There are certain unwritten rules that have more to do with the outcome of a divorce case than the written rules of civil procedure, and it's imperative that women learn how to protect themselves from the chaos these rules can cause.
When you become involved in a divorce, you become a consumer of sorts. You pay a lawyer and expect a high standard of care in return for that payment. You pay court costs and expect the courts to protect your legal interests.
Unlike most businesses that cater consumers, the Family Court System isn't regulated and there are no safeguards in place to make sure we get what we pay for. No one is standing guard at the gate, so to speak. What follows are actions you can take to protect yourself.
Know your rights:
Knowledge is power! The more you know about what legal rights you have in court, the less chance a lawyer or judge will have to dismiss those rights. Study the divorce laws of your state. Learn what the laws are concerning property distribution, child support, child custody, and spousal support. Get online and bookmark your state's rules of civil procedure. Refer to them periodically to make sure your case hasn't gotten off track and that all rules are being followed.
Keep meticulous records:
Insist that you get a copy of every piece of correspondence your attorney has with the opposing counsel. Also get copies of every thing that's filed with the court clerk and tell your lawyer that you want an accounting of every phone conversation he/she has with the opposing counsel.
Keep a log of every phone conversation you have with your lawyer. Note the date, time and length of the conversation and what is discussed. Do the same for every office visit you make. After meeting with your attorney, keep a detailed, written account of what was discussed and any actions your attorney is supposed to take. If your lawyer should fail to act in your best interest, such records could be used later should you need to sue for legal malpractice.
Take a witness to meetings and to court:
If you are having doubts of about your lawyer's abilities, take a third party with you to all meetings with him/her. If you lawyer tries to intimidate or force you into settling for something you don't want, you will have a witness to his/her actions. It's my opinion that a person should have a witness at each meeting and settlement negotiation. This person would take notes and can back you up if your lawyer attempts to lie about what took place while he/she was representing you.
Stand up for yourself:
If your lawyer doesn't return phone calls, refuses to keep you informed of what's going on in your case or does anything that is a violation of your state bar's code of ethics, report him/her. Call your state bar association and request a complaint form and file it. Don't be afraid to stand up for your legal rights and hold an unethical lawyer accountable.
The same goes for judges. Learn your state's canons of Judicial Ethics. If you feel a judge has violated laws or ethics, call your state's Judicial Inquiry Commission and file a complaint against the judge. Every state has a commission that is set up to investigate and prosecute complaints of ethical misconduct by a judge. Judges who make rulings in bad faith, rule out of malice, ill will or inappropriate motives should be made to answer for their actions.
Don't allow your inexperience with the Family Court System to cause you to become a victim of the Family Court System. No one has more invested in the outcome of your divorce case than you; take a proactive stance in your divorce case.
Cathy Meyer is the head of About.com's Divorce Support channel. To hear more from Cathy, go to: http://divorcesupport.about.com.