Economists, accountants, and project managers search for "cost drivers" when assessing the viability of solutions. So when my clients want to know why family law cases are so expensive, I try to identify issues that drive costs upwards. These might include the financial complexity of the marital estate, or whether or not child custody is disputed.
But there is one cost driver that is far and away the most pernicious and persistent of all. It is mental health.
If you and/or your spouse or partner are bi-polar, obsessive compulsive, depressive, narcissistic, or otherwise have mental health issues (what my clients call "crazy"), then the cost of your case may go from the equivalent of an older used car to the cost of a new wing on your house. If you or your opponent are motivated by vengeance, validation, retribution, hatred, jealousy, resentment, or any of the other darker lusts of human nature, then you could easily spend your child's college education.
If your objective is to punish or "get even" with your spouse or partner, or you want to be morally absolved, you don't need a lawyer; you need a voodoo doctor or a minister.
Having and maintaining mental health is crucial, and it will not be easy. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, a well-known and accomplished forensic psychologist once explained to a gathering of Virginia family lawyers that people who are otherwise quite normal tend to show full-bloomed personality disorders when they go through divorce. (Hence the saying that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.) You will need to learn to catch your own signs of "losing it." And you should not try to do this alone.
Here's a tip: Disabuse yourself of the notion that courts and laws constitute a "justice system." In reality, it is a system of dispute resolution. "Justice" too often connotes a poetic perfection, an eye-for-eye retributive system that knows all and never fails. We fall considerably short of that, but we are still light years above the barbarity and mayhem inherent in the "justice systems" of our ancient forebears. Laws and judges are what stand between us and honor killings, vendettas, knee-cappings, torture, and countless other barbarities.
But it is vital that you recognize that no court can ever restore you perfectly to where you were before the onset of the problem facing you now. No one can undo your choice of spouse or mate, nor undo the fact that you chose to beget life with that person.
I get asked occasionally how many cases I "win." The first thing I say is that the rules of my profession, which are there for good reason, require me to be clear that just because I had a good result in one case does not imply you will have the same outcome. Cases are as different from each other as fingerprints. The second thing I say is it depends on what you mean by "win." Most of the time, you don't get all of what you want. Nor does your opponent. In fact, most cases settle out of court.
A focus on "winning" when children are involved is especially misplaced. Saying so may not make me popular, but it does make me effective. The adage handed down to us by the Supreme Court of Virginia over generations is that the well-being of a child is paramount. That means the law doesn't care if it inconveniences you and the other parent, as long as a child's best interests are furthered. As it works out, in custody cases the parent who cares less about defeating the other parent, who will swallow pride, who avoids tit-for-tat, who focuses less on "my" rights and more on the child's, and who is more willing to make actual sacrifices tends to fare far better.
True story: I once represented the grandparents of two young children who were abandoned when their mother was murdered by their father, and the father went to prison for life. Both sets of extended families fought for custody. At trial my grandfather client told the judge that the current custodial schedule was so uneven and hectic that he would rather give up his custodial rights in favor of the other grandparents, so that the children would have more stability. Commenting that my client showed "the wisdom of Solomon," the judge, who went on to become a judge on the Court of Appeals, awarded custody to him and his wife.
Here's another: My client was the father of a young girl who was being seriously alienated by her mother. She was also being traumatized by the constant climate of conflict between her parents. The mother would make accusations against the father, and he would respond in kind. I tried to get him to let it go, but he resisted. "I can't let her just get away with saying that," he argued. Finally, I told him he had no choice but to write his ex-wife an email saying he was "turning over a new leaf," and that he was not going to engage in tit-for-tat with her.
He acquiesced and sent the email, holding his nose as he did, and yet he kept his word. Eventually he needed no prompting from me and developed his own internal habit of avoiding bait. At the close of the custody trial, at which my client got sole custody of his daughter, the judge cited that "turning over a new leaf" email as one of the reasons the court decided the child would be better off living with her father.
So forget about "winning." Judges are desperately looking for one of the parents before them to be the peace-maker, to be willing to abandon the impulse of scoring points against the other, of letting go of anger for the benefit of the child.
This is free advice, and in my opinion it is near priceless.