This is a question a number of clients have asked me over the past few years, especially as the economy continues to slumber along here in California. And it seems tempting, of course, to find ways to pinch pennies until things improve. However, I have also been hired by many clients who have tried to handle family law or divorce cases on their own, and found out that they have actually made matters worse for themselves.
It is important to understand that attorneys have experience in the courtroom and know what Judges want to see and hear. They can anticipate opposing arguments and games the other side may play. Attorneys know and can argue the laws regarding custody, support, property division, etc. that the Judges decide by.
Attorneys can also represent you in court and can speak on your behalf with the court and the opposing party. Attorneys can give you legal advice and guidance, even if you only hire a consulting attorney part-time on the side on an as-needed basis. At the very least, I firmly believe that every party to a family law matter should have a consulting attorney who can answer questions and review documents to ensure that his/her rights are being protected and that he/she is not being taken advantage of by the other side.
Sure, many of these so-called divorce services and document preparers can fill out court forms, but they are not permitted to tell you "how" to fill them out or "why" to fill them out a certain way. They are prohibited from giving you legal advice, interpreting documents, or warning you of the pitfalls or consequences of your choices. They cannot tell you what information to insert in your documents; in fact, they are not supposed to even select the documents you want them to prepare for you. They cannot appear in court, explain to the Judge why you did or didn't do something. And they are not trained in the law nor in court procedures, and are not licensed to practice law in California. And most importantly, if you are given bad advice and decide to follow that advice, you have to live with the outcome with little or no recourse.
Several years ago, independent paralegals in California actually lost the ability to call themselves "paralegals" in part because of concerns about how many of them crossed the line between document preparation and legal advice. As a result, these independent operators now must call themselves "legal document preparers."
Would you allow your child to ride in a car with a driver who had never driven before, or fly on an airplane with a non-pilot at the controls? Then why risk custody, support or property, or worse, by not hiring an attorney? Family law cases affect more aspects of clients' lives than any other area of law. In a typical family law case, the court is making orders about your children, your income, your home, your bank accounts, your pets, your personal property, your retirement accounts, your business, your credit cards... and the list goes on. These are all important issues.
You may decide to hire a legal document preparer to assist you with your court papers because you have no other financial option. I can certainly understand that. We are living in unprecedented economic times, and the downturn has affected almost all of us, myself included. However, it would be in your best interest -- and I strongly recommend -- that you find a way to make arrangements with a family law attorney to spend even just an hour or two with you to make sure you are doing everything possible to protect yourself, your children and your family moving forward.