I have a complicated mess on my hands with my divorce. My ex owns part of a family business. I have now been through three lawyers and it seems no lawyer can get my equitable distribution case to trial. I think I am due quite a bit of money, but we don’t even know the value of the business yet. I am getting some spousal support, but this is ridiculous. I started out looking for the lowest cost lawyers, apparently a mistake. It seems like I get billed for monthly pretrial conferences for the equitable distribution and the trial is never set. I am going to change lawyers one last time and I need to know what I should look for. The equitable distribution is now four years old. Why so long?
Carolyn Answers …
When I personally think of principles of good lawyering, at times I go back to principles of being a good pilot, which are four-fold in my book: (1) aviate, or in other words, fly the plane; (2) then navigate, or in other words don’t get lost; (3) communicate, but always aviate first. I said four-fold because sometimes aviation requires creativity and a thinking game when scenarios present themselves that are not planned. Handling lawsuits is a thinking game as well.
I have to draw an analogy to hero airline pilot “Sully” Sullenberger and the movie Miracle on the Hudson. Probably most readers remember the news the day Sully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. This was a harrowing experience, but everyone survived.
The same factors that made Sully able to land this plan successfully are the same things you should look for in handling any troubled family law case, regardless of whether it is equitable distribution, child custody or some other family law matter spinning out of control. You pick the right pilot (or lawyer in your case).
While no analogy is perfect, I have turned principles I have learned in flying an airplane to six principles of what I personally consider good lawyering. You should ask these questions as you interview new lawyers. You should know that any new lawyer will likely consider you a potential problem client if three prior lawyers have not either satisfied you or been able to complete your case. You are going to have to be very good at explaining why you have fired three prior lawyers to get the “Sully” lawyer on your case.
Look for an attorney who is:
Experienced in the legal topic and difficulty level of your case. In your situation, I would ask how many equitable distribution trials with business valuator experts the prospective attorney has handled in the last 10 years. Sully had 42 years flying experience and 20,000 hours of flying. He was an outlier, and at least one study indicates it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to be an outlier. Your troubled case needs an attorney who is an outlier.
Uses a skilled checklist-oriented approach. The “seat of your pants” approach does not work with complex equitable distribution that requires certain things to be done correctly and timely, such as equitable distribution affidavits, exchange of expert reports and a pre-trial order. In an interview, Sully said: “We had the discipline and the intense focus on the task at hand to be able to do our jobs.” You need a lawyer focused on the tasks at hand in your equitable distribution.
Reads and studies the law and is current. There is no doubt that Sully was “current” for his airplane, so make sure the lawyer you pick is reading new cases as they come out from the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, is studying all new legislation and attends relevant continuing legal education (CLE). Lawyers are required to do a minimum of 12 hours of CLE per year, but the topics are the lawyer’s selection. What CLE has your prospective lawyer attended in the last three years?
Can navigate the system. I like to think of the role of the lawyer as a guide through a system that is complex to everyone who is not dealing with the court system on a daily basis. Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff, worked together seamlessly to land the plane in the Hudson River. There was no passenger on the plane that could have done that landing. Once you find the right lawyer, strap your seatbelt on and let the lawyer “land the plane,” which in your case means finishing a troubled equitable distribution situation.
Has communications systems in place for the law office. Ask the lawyer in the interview how the lawyer will communicate with you about your case. There were three flight attendants on the flight that landed in the Hudson: Donna, Doreen and Sheila. The passengers received most of their communications from the flight attendants. You may receive much of your communications about your case from paralegals so that the lawyer can focus on the case and not your emotions. Use a psychologist or therapist for the emotional upheaval of divorce. I do not believe Sully let scared passengers control what he did.
Thinks, and thinks outside the box when necessary. There was nothing on Sully’s checklist that led him to the decision that a water landing in the Hudson was the only choice. He had to rely on his “gut,” based on all the five previous principles. He made a decision. Your complex situation may require the gut of an attorney, who really understands all of the five principles and is energetic and skilled enough to employ these principles. Gut is different than flying by the seat of your pants. Gut is that final decision point based upon educated, systematic understanding of the situation.
I’ve heard that alienation of affections cases are not getting as much in damages as they used to in North Carolina. Have there been any recent cases? I might have one and I’m curious.
Carolyn Answers …
An alienation of affections case just settled in Wake County Superior Court for $350,000. The case name is Ovando v. Bowen.
Interestingly enough, Ms. Bowen was not separated from her husband when her husband died. Bowen collected life insurance on the deceased husband’s death, even though she was cheating on him with Mr. Ovando.
Bowen used the life insurance at least in part to pay the $350,000 to Ms. Ovando. When Ms. Ovando left her husband for cheating, she was forced to go on food stamps for eight months even though apparently she was working as much as possible. The Ovandos had a minor child caught up in the mess, also on food stamps.
Send questions on family law and divorce to firstname.lastname@example.org, or P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro 27427 or at Ask Carolyn’s comment section at rhinotimes.com.
Note that answers are intended to provide general legal information and are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by Ask Carolyn.