Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz Keane, MA LMFT

You have to stand up for yourself when no one else will.
- Anonymous

A recent article in the Family Court Review explored the myths and truths about self-represented litigants in divorce.The author (Greacen) cited a legal white paper which claimed that self-represented litigants (“SRLs”) strain the court system, burden judges, and do a poor job. The family law bar complains that SRLs believe they can handle their own cases because the online help and legal forms deceive them into thinking it simple – and thus they all should hire lawyers.

Replacing these “mythical” statements with hard facts, the author cites many studies to debunk the need to be represented. In fact SRLs often have more satisfactory results, are less likely to seek later modifications, spend less time at hearings than lawyers do, and are quite effective.

The most often cited reasons for not hiring lawyer representatives were 1) cannot afford one; 2) do not want to pay so much for one, and 3) felt they could manage the case on their own. In the Canadian study 58% reported they had begun with a lawyer but ran out of money or the lawyer was not providing any useful service.

Does this mean lawyers should not be involved in family law – not at all. But, it may be better to use attorneys as consultants rather than to represent clients. Of course, complex cases would generally need the expertise of the lawyer and his or her team of experts.

SRLs may choose the path of court appearances and managing their own paperwork. But, today, a growing number of divorces are seeking help through mediation. The clients are in charge and make all final decisions, but a professional can guide them through the process, insure they are informed of the law, and help prepare and manage the paperwork – never having to go to court. A consulting attorney’s review of the final agreement is insurance that participants are fully informed of the legal issues in their agreements, but still free to make agreements in ways that satisfy each person’s sense of fairness.

A lawyer in any legal dispute is a luxury – just make sure it is an affordable one.

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