‘Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer’: Tips and tricks for navigating the family law system and the lawyers within it

16 January 2022 By Naomi Neilson

REVIEW: In addition to breaking down the complex family law system for would-be clients, a new book has exposed the “dirty” lawyer tricks and cost-saving, do-it-yourself tips that could potentially drive money away from firms. Although provocative to the profession, its author stands by “educating and sharing information” from inside the system.

Back in 2012, when Family Law Project director Shaya Lewis-Dermody started her business, she began to feel “some level of frustration with the profession”. Having spent 10 years as a sole practitioner – covering everything from working on refugee matters, legal aid, appearing before the High Court, and working in private practice – Ms Lewis-Dermody had seen every side of it, including where it was going wrong.

“I could see a real difference in the way that lawyers practice and I felt a real discomfort with what I saw from some private practitioners,” she said. “I really hated the bill shock, I disliked clients being billed by six-minute intervals and I hated the lack of transparency for clients. I absolutely hated seeing other firms overcharging clients – or what we call milking files. I have seen it all in terms of milking files.”

In big, bold letters splashed across a very early page in her new book, Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer, Ms Lewis-Dermody made it very clear that she doesn’t believe in the dirty tricks, and she especially doesn’t believe in “keeping them secret”. Although she understands that some practitioners may be “uncomfortable and nervous” about these tricks being exposed, it’s their duty as lawyers to help navigate the system.

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Speaking to Lawyers Weekly about the book, Ms Lewis-Dermody said that in some respects, lawyers tend to hold onto their expertise and protect it because, in many ways, it is their pay cheque: “If we’re an employee, it’s our billable hours. If we’re a director, it’s our bottom line. Historically, we have not been a generous profession in terms of sharing information, so that’s why [this book] was so important to me.”

In addition to exposing the tricks, Ms Lewis-Dermody said Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer was written to do two things: first, to guide clients and self-represented people through the confusing and often complicated family law system; and second, to provide cost-saving tips for those with and without legal representation.

For clients, this book is about “arming [themselves] with knowledge”, including narrowing their bill by finding the free legal services for advice and procedural information separate from their work with a lawyer. The book also provides tips for finding fixed-fee services, even if that’s just for the initial advice sessions. For the assistance of lawyers, it also advises to keep meetings short and precise – the legal representative, while an important person in the process, is not a confidant.

“There are many tips around fixed-fee lawyers – which is a massive transparency, cost-saving tip – and I also talk about the things you can do yourself. For example, divorce applications are definitely something you can do yourself, as is some parts of property matters. For example, information gathering, obtaining valuations or getting discovery documents, and so on,” Ms Lewis-Dermody explained. “The book also talks about the different options for clients who can’t afford a lawyer.”

Speaking of, a lot of the book provides vital, cost-saving information for people who fall into the “missing middle”: those who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but yet earn too little to afford representation on their own. In addition to setting out the do-it-yourself method for the missing middle, the book also points out the services they can qualify for, like mediation with legal aid and property calls in some registries.

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Speaking from experience of cost-saving for clients, Ms Lewis-Dermody said that whenever she is approached by someone new seeking legal advice, there is always one question she asks first: “Who is the opposing lawyer?” Knowing if there is one and who it is frames what “we’re up against” in financial terms moving forward.

“Some lawyers are known for being very litigious and unwilling to negotiate outside of court, and generally just wanting to draw matters out. There’s this burning off concept where the other parties’ lawyer tries to burn through your legal budget by pressing each and every conceivable point and contesting each turn or making numerous, unnecessary applications throughout,” Ms Lewis-Dermody explained.

Ms Lewis-Dermody said lawyers are one of the most distrusted professions in Australia because they do have tricks like this and they do have that reputation for overcharging clients in an effort to line theirs and the firms’ pockets with legal fees. On why it was so important that this book exposes the behaviour – but also risks drawing money from the firms – Ms Lewis-Dermody said transparency is key.

“You don’t hear many people speaking nicely of lawyers and there are a lot of jokes out there, so it’s definitely an issue. Each to their own, but ultimately I am running a business and the purpose of any business is to make money, but the first values we have as a firm is to educate, provide accessible legal services and be transparent,” she said.

Creating a space within the firm where these values are championed can also make a world of difference, Ms Lewis-Dermody explained: “When lawyers become so fixated on billing and billable hours and output, it can create a real lack of morale in the business. There’s nothing worse than working for a law firm where you have those regular meetings to just check in about unrealistic billing expectations, as opposed to checking in about lawyers’ relationships with clients.”

Another informative and important part of Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer touches on “ditching lawyers” and recognising the red flags from the beginning. To avoid the issue down the track, Ms Lewis-Dermody recommends making the “correct decision in the first place” – for her, this means advising clients to seek out a few more lawyers in the beginning to find the right match before settling down with anyone.

“I’m hoping the family law space changes and a new focus on mediation will change the landscape of how lawyers deal with each other,” she said. “I anticipate that those practising in the sort of old-school way, who do want to remain litigious, will find themselves and their firms will struggle because it’s no longer what people want.”

Ms Lewis-Dermody added that it is really important that practitioners keep in mind that the family law space is their expertise and to be mindful that they are dealing with clients who are potentially going through the most difficult time in their lives. Lawyers should be mindful of that and support them without the tricks.

“The other piece of advice I would give is to not be scared of sharing your knowledge and sharing that through education or in your day-to-day dealings with clients. Remember that your clients are going through this for the first time, whereas we have years and years of experience and we know the system, we know the processes and so on. Be generous in educating and sharing information,” she said.

Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer does an outstanding job of presenting a very straightforward and very useful guide to navigating the family law system. Importantly, it drops the legalese-talk that makes the system that much more complicated for those new to it and sets out in simple terms the methods that are available to new clients. While cost-saving tips are useful for all readers, it is the missing middle that could especially benefit from Ms Lewis-Dermody’s knowledge and expertise.

Exposing the dirty tricks that lawyers use – paired with tips for identifying the red flags in some lawyers from the start – may be provocative to a profession unwilling to share their information, but it is vital to maintaining transparency and restoring faith in the legal profession, especially for people within the family law space.

‘Secrets of a Divorce Lawyer’: Tips and tricks for navigating the family law system and the lawyers within it
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