Questions to Ask Before Retaining a Lawyer if you are a Victim of Domestic Abuse

Final post of three-part series by our reader ‘Still Reforming’

Someone told to me early on in the process of divorcing my abuser that you have to trust the professional with whom you are working. As I moved through the process, I trusted my attorneys less and less – for good reasons – but  it seemed counter-productive to start from scratch hiring a new attorney and more advisable to just cut my losses using my present attorneys to get out of the divorce process sooner rather than later.

The way I cut my losses in the end was to put forth a list of grievances filled with details about how they billed me for work never achieved – like security issues that were never folded into the final divorce decree – and double-billed me for tallying up reimbursements that never were sought. I fully intended to take those grievances to the state bar association if I wasn’t able to get the final bill wiped clean (for $3,000, after I had already paid tens of thousands). They met my demands.

So don’t be afraid to negotiate up front for receiving monthly bills from your attorney for hours put into your case for things like email exchanges, phone conversations, court documents to be filed, faxes, etc – things over which you may have little control, but for which you could pay handsomely. There’s a reason why so many lawyers jokes abound; inside all humor is an element of truth. Sadly, it’s at the quite literal expense of the clients.

Here are a few questions you may want to consider taking in to ask an attorney before retaining him or her:

1. How much is this going to cost me?

There likely won’t be a definite answer given to you for this question since attorneys generally bill by the hour, but this is a business relationship you are starting with them. The biggest mistake I made was presuming that because I cared so much about the details of domestic abuse in my own case, surely the professionals (attorneys, judge) would care too. I didn’t realize at the outset that my expectations (advocacy) and the attorneys’ expectations (advice) were not aligned.

Since this is a business relationship, you have every right to ask up front what this will cost – even if just a ballpark figure. That way, you can decide whether or not it is worth retaining this attorney or firm or not. Also, as you work through the days, weeks, and likely months (if not years) of your case, you can keep tabs on how close you are to meeting that figure they set, if they do. If they don’t, ask another. And another. Don’t rest until you’re satisfied. It’s your money, and you may have need of it in the future if your case goes as mine did. The wheels of (in)justice generally turn slowly — so you have more time than you might think for this process.

Attorneys have been known to set a fixed fee for the entire case, although I have read of cases that even once that was done the attorneys informed their client that additional fees would have to be added due to the ongoing nature of the case — a situation which is more likely than not when dealing with an abusive, self-centered egomaniac.

2. What is the law in my state with respect to domestic abuse (DA)? What is considered to be domestic abuse?

Note: You can use the standard terminology DV, which stands for Domestic Violence, but I use the word “abuse” here lest your divorce attorney be unacquainted with domestic violence and equate it somehow with only physical abuse. Bear in mind that even if you are careful to say ‘domestic abuse’, many people including many lawyers will think only of physical violence, especially if in your state the legal definition of domestic violence is restricted only to physical assault.

These questions you put to the lawyer are not asking for his/her personal opinion, but the way the lawyer answers the questions will probably give you a clue as to the attorney’s perspective on abuse and how familiar s/he is with it. The response I received from my attorney related to my husband’s anger spinning the car around with us in it (“Men explode sometimes”) raised a big red flag to me that I wish I had heeded. I should have asked for my money back from the retainer then and there.

My attorneys did point me to a DA professional who counsels targets of domestic violence and occasionally testifies for them in court. I met with this man for an hour (at $100 per), seeking his agreement to testify in court regarding the tactics of abuse we experienced in the home, confirming them to be detrimental to our child. While this professional agreed that my husband’s behavior was abusive, he told me that (1) it wasn’t enough legally and that my husband’s behavior couldn’t be predicted to know if/when it would cross the legal line and (2) the judge in whose chambers we were soon to meet was not one predisposed to take any outside professional counsel.

I knew then that the Court wasn’t interested in the truth of what had happened to my child and me, since we bore no visible physical marks of abuse, though my attorneys spent countless billable-to-me hours listening to my tales of woe, via email and on the phone. These same attorneys who billed me thousands of dollars didn’t present any of what I had suffered in the home as evidence in court, since technically nothing my husband had done was illegal. Yelling at one’s wife in front of the child, name-calling not using four-letter-words or curses, spinning the car around with the family in it, intimidation and provocation, lies and manipulation – none are technically illegal and therefore, the judge never heard it.

So the first hard lesson I learned was that the truth may not be of interest to the Court – not unless that truth has resulted in outwardly physically harmful damage. (This does not necessarily include the physical manifestations of abuse, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.) In some cases, expert witnesses (ie, psychiatrists, counselors, medical practitioners) may provide valuable input to the Court, but I had been forewarned by legal counsel that the judge in our case does not value such input. This was confirmed by the domestic abuse counselor with whom I met (and paid) for one session to share the details of my particular case. The counselor confirmed he had been before this judge with more evidence than I had and it resulted in no benefit to the target of abuse.

