A Fool for a Client: Why Lawyers Should Not Represent Themselves in Divorce

2020-08-05T11:24:34-07:00

By: Leslie A. Satterlee


Divorces are common in the United States, and lawyers are no exception. According to one source, the divorce rate in the legal field as a whole is over 35% and for lawyers and judges the divorce rate is around 28%.[1] Now why might that be?

Although there are many factors that play into why an individual gets a divorce, for lawyers the job itself can become one of those factors. As a profession, lawyers endure significant stress and that can take a toll on their personal relationships. Furthermore, many lawyers prioritize their careers in a way that could make their spouse feel disconnected. It is true for virtually any profession that spending a great deal of time working can strain life at home.

Regardless of the reasons, lawyers—like everyone else—sometimes get divorced. Unsurprisingly, representing a lawyer in a divorce presents many unique challenges. Just because the client has a legal education does not mean they practice or understand family law. Even lawyers who practice in divorce law themselves may struggle to view the issues in their own case through an objective lens. Every lawyer hears the same adage at some point after starting law school: a lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client.   

Moreover, many lawyers see family law as relatively straightforward and assume that they can handle divorce cases without much trouble. And in some ways they are correct: concepts like dividing community property roughly in half are theoretically simple. However, a divorce for a lawyer is especially complicated for the following reasons (among many others):

1) How much is a lawyer’s practice worth? Can a lawyer sell a practice in a divorce? What if the lawyer is a partner in a larger firm—is that interest divisible? Does the type of practice matter?

2) How much does a lawyer really earn for purposes of calculating things like spousal maintenance or child support? For a solo practitioner whose caseload varies, how is income calculated? What about a lawyer whose clients pay a recurring fee (such as for a structured injury settlement or social security/disability payments over time)?

3) Many lawyers have student loans or have spouses who worked while the lawyer attended school. Is the value of their legal education divisible in a divorce? What about student loan debt—can it be divided or does it attach solely to the student?

Another added layer of complexity for lawyers getting divorced is their professional reputation. The legal community is small and no one wants to be known to their colleagues for their ugly custody battle instead of their legal work. Even the judge who hears the case may one day rotate to another division where the divorcing lawyer regularly appears.  Even if the case does not go to trial, the pleadings are generally public records (and even if they are sealed, the Internet tends not to forgive or forget).

For a lawyer who is contemplating divorce, these concerns may result in putting off the action in hopes of either reconciling or simply out of fear of the unknown. Consulting with competent divorce counsel is imperative to ensure that the dissolution of marriage is well-planned and well-executed (sometimes months before actually filing the case).


[1] https://qz.com/1069806/the-highest-and-lowest-divorce-rates-in-america-by-occupation-and-industry/

Leslie A. Satterlee is a partner with Woodnick Law and has been practicing family law exclusively since graduating cum laude from ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.