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Specialty tag(s): Divorce

What Is a “Good” Lawyer?

Jonathan James | June 15, 2023

Family law attorney in meeting with clients

When you are seeking a divorce, obviously you want to hire a “good” lawyer. But this is where it gets complicated–what is a “good” lawyer?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “good” covers a lot of ground: “of a favorable character or tendency”; “that can be relied on”; “agreeable, pleasant”; “honorable”; “deserving of respect”; “commendable”; “competent, skillful”; etc. As a lawyer, these are traits that I aspire to and believe the profession was originally based on.

But what does a person seeking a divorce normally mean when they say they want a “good” lawyer? From having met with many, many folks seeking divorce over the ten plus years of my practice, I have found that many are looking for something different from the traditional meanings of “good”.

Because divorce can be frightening on many levels (emotional, financial, legal), many people approach it primarily from a state of fear (even those with a lot of power and self-confidence). For those folks, protection from an unknown process and unknown future is a primary goal. Unfortunately, this is where the definition of “good” in this person’s mind gets a little off base in my opinion.

When you are making decisions from fear, seeking maximum “protection”, then you tend to believe that the best lawyer is the “meanest” or “toughest”—sometimes known as the “junkyard dog” (by the way, “tough” in the sense of “strong” is a trait of a good lawyer, but this is different from “mean or nasty”). And, so, many folks seek this type of lawyer. Is this a “good” lawyer?

My opinion is that there are only a very narrow set of circumstances where the “junkyard dog” lawyer can be effective. This is in the rare situation where the other party, and the other party’s attorney, are unwilling to stand up to harassing tactics, threats, etc. Although many folks seeking divorce believe that their spouse will “tuck and run” when certain pressures are applied, after handling hundreds of divorces, I have very rarely seen it occur. It just doesn’t happen.

So, what is wrong with hiring this type of lawyer, if there is even some small chance of getting what you want based on threats and pressure? Again, based on my experience, the “junkyard dog” lawyer almost always causes more damage to the divorce process than he or she helps achieve the client’s goals. This is for several reasons. First, this approach is not respected by Judges and consciously or unconsciously, it can be very difficult for Judges to disconnect a lawyer’s client from the lawyer themselves. This may contribute to unfavorable rulings. Second, this approach can be  expensive. If you are trying to affect an  outcome or ruling by pressuring the other party, the legal actions that you choose to take will reflect that pressure (pervasive discovery requests; numerous depositions; multiple written communications of a threatening nature, multiple hearings, etc.). Third, it takes a lawyer with a certain personality type to approach his or her cases this way. It is not uncommon for the lawyer to carry the same sort of aggressive behaviors into their client relationships, especially if things are not going as they want or anticipated they would, or if the client raises questions the lawyer’s decisions.

What is a “good” lawyer, then? A good lawyer is no different than a good person in any other profession, except that he or she must have all of the necessary training and legal skills to do the job. A “good” lawyer maintains integrity in their interactions with the client, opposing counsel, and the court.  In addition, a good lawyer should be focused on the client’s specific goals from the very beginning of the engagement, and all actions should be focused on those goals.

What most clients want is a fair result, achieved in as short as possible time, for a reasonable cost. A good lawyer should always be focused on these goals, but in addition, he or she should be aware of any specific goals of this client. Not everyone wants the same thing in the same circumstance, so it is important to help the client understand and express their goals at the very beginning.

Beyond this, the “very good” lawyer is also aware of the “whole client” and makes sure the client receives whatever service would improve his or her life—whether it is counseling, targeted reading materials, financial advice, estate planning, etc. There are many services which support a client’s life which may not be provided by the divorce lawyer, but the divorce lawyer is in a position to see this more clearly than the client and should make every effort to help the client come out of the divorce with an improved life, in whatever way that may be achieved.

Learn More

Jonathan James is Board-Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in family law and is a member of the State Bar of Texas. He is trained in Collaborative Divorce and has been named a Super Lawyers Rising Star, 2019-2022 and Best Lawyer 2020-2021 and 2023 by The Best Lawyers in America.  

If you need help with your family law matter, please contact Jonathan James at 214-903-4801.

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