By the time a settlement was reached, almost four years from the start, I had retained three lawyers and spent a staggering amount of money on legal fees. In Canada, for the most part, a divorce can be accomplished with minimal use of lawyers, a do-it-yourself kind of thing. If I had known then what I know now….no, I would still retain a lawyer, but I would also be more aware of just what a lawyer can and cannot do.
Each of my lawyers was capable and supportive. They all followed procedure, trying to get everything in place within the guidelines of divorce law to bring us to an agreement for the division of assets. However, my husband did not want to come to an agreement; he wanted his idea of an agreement or none at all. He refused to disclose his assets. The next three years were an endless trail of emails, phone calls, court orders, even mediation. No settlement, not even close.
My first lawyer I fired out of frustration when she basically told me she couldn’t go further without his compliance and could suggest no effective course of action. My second lawyer, after a year and a half of the same runaround, took a leave of absence, turning me over to a junior lawyer in the same firm. After taking three months to “get up to speed,” this new, younger lawyer told me this was a waste of time and money, a power play that could go on until all the assets were used up in legal fees. What about making a proposal that I could live with based on what information we did have?
Three hours later, it was done.
We aren’t talking about millions of dollars in assets here, but we are talking about a man who would not be told what to do. He would “give” me what he felt I deserved and not a penny more. And there was no way to force him to comply. Letting go of trying to establish an equal division of assets and simply finding a financial solution to get on with my life was a huge relief for me even though I was left with barely enough money to get by on as I neared by 65th birthday.
The Legal Balancing Act
Lawyers must work within The System; that doesn’t necessarily mean they are looking out for your best interests. You need to know this. My first two lawyers should have explained to me what they must have realized early on: that there is no way to force someone to cooperate in coming to a settlement if they don’t want to. Instead, they led me on through years of frustration, fear and near financial ruin. Only my last, less experienced lawyer was upfront enough to get me out of the hopeless, expensive corner I had been shoved into. And honestly, I think it was in a large part because she didn’t want to see me continue to suffer.
If I could go back…I would try to get some distance, try to remove the emotional colouring and really see what was happening and what was likely to happen. I would have talked to others with experience in the system. I would not look upon my lawyers as my defenders, but as tools for me to use. I would try to be realistic.
I believe in our legal system; I believe, essentially, it is right and fair–or tries to be. But as someone recently told me, “The legal system is not a justice system.” I needed a lawyer to guide me through the system, but after that, it was up to me to be strong, to become informed and fight for myself, and to find some measure of justice that I could live with.