3. How will you handle a case that involves particulars of domestic abuse, such as (give one or two brief examples)?

You might like to give an example of abuse that does not include physical violence or threats of physical violence but is characterized by a longstanding pattern of coercive control with emotional, psychological, financial abuse, gaslighting, isolation of the victim, etc. Ask how the court is likely to respond to that kind of case, and how the attorney would work for you to try to obtain fair justice for you even if the state discounts the non-physical kinds of abuse.

4. What are my chances of receiving alimony, child support, sole custody, time-sharing, etc?

Although the facts in your particular case may influence those chances, by and large I have learned that, with variation given to state and/or country law, the Court by and large tends to favor shared parental responsibility in divorce cases. The ostensible reason for this is, and I quote from an attorney’s webpage in my state, “because most psychologists agree that it is the healthiest for the child when both parents take part in caring for their children’s mental and physical needs.” We all recognize that as fodder fit for the compost pile, but it happens to be reigning pop psychology that has infiltrated societal thinking these days.

5. What does the law in my state require for child support? How will you handle child support? If the other side pushes for me to get minimal or no child support, how will you handle that?

From the aforementioned attorney’s page in my state: “Child support is awarded in (state) based upon a mathematical formula that is revised every year according to (state) law. It leaves the judge, assigned to your case, with very little discretion. Therefore, it is sometimes in the best interests of both parties, in a divorce or paternity case, to decide child support themselves rather than leave it to the judge.” [Readers outside the USA: be aware that your child support laws may be made by the country, not the state. Your country’s system might be quite different from what happens in US states.]

This is why it’s good to ask up front how your attorney plans to handle child support. In the end, it’s better to know up front if it will be formulaic rather than be strung along, as I was, for months and be greatly disappointed come settlement or mediation time.

Likewise, be sure to ask for child support retroactively. My attorney overlooked this and in my own state of considering all the bills, how and where our child would be educated, timeshare arrangements, purchase of the marital home, divvying up the “stuff” (chattels), thinking about how I’d be able to work, and so on, I overlooked a lot of those details that could have resulted in thousands of dollars back in my pocket (like his share of the property tax that I alone paid, retroactive child support, and so on). I thought I was paying the attorney to remember these things. Again, here is where the Mr. $400-an-Hour and I were thinking differently.

6. What is the law in my state regarding imputed income and how will you defend me in this area?

As a Christian, this is the first time I’d ever heard the word “impute” where it had a very negative connotation. I never even knew this existed, but indeed I was imputed an income based on my resume alone (not on current economic conditions or the lack of employment availability in my highly agricultural area and particulars related to our child’s special needs). I wouldn’t have even known to ask this question, but if it might apply to you, ask.

7. What is the law in my state regarding “time-sharing” (or visitation) of children? What practices do the courts and opposing lawyers tend to use to help arrive at a ruling on child custody and “time-sharing”? How do you deal with cases where the opposing side alleges that your client is causing Parental Alienation Syndrome? Who is the judge in our case, and what is his or her history on this subject?

8.   What are your billing practices and how do you handle them? Would you be willing to send me itemized interim bills during the time you are representing me?

9. In my inexperience of how the legal system works in divorce and family law, I may not discern relevant from irrelevant information. If I ever give you information that is not going to be of use for my legal case, would you tell me so we don’t waste money?

The goal of this question is to help save you from unnecessary expenditure on legal fees.

A few extra thoughts thrown in for good measure, as words to the wise:

  • I wish I had not equated the cost of the attorney with their eventual effectiveness.
  •  I wish I had heeded warning signs early on in the relationship with the attorney.
  •  I wish I had understood the absolute power of the judge.
  • I wish I hadn’t wasted time trying to educate my attorneys about abuse because every hour spent equals hundreds upon hundreds of dollars, which quickly add up to thousands. A caveat here: Attorneys are individuals too, and you may encounter a real gem of one, but in the end, educating your lawyer won’t change the letter of the law.
  • I wish I had questioned the “wisdom” of the counsel I was receiving during the process whenever I disagreed with it, such as when Mr. Four-Hundred-Dollars-an-Hour said he’d seek “as little as possible” in child support for me.
  •  I wish I had better researched current divorce law and child support law in my particular state.
  • So in summary (if you’ve actually made it this far through the series and if it’s possible to summarize all that) the letter of the law is more important in court than the spirit of the law.

