, I would agree with you that the primary goal of a lawyer is to make a client feel safe; make the client and feel like the lawyer is there in their corner and advocating for them, because without that feeling of safety, the person goes into threatened mode, the amygdala hijacks the nervous system, and the person can’t see the options and they can't become a good decision-maker to decide what's good for them, and that's why we have so many nasty divorces, because people feel threatened and they feel the need to lash out. So if a client isn't feeling safe, then that's a problem for me, whether the lawyer is doing the work right or not—there's, of course, a lot of mediocrity and every profession and mine unfortunately as well—so I keep talking to lawyers and others about the need to make clients feel safe, and if a client doesn't feel safe that in and of itself is a big problem.

Judy Maggio:

Just getting to the basics, what do you see is the proper role of a divorce attorney? Do you think clients understand that role? 

Chaim Steinberger:

There are a number of roles and different aspects. Let's start with the basic one, when you go into court. People don't usually understand this; the job of a good lawyer is to be a good teacher, to teach the judge everything the judge needs to know to make the right decision. It's the job of my adversary to teach the judge everything the judge needs to know to make their right decision, and so if I do my job well, all the judge has to do is sit there and point and say you are you, and rule in favor. So already that requires the lawyer to have credibility; that requires the lawyer to be a good presenter; that requires the lawyer to be able to capture the judge’s heart. Another very important point is that too many people mistakenly believe that the law is like arithmetic. I've had people come up to me and say, “Chaim, you're a brilliant lawyer, but you're expensive. I can't afford you. I got this kid that just graduated law school. Why don't you develop a strategy and let the kid go into court and present them.” They don't realize that it's not like arithmetic. They don’t realize that you can't just pipe up and go, “Two plus two, Your Honor.” It's more like chess, where the same move, if you make it at the right time wins the game, but if you make it a step too early or a step too late, it costs you the game. So the lawyer’s job is to navigate all of that, and win over the judge’s heart, mind, body, and soul. So that's the job in the court. 

Preparing for the courtroom requires that we become counselors to our client; that we make sure that their expectations are right. If they walk in and it’s somebody who's been an abusive tyrannical husband who wants to get custody of his children, maybe I send them to therapy to deal with his rage issues; maybe I send them Alcoholics Anonymous to deal with his substance abuse issues, and then I walk into court and I say, “Your Honor, this is a changed man.” And by setting appropriate expectations and a reasonable outcome, I could win him a great victory, whereas if I just walked in and repeated what he said, I might lose the whole kit and caboodle. 

So counseling clients, teaching clients the law, helping clients—I have clients come in who have something in their gut, they just know this is an injustice, injustice; one woman came in and after she spoke for about 10 minutes, I said, “Okay, let me see if I understand. This is what I'm hearing.” And she goes, “Wow. I've been struggling with this for three years, and in 15 minutes you said it better than I ever could.” So there's the ability to be able to help the client develop the theory of their case in an ethical way with integrity, so that they're telling their truth, and they're telling it in a way that makes it persuasive to the court. So I argue a good lawyer gets the judge to rule in your favor; a great lawyer gets the other side to settle with you so it never goes to the judge for determination. 

So all of these aspects together: You need to know the law backwards and forwards; you need a certain amount of creativity, because sometimes you find something out of left field that could come in and win the case for your client. There are so many broad dimensions of this that make up a good lawyer and altogether for a lawyer to be a good lawyer for their clients.

Judy Maggio:

So certainly there's some limitations on what the divorce attorney can do for particular clients. What are some other places people can go for help?

Chaim Steinberger:

Well, it's always good if the client has a support system; they may have people to support them emotionally. As I said before, I guess I didn't use this word, but I think a big part of my job is to empower clients. I've seen too many times how either mediation or a prior lawyer continue the abuse that they suffered under in their marriage, and so empowering clients is very big. However, I don't want to become a therapist. People tell me I should be more like a therapist, and there's a group portion of that which is the law that I practice, but I may have a therapist work with a client—I'm doing that now to develop a certain aspect of a certain case. The client may want to heal from all the abuse that went on in the marriage, because if they present somebody who is troubled, who is beaten down by the abuse of the marriage, then they won't present well in court. I want my clients to be strong. I don't want them to be domestic violence victims; I want them to be domestic violence survivors and come in strong, head held high with integrity and calling out the other side on the bad stuff that they've done, but should always be with grace and civility.

