The Attributes of a Great Divorce Lawyer (i.e., “Good v. Great” )

By Chaim Steinberger (c) 2018
For several years I’ve been thinking about writing on the differences between a “good” lawyer and a “great” one. That is, many have written articles with titles like, “How to Pick a Divorce Lawyer” that try to help people select decent lawyers from among the poor ones. That doesn’t interest me.

I’d rather study and help people recognize the great lawyers from among the good ones. As just one example, for instance, a poor lawyer might bring your case to court and lose it. A good lawyer will take your case to court and win it.  A great lawyer, however, will show the other side why they should settle with you so that the case never even gets to have the decision-maker decide it, and you save yourself the time, expense, aggravation, and uncertainty of submitting your case to someone else to decide.

In that vein I catalog here some of the qualities that a great divorce lawyer must have:

Emotional Intelligence – Whether you call it ‘street smarts,’ suave, smoothness, grace or class, an exceptional lawyer must possess this quality. As I’ve written elsewhere, the practice of law is not like arithmetic (see Complicated Custody Cases), and how you present an argument can be more important than the argument itself;

Integrity – Because being the “truth-teller” to the Court is the attribute with the greatest effect on the Court and its decision. Besides which, a lawyer without integrity cannot be trusted by clients or opposing counsel, causing all manner of havoc and added expense;

Knowledge of the Substantive Law – That is the law that decides the issues in dispute in the particular matter;

Knowledge of the Procedural Law – That is the law that controls the procedure in the matter. What claims can be made? How can they be made? Are any claims precluded? Who goes first? My analogy is, you can be the best hitter, but if you don’t know which way to run after you hit the baseball, you can’t win the game!

Unmitigated Loyalty to the Client – The lawyer must know, and strive to accomplish, always the client’s objectives without consideration of what works in the lawyer’s own best interests. Though this sounds easy, putting someone else ahead of yourself requires integrity and empathy and the willingness to always do the right thing;

Counselor & Therapist – Clients are typically terrified when they walk in the door. They’re scared of their spouses, of the court, of lawyers. They’re scared for their future, their finances, and their children. When people are that scared they tend to have tunnel vision, unable to see or focus on anything beyond the immediate threat. They tend to register only a fraction of the information they receive. That’s why patients are advised to bring a friend along when they get a serious diagnosis from their doctor.

The exceptional lawyer must, therefore, imbue clients with a sense of safety and security. They must empower clients so that they’re in a frame of mind able to see the bigger picture and make the decisions that not only achieve their immediate objectives, but their long-range ones as well;

ChessMaster & Military Strategist – The exceptional lawyer must be skilled in developing negotiation strategies that will evoke the cooperation of the non-cooperative spouse, without provoking a resistance backlash;

Master Negotiator – All lawyers consider themselves great negotiators. And every lawyer tries to get the best deal for their client. So negotiating against someone who is in that position and with that mindset requires sophisticated negotiating skills;

Master Salesman – If the negotiation does not produce the result the client desires, the litigator is then left to “sell” the client’s position to the judge hearing the case. The exceptional lawyer must, therefore, be a master salesman, able to highlight the strengths of the case and marginalize its weaknesses;

Courageous – Some lawyers take only those cases they’re sure to win. The exceptional lawyer, however, doesn’t fear representing the underdog, the righteous client whose position is unpopular, and using all of the many skills to sway the court and move the needle in the client’s favor;

Balanced – Every law, and every legal concept, invariably runs into a countervailing law and maxim. For example, libel and slander law weaken free speech. The stronger we make free-speech protection, the more we weaken libel and slander laws. So it’s all about finding the right balance among competing laws. Where do we as a society want to draw our lines?

As a result, the exceptional lawyer needs to know not only the actual law at issue, but also the countervailing considerations that set the boundaries for enforcing the principle at issue.

Able to Spot Issues – The exceptional lawyer must be able to recognize legally-significant issues, and separate and extract them from all the myriad facts that are not legally significant;

Creative – The exceptional lawyer must be able to be creative (without being foolish), and recognize any out-of-the-box solutions that might be used to help the client;

Accountant – In cases in which financial affairs are at issue, or where the value of a business is in play, financial acumen is important to ascertain the proper valuation techniques and prevail on those issues;

Psychologist – In addition to the psychology of persuasion, in any case that custody or parenting time is at issue, the exceptional lawyer must have familiarity with the psychological effects that an award of custody or visitation will have on the child;

Raconteur – All of the concepts affected by the issues above, must be conveyed in a straightforward, convincing manner, whether to the client, opposing counsel or to the Court, in a manner that will, not only be understood, but compel the audience to reach the desired result.

This is just a partial list of the virtues that an exceptional lawyer must embody.

For more information on these topics, or any other related to family law, feel free to contact me at csteinberger@mindspring.com.