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Is it the lawyer’s “win,” or yours?

Everyone talks about lawyers winning and losing cases.

When you hire a lawyer, though, who defines what constitutes a “win?”

A woman once came to my office for help with a divorce. The case had already been filed by her husband, so she needed an attorney to file her response and start working on a settlement. The marital estate was pretty large – two properties, multiple vehicles, several financial accounts, and more. When I asked her what she wanted from the divorce, her request was beyond reasonable, in my opinion: half of the assets, half of the debts, and 50/50 custody of the kids. She wanted a clean, fair break. She was a stay-at-home mom of over 10 years and would have been entitled to some spousal maintenance (aka alimony), but she did not want it. She wanted to go back to school, refresh her certifications, and get a job to support herself.

This is all very reasonable so far. But there’s a catch: they had a “prenup” (more properly called a prenuptial agreement).

These two people got married overseas in a culture and religion where it is normal practice for the male elders of the bride’s family to agree on a marriage contract with the male elders of the groom’s family. In this case, the woman’s father and uncles agreed that in the event of a divorce, the woman would get a certain amount of money and nothing else. Her father told her to sign it, so she signed it…without reading it.

Now, 12 years later, the husband wanted to enforce that contract in the divorce. This woman did not want to walk away with a small amount of cash and nothing else.

(I will not violate confidentiality by telling you how much she would have gotten, but I’ll say it this way: He made close to seven figures annually, and her payout would have been a 4-figure number).

As her lawyer, I was charged with the task of getting her a fair settlement in the divorce. I did my research, talked to the professionals I needed to consult with, and dug deep into the situation. Finally, I found it: duress. The best way (and potentially the only way) for the prenup to be invalidated and set aside was for my client to testify under oath that she was forced to sign it without the chance to read it thoroughly or consult with a lawyer.

When I met with this woman to talk with her about this strategy, her face sunk right in front of me. “Absolutely not,” she said, “I will not disrespect my elders.”

It took me a moment. I blinked, took a deep breath, and asked her to repeat what she had just said. I thought I was dreaming.

“I will take whatever he will give me and move on,” she said. “I do not want a trial, and I will not say anything bad about my family.”

We got into a long conversation about her goals for the divorce and for her life. She wanted to raise her children with the same cultural and religious customs she was raised with. A part of that included undying family loyalty and respect for elders. In that spirit, she refused to say that she was forced to sign the prenup.

As a lawyer, there was an easy win on the table for me. All I had to do was present the facts of how the prenup came to be and I was confident that the husband’s lawyer would not push it to the point of trial. I, theoretically, could have done this without the woman even knowing that I had used that argument. It would have been quite a case for my memoirs, and I would have felt so good about getting this woman so much more in the divorce than her prenup dictated.

As her lawyer, though, there was no way I could or would do that.

I had to stay focused on her goals for this divorce and for her future. She needed enough to leave the relationship and provide for herself and her kids. The argument I had to make was not a legal one, but a practical appeal from one human soul to another. I approached the husband’s lawyer and said, “Look, she may be able to invalidate the prenup or she may not, we do not know. Both of these people want to be divorced, and she needs a fair settlement that will allow the kids to continue having a meaningful relationship with their mom. She wants that, and nothing more.”

The result?

She kept one of the houses to live in, one of the cars, and just enough cash to keep everything afloat while she started her life over again. The husband settled for giving her more instead of putting the money towards a trial.

As a lawyer, this would typically be considered a “loss,” because my client got less than half of the marital estate.

For this woman, this was an outcome she never even imagined would be possible. She was ecstatic. She hugged me, cried, and invited me over for dinner. She felt like she had everything she needed to keep caring for her kids while she restructured her life as an independent woman. For this woman, the only person whose feelings truly mattered, this was a definite win.

When hiring a lawyer, do you know what they would consider a WIN?

Is it a certain cookie cutter outcome, or is it based on your goals and vision for the future?

Does their success depend on where the land in the eyes of the law, or on how much relief you get from the painful problems that take you to court?

If you do not know the answers, then consider asking those questions before deciding who will represent you and your interests in family court.

 

At The Lien Law Firm, we focus on helping clients reach their long-term goals and achieve success. To talk with a lawyer about your goals in family court, call our office at 314-722-8557 or follow this link to schedule a complimentary phone consultation.