This is not to suggest that the letter of the law isn’t important. The letter of the law is important, but when you’re wrapped up in the details of abuse (and we know there are many) it’s all too easy to think that the people to whom you’re paying hundreds if not thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars actually care about what they’re hearing. They may even actually care, but be unable to use the information in a court of law.

So if and when these things may happen to you, be gentle with yourself, as I am now trying to be – understanding that there’s so much going on emotionally that it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air without letting some drop. In my case, I let a lot get past me that I wish I hadn’t, but we can’t move back the hands of time.

Whether it’s hindsight looking at attorneys or abusers (or abusive attorneys), pause to reflect on our Lord’s absolute sovereignty over even this and seek His wisdom. He delivered me – and He can you too. I made it to the other side of that wretched process, and He never stopped providing for me and our child. As she recently told me, “I’m learning more about being a Christian in this trial than I ever learned before it. I think I’m learning how to trust God.”


Posts in this series

Part 1: The Unsettling ‘Settlement’: A Domestic Abuse Victim’s Shock at Encountering the Legal System

Part 2: Unholy Mediation: A Legal Nightmare for the Victim of Domestic Abuse

Part 3: Is this post.


13 thoughts on “Questions to Ask Before Retaining a Lawyer if you are a Victim of Domestic Abuse”

  1. I quote from an attorney’s webpage in my state, “because most psychologists agree that it is the healthiest for the child when both parents take part in caring for their children’s mental and physical needs.” We all recognize that as fodder fit for the compost pile, but it happens to be reigning pop psychology that has infiltrated societal thinking these days.

    THANK YOU FOR saying this OUT LOUD. For, no where else can this be spoken without having PAS slammed down on you. A child needs a healthy relationship with two LOVING parents,… Key word here is “LOVING”.

    the letter of the law is more important in court than the spirit of the law.

    Because only the letter of the law is enforceable.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. It sounds very similar to mine! And will hopefully help others avoid pitfalls common to the naive “courtroom and justice system” visitor.

    1. Sometimes much to our disappointment the letter of the law is not even enforceable but instead negotiable. I have heard it said that victims suffer at the hands of their perpetrator and then suffer again at the hands of those sworn to protect.

  2. Thank you for sharing the painful story that now educates so many about seeking legal counsel. I wanted to add a comment to this statement “I knew then that the Court wasn’t interested in the truth of what had happened to my child and me, since we bore no visible physical marks of abuse”.

    Even with physical abuse without arrest records and medical documentation implicitly stating injury caused by assault, the claim of abuse is irrelevant to the court, at least in my experience. Fear of my husband and a misguided attempt to protect his reputation kept me from admitting the cause of injury when I repeatedly went to the ER. Perhaps medical personal suspected it, I know one doctor said “your story doesn’t match how you got these injuries” but he didn’t press for the truth about them. This meant that those records of abuse attributing injury to something besides my husband didn’t help my case.

    In my case the judges actions ultimately left me in a homeless shelter, the thing I feared the most. But I found the thing I feared the most wasn’t as bad as accepting the familiar abuse. In fact, landing in a shelter gave me an opportunity to get some real help. I learned that embracing the unknown, asking for God to help me as I leaped into that terrifying abyss resulted in watching His incredible provision.

    For those women that are impoverished as I was since my ex retained the attorney and I had no funds on my own to fight whatever “justice” he was purchasing don’t fear the cost of getting free. We fear the unknown sometimes but nothing I encountered when I finally flew out of that cage was as bad as life in the cage with an abuser.

    My only regret is that I didn’t leave sooner no matter what it cost me to do so. After I left I found a way to rebuild a better life than I imagined where I am no longer tyranized or tormented. I pursued the education I always wanted after my divorce too something no one can ever take away. I also have a quiet and peaceful life without the trauma / drama and crises abusers leave in their daily wake.

    1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (11) and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, (12) so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

    1. A Prodigal Daughter Returns,

      Reading your testimony saddens my heart; There is no justice down here on earth. Or very little it so often seems. And yet…. there is comfort from the Lord Himself, sometimes through His people.

      Thank you for the reminder that we have nothing to fear, if we are in Him. His deliverance of you from the prison of your cage with an abuser is a blessing to read – and I’m sure to experience. Breathing free is indeed something that money can’t buy. A peaceable life is worth so very much.

  3. God will often use our biggest trials to conform our image to His.
    Testing our faith under His mighty sovereign control.
    I am learning to trust God with my life.
    Patience and perseverance in the trial
    will reap great rewards. Be faithful to your God. Unwavering in the truth of the gospel.
    To whom much is given
    Much is required.

    With God all things are possible.
    He is who He says He is.
    I stand in Awe of Christ my King.

