A. The best way is by "word of mouth" - a recommendation from a trusted source, who has previously worked with or even against the attorney. I get most of my cases by referral from previous clients, opposing attorneys and opposing parties.
Q. Can I handle my own legal problems?
A. For family law matters, we now have a Family Law Facilitator's Office at each courthouse to help self-represented parties complete their court forms. It is a valuable resource for those who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. However, it is not the same as personal representation. The Facilitator's Office does not "represent" you, does not appear with you in court, and does not provide services beyond completing court forms. For other civil cases, no such service exists.
Q. When would I need you as my lawyer?
A. Any time you do not feel comfortable and capable of representing yourself. If you are vulnerable, emotional or unsophisticated in legal matters, or if your matter is particularly difficult or complex, you should definitely consider hiring an attorney.
Q. Can I change attorneys?
A. You are free to change attorneys at any time for any reason, even if you owe an outstanding balance to your current attorney. You will still be obligated to pay for the services rendered and costs incurred by your current attorney.
Q. What should my attorney expect from me?
A. An effective attorney-client relationship requires teamwork. This means you need to cooperate and communicate with your attorney, and to provide all information and evidence in your possession and control.
Q. What should I expect when I hire an attorney?
A. First, legal services are expensive so you'll need to budget for that. Most cases cost more than the initial retainer, so plan to replenish the retainer from time-to-time. You should also expect to allocate time and energy to providing information and evidence to your attorney so he or she can present your best case to the court. Court cases can be stressful, but having a good attorney can help minimize this.
Q. What should I look for in an attorney?
A. You want an attorney who is well qualified to handle your particular matter, with the appropriate knowledge, experience and skills. (Beware of attorneys who try to "sell" you with promises of success that no lawyer can rightly give, or who throw out answers without researching difficult questions.) You want someone you can trust, who will be honest with you instead of telling you what you want to hear. Of course, the attorney should have no record of public discipline by the State Bar (you can verify online). The attorney should understand their duties to you - loyalty, confidentiality, competence.
Q. What do you specialize in?
A. Family law, family law appeals and civil litigation. Although my practice focuses primarily on family law matters and appeals, I have handled a wide variety of civil cases throughout my lengthy legal career. This includes personal injury cases (e.g., motor vehicle collisions, slip and fall cases) and breach of contract litigation.
Q. Why do you specialize in this?
A. In my first job out of law school (in 1997), I was hired as a Research Attorney for the Los Angeles Superior Court. They assigned me to the Family Law Department, where I "worked up" about 1,000 motions for six family law bench officers. This job gave me my pick of family law firms to work for, and I went to work for Trope and Trope, one of the larger and better firms in Los Angeles. In 1999, I returned to San Diego and started my own practice.
Q. What do Family law attorneys settle?
A. Everything we can. Settlements - even piecemeal settlements of certain issues - are far more likely in family law matters, due to the financial and personal impact of extended conflict where intimate personal and familial relationships are involved. The law itself sanctions behavior that frustrates the policy of the law favoring settlement of these disputes. For these reasons, mediations and negotiated settlements can be quite fruitful. In other types of civil cases, litigants may be more inclined to treat mediation as a trial-preparation tactic.
Q. What is the difference between Family Law and Divorce Law?
A. Very little. The term "family law" is broader because it encompasses more than divorce (dissolution of marriage). It includes legal separation, nullity, parentage (paternity, maternity) and other types of litigation involving spouses and parents.
Q: What is an uncontested divorce?
A. One where you avoid going to court by settling your entire case. Sometimes, parties are able to settle most, but not all, of their issues. For example, the parties may be able to divide their property but cannot agree on some difficult issue like child custody, spousal support or who pays the legal fees. In that case, the matter is uncontested as to the settled issues and contested as to the issues they must litigate.
Q: What are typical procedures for a divorce case?
A. Like any civil case, there are three stages: Stage 1 - Pleading Stage (this is where one party commences the action with the filing of a Petition, e.g., for a divorce, legal separation, nullity, parentage). Stage 2 - Discovery Stage (this is where the parties exchange information and documents to prepare for trial, Stage 3; family law is unique given the fiduciary relationships involved and need for full disclosure). Stage 3 - Trial Stage (this is where the parties either try or settle their case, resulting in a judgment giving them the relief sought, e.g., divorce, legal separation, nullity, parentage). Then, there can be post-judgment proceedings, e.g., to modify child or spousal support, child custody or visitation orders, or to enforce a court order.
Q: How long do divorce cases typically take?
A. Longer than you might like or expect. First, the State of California has determined that it does not want people making impulsive decisions where marital relationships are concerned. Therefore, there is a mandatory 6-month waiting period before the court can dissolve a marriage from the time the Petition is served on the respondent. You can settle your case and process your paperwork before the 6-month period is up, but the effective date of your divorce will be at least 6 months. Beyond that, the process depends on two people, neither having the ability to control the positions, statements or actions of the other party. If the parties can get along and agree, then the process will be much shorter than those circumstances when the parties are at war with one another.
Q: How does a judge decide who gets custody of a child?
A. The court wants the parents to agree on a co-parenting plan, because no matter how knowledgeable a bench officer may be, he or she does not know your child/children like you do. If you cannot agree, then you are placing your child/ren's future in the hands of a stranger, who will take a child-centered approach. The court focuses entirely on doing what is best for the child, not what is fair or equitable to the parties, because children are not property to divided in a divorce. Many factors are considered, such as: 1. The child's interests in stability and continuity: This is the primary consideration, which examines the child's existing and historical parenting arrangement and his or her ties with community, school and friends. It seeks to avoid the negative impact of disrupting the child's daily life experience. 2. The age of the child: With younger kids, the court's inclination to assure frequent visits with a non-custodial parent is all the more prevalent, to allow an effective bond to form and assure the child doesn't lose that parent forever. 3. The child's wishes: The court is required to consider the child's wishes IF of a sufficient age (e.g., app. 12) and maturity. A child is usually involved only indirectly by using an evaluator, mediator or minor's counsel. 4. The child's relationship with both parents 5. The parents' relationship: (how well they get along and whether they can put the child/ren first): This also examines whether the parents encourage or hinder the other parent's relationship with the child/ren. The court may be wary of granting primary custody to a parent who acts like a gatekeeper, interfering with or putting obstacles in the way of the other parent's access. Relax the grip. 6. History of Domestic Violence or Substance Abuse
Q: Can someone other than a parent get custody?
A. Yes, but only under extraordinary circumstances. Only parents have a Constitutional right to raise their children; grandparents do not. The parents can decide when and under what circumstances a grandparent may see his grandchild. However, IF a grandparent is entirely shut out of any access or contact with a grandchild, he or she can petition for visitation rights. Even then, the parents will have considerable input. A stepparent might be deemed a "putative parent", enabling them to step into the shoes of a parent and gain access. This is a complex scenario which requires individualized determination and consideration of the obligations that come hand- in-hand with parenting rights.
Q: What is equitable distribution?
A. This is a term used in non-community property states to describe their manner of dividing property. California is a community property state, which means we employ a 3-step process to dividing property: (1) characterization (is it a party's separate property, community property, or some mix of the two), (2) valuation, and (3) division.
Q: Who divides property in a court case?
A. The parties are free to reach their own decisions regarding the division of their property, and the court must accept and approve their agreement. If the parties do not agree, the court will decide the characterization, valuation and manner of dividing the parties' property.