So you might have a therapist working with the client. You might want to have a financial person working with a client so that they know, “Here's what my lifestyle is. Now how much money do I need to be able to take care of me? What are my goals? Can I go back to work?” You might need a vocational expert to help the client rejoin the workforce. So often clients are surprised by this at the get-go, but before anything's happening I want to ask the client, “Okay. What do you need to move on with your life?” And I've had this one woman tell me, “What do you mean? What do you mean? I need to get out of the divorce.” And I'm like, “Yes, but if you don't help me now I can't get it for you.” Sure enough, the moment when we got into court, I convinced the other side to settle with me, and six months later she calls me up and she says, “I wish I would have taken your advice, because I now need the slices that's going to cost me X dollars.” And if that would have been part of the mix, I would have negotiated for the husband to pay that for her. So thinking long-term, thinking strategically, you might need a vocational expert, you might need a financial expert, you might need therapy to heal from childhood or from the things that got us into these bad relationships, all of these are good ideas. Of course you want the entire team working cohesively together; you don't want people at odds with each other and giving the client conflicting information.

Judy Maggio:

You know, going through a divorce is such a stressful time. What are some ways that a client could recognize that perhaps this particular divorce attorney doesn't have his or her best interest at heart? What are some red flags?

Chaim Steinberger:

There are unfortunately too many, as I said earlier, in every profession who are mediocre in the work that they do. So to me, a big red flag is when a professional says, “Oh don't worry. I got this. Trust me.” These are signs that the professional is unwilling to explain to the client what's going on. Clients are always surprised when I sit down and say, “Okay, let me explain to you the rules of this new sandbox that we're playing in. Let me tell you the rules of evidence, why some things come in and other things don't. Let me tell you what to look for. Let me tell you why what you think is a slam dunk now may be problematic getting that in front of a judge.” So somebody who knows their stuff and is secure welcomes questions and is happy to share. The lawyer who says, “Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Just go back home. Go back into the kitchen, or go back to your job, and let me do my work.” That to me is a huge warning sign. A lawyer who makes the client feel unsafe and may make the client feel that they're not pushing through. If my own lawyer isn’t listening to my argument and my own lawyer doesn't get me, how can I expect the judge to ever hear what my position is?

So the problem is like this; I worked on my own car. Nowadays life has become so complicated; I take my car to the mechanic and I say what's wrong, and the mechanic says, “It’s blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like, you know, I don't know if this mechanic is blowing smoke up my muffler. How can I tell without taking the car apart, without leaving my law practice and taking the car apart to learn about it? I'm not going to be able to second guess my mechanic. So you look for, I think it's called heuristics, like if you see a long line outside the restaurant, you go, “Oh. That restaurant must be good because a lot of people go there.” You may be wrong. I always get a kick out of people coming to our office and either they physically open up a piece of paper where you see the wheels turning and they go, “Are you involved in Bar Associations?” And I'm like, “What a great question.” The problem is that a layman without inside knowledge won’t know how to analyze the answers you give. There are people involved in Bar Associations who don't know what they're doing, and there are people involved in Bar Associations who are at the top of their field. So just saying, “I'm involved in Bar Associations doesn't mean anything.”

Publishing works, getting out there and teaching others, there are all of these, but there isn't one single thing. Some people like to publish, some people speak, some people teach. It took me 20 to 25 years to get to the point where I'm at, where now I have recognition, but I was a great lawyer well before I had all of these recognitions. So it's difficult. I would suggest that people use the common sense that they use in day-to-day life, like when you interview a babysitter, and you just get a bad vibe; you say can I trust this person? And be careful. What was that movie I saw where the wife said, “No. We can’t choose that babysitter. She’s stupid looking.”  

So just remember that just like somebody who looks good doesn't mean that they're good at what they do. You're hiring somebody for a purpose, so take a look. Ask some questions; talk to them about your case, see if you feel listened to, see if you feel understood. One of my mentors who wrote the How to Win a Trial manual, writes that belief like laughter is contagious. So if your own lawyer doesn't believe in the justice of your case, then you're done for. If your own lawyer tells you that you can't win this one, then you better listen to what they say and figure out whether they're giving you good advice and you need to readjust your end goal objectives, or whether the lawyer just doesn’t care enough about your case and you need a different lawyer. Of course that's individual and it depends. I can't tell you now whether the expectations are reasonable.

Judy Maggio:

You have offered up so much great advice to us today; so much helpful information and perspective. Thank you so much for your time today, Chaim.

Chaim Steinberger:

It's a pleasure talking to you, Judy, and sharing this for the people out there. I can't imagine what it would be like if I didn't know. Like I said, when I did the muffler thing; I call this the Google fallacy. Now they say somebody needs brain surgery and it’s like, “No problem. I'll Google it myself and I'll figure out how to do it.” But how do you know that you're getting good advice and good information, or if you're just getting the stuff that people are saying out there. So giving people the skills and the knowledge to be able to make these selections and get the important information they need, because so often, as we all know, this can determine the rest of your life.

Judy Maggio:

And that's it for this episode of Ask the Lawyers. My guest has been New York City attorney Chaim Steinberger. Don't forget, if you want to ask a question about your specific situation, just head over to askthelawyers.com, click on the icon that says “Ask a Lawyer”, and it will walk you through the process. Thanks so much for watching today. I'm Judy Maggio with AskTheLawyers™.

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