  4. Still Reforming- thank you so much for sharing your experience- I can see God’s timing in this as I move down this path- you have shed light on the way! thanks. I was greatly encouraged by your daughter’s comment too. God bless you and your family x

    1. You too, Savedbygrace. May God richly bless you and yours, and may He provide wisdom in this next phase of your deliverance as only He can do. (((hugs)))

  5. Thank you for the three part series. I am sure it was hard to write. I too found justice and the judge having a poor understanding of domestic abuse.

    Two things from my story. One of my sons, he was 16 at the time, was so terrified by his father that he refused visitation even after therapy. In fact two counselors said he should not be forced in any way to see his dad. I had a letter from one(counselors). Police officers interview with him one time when my ex called them and at the top of the driveway demanding he join him for Father’s day (and police said there was no coercion and nothing they could do). But my ex filed a criminal complaint against me that I was “refusing visitation”. Because it was criminal he did not have retain a lawyer so the state’s lawyer was prosecuting me and flat out told me that I had to make my 16 yo son that was 5 inches taller than me and outweighed me by 20 lbs and had threaten to run away if forced to see his dad, but I had to make it happen or I was legally wrong and could be forced to pay a fine and lose custody. The only way this did not happen is my ex filed incorrectly and two of the dates listed were dates my son was at camp that I had written proof that my ex had agreed for him to be there.

    Second thing. I had an wonderful lawyer that did not understand abuse at first but believed me and then when he read numerous emails from my ex that displayed gaslighting and other manipulative techniques, he basically did the work pro bono. One thing that surprised him. He had seen my ex try to change history and deny something that had already been agreed on (for 2 years at this point I think) but when my ex did that to him (my lawyer) he was dumbfounded. He could not believe my ex would do that to a lawyer. It was so funny to see my lawyer be so surprised by this. After that, even my lawyer would never have a conversation or send an email to my ex without another person in the room or cc’d on an email.

    1. Still Scared but you can call me Cindy,

      I have heard similar testimony and have also witnessed the same thing – where someone doesn’t really ‘get it’ until our N abusers do it to that person. In my case, it was to my mom, who adored my now ex-husband, but then he told her a big whopping lie that used her to a large degree and after that point, she despised him. Yet, I had told her (or tried to) for years about the fact that things weren’t right in the marriage. She was willing to have him visit her without me (that never happened) up until that point.

      It’s good that your now ex- lied to your attorney and that he (attorney) ‘got it.’ These evil men who were our husbands are masters of manipulation and very skilled, practiced, adept liars. I’m so glad you received validation at least from your attorney that your ex could not be trusted. What he did after he caught on (having a witness to emails and conversations) is what I did near the end – while my then anti-husband was still under the same roof. I wore earphones in my head plugged into an mp3 player unless someone else was in the room.

      Your testimony regarding your son and how he was forced (or nearly) to visit with his dad is exemplary of the system these days. No matter how an older teen – or younger – protests, his voice will not be respected or honored. Children have no rights. This is something that desperately needs to change. I fear more testimonies like Rosie Batty’s in the future unless children have rights that effectively protect them from their abusive parents.

  6. I made a lot of the same mistakes you did, but changed lawyers often. The results were still the same, the laws stink. Even when I had laws, the other side used loop holes so that I couldn’t even fight for my rights in domestic violence. It’s a crock, it’s a broken system

  7. Thank you, Still Reforming, for sharing your story. It’s especially timely for me since I have just started the divorce process.
    I have found I need to keep reminding myself that God loves me and holds me in the palm of His hand. He will not let me go. I need to trust Him so much more than I do.
    But at the same time I have to quit being (somewhat) lazy and really knuckle down to make this divorce happen. I need to get details to my attorney (I am a procrastinator!) asap . But I am so burned out from marriage that even everyday life seems overwhelming some days.
    I am trying to look forward and tell myself each day that it’s one day closer to “being rid of him (anti-husband) .” That should motivate me, but I have never been on my own so it’s scary. I find anger motivates me, but I’m not sure that’s always healthy. If it is righteous anger is that ok?
    Also, a friend offered me a job working with her in a couple weeks. The pay is better and I will have health insurance. This job should be less stressful that my current one too. Friends, I am planning on accepting it, it seems to be the answer to my prayers, but keep on praying for me that this is truly God’s leading. I have been praying for Him to lead me step by step.
    Lastly, let us all look forward to not only celebrating the birth of Jesus, but also the second advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, when He will come and bring justice to the whole world! Praise Him for bringing us salvation!

  8. Very accurate article about the corrupt legal system and how it hurts victims of domestic abuse. It is shocking that this occurs! If I hadn’t experienced myself, I wouldn’t have ever known. I just assumed that when someone abused you that there would be legal justice! This couldn’t be farther from the truth!

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