Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Expensive divorce lawyers

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Dear Virginia, My wife and I are in the middle of a divorce. She's employed some really ruthless, expensive lawyers. Whenever the two of us meet, we get on fairly well, but the lawyer seems to be driving a rift between us. My wife says she'll change hers if I change mine - but mine is a family solicitor, and gentle compared with hers. He says he's never come across lawyers like hers before. What can I do? Yours sincerely, David

Virginia writes:

When I got divorced my husband employed lawyers that I thought were like tigers. Ruthless, money-grabbing nightmares. But mine weren't much better. First I went to an extremely feminist woman solicitor who advised me to split everything down the middle, despite the fact that I was the one looking after a baby; having given her the sack, the next lot sent me a copy of a letter they'd sent my husband asking for 400 a month when, in fact, I'd only asked for 40 a month. When I pointed this out to them they refused to change it, adding slyly: "Let's just see if we can get away with it."

Naturally I dropped them and ended up with what I thought was a kindly compromise who always stopped me being too greedy or too generous. But when, later, I asked my by now ex-husband what he thought of my final choice he declared he felt about them just the same as I had about his. "Ruthless tigers!" he said.

Nearly always, each partner in a divorce perceives the others' demands as impossibly cruel and greedy. Each of us feels in some way righteous; even the clearly "guilty" party always believes he or she was driven to appalling behaviour by the other's lack of affection or hysterical behaviour. Couples can haggle not only over money, children and dogs but CDs and even garden gnomes. "It's mine!" shrieks the wife, tugging at the gnome's hat. "It's mine!" screams the husband, seizing its fishing rod. Of course, it's not the gnome they're arguing about. The gnome simply represents the love each feels they have lost due to the break up. No wonder they cling so hard to each grain of salt under dispute. And no wonder that David imagines his wife's solicitors are ruthless monsters. It could be that his wife thinks his "gentle, family solicitor" is also a fiend.

But surely they could compromise? David and his wife are something of a rarity, after all. They are, when they meet, at least on some kind of speaking terms, and should be congratulated for the effort it must take for each of them to behave in such a civilised manner. Couldn't they take their exemplary relationship one step further and each give up their lawyers to go for two that belong to collaboration, family law or mediation schemes? These lawyers take the amazingly radical steps of actually meeting each other face-to-face, usually with their clients present, and try to work out something that is satisfactory to both parties. (I say "satisfactory" but I doubt if ever a divorce is satisfactory to both parties; each usually feels they have done fantastically badly and been amazingly generous.) But by taking the collaborative approach, your and your wife will at least have the satisfaction of feeling that you have split up everything for the most part yourselves, guided by professionals who prevent you from giving everything away in a fit of guilt or stop you becoming grabby and vindictive.

You've got an amazing chance, David. Your wife says she'll give up her lawyer if you give up yours. Go on. Neither you has anything to lose, and each has lots to gain - in particular a huge amount of money that would otherwise have gone on greedy lawyers' fees.

You might even have some to spare for a celebration dinner together.

Readers say:

Work together

As a family lawyer and collaborative practitioner, I read with interest your Dilemma. The collaborative principle involves specially trained lawyers who, as a matter of principal and practice, agree not to undertake an aggressive approach. Rather, issues are dealt with in a four-way meeting (2 clients, 2 lawyers). Experience shows that this produces the results that clients want and that at the end of negotiations, clients generally feel less emotionally wrung out and more confident and successful in dealing with ongoing matters.

David (and any other person in his situation) should go on to the website for more information. The view of collaborative practitioners generally is that the procedure produces constructive solutions for a better way forward.

Chris Fenton

by email

Plan for the future

Why go through the hassle and expense of these lawyers if you get on well when it's just the two of you? Why don't you both sit down and discuss what needs to be discussed and come up with a plan? Then show it to your lawyers and try to make this about the two of you again, rather than lawyers and their charges.

Jennifer Deavall

Isle of Wight

Cautionary tale

Here is a true story of a similar situation where the wife had an aggressive, and expensive, lawyer. Unlike David's wife, she was in a vindictive mind-set. Negotiations between the lawyers were protracted and acrimonious. In brief, by the time the divorce was finalised, almost all the family money had been spent on legal fees. For all her efforts, the wife got nothing, having bankrupted her ex. Both partners had to continue working well into the time when they might otherwise have retired.

David should consider a compromise and use a different lawyer. It is, after all, only for this one procedure that David needs to change.

Name and Address supplied

Let the courts decide

You're getting divorced. There already is a rift between you, it's not the solicitors' fault! Stay with your solicitor if you are happy with him. It doesn't matter how nasty or ruthless her solicitors are, the divorce courts will work out terms of your divorce so that it is fair on both parties. They are well aware of tactics employed by some solicitors and take no notice of them. Divorces are settled on the law, not on whose solicitor can shout the loudest.

Martin Kerry

Ilkeston, Derbyshire

Time to get tough

Get real and stop letting her take the mickey. She didn't hire expensive, ruthless lawyers for nothing. You can't always be nice when dealing with these sort of things, and I think your wife is aware of this and has decided to look after herself. So I would either get another lawyer or I would instruct the one you have to do what he needs to do for your best interests.

Alison Turner

Milton Keynes

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am a widow and getting on a bit. Rather than wanting more material possessions, I am trying to get rid of them, so I don't want any Christmas presents! I'd like to ask my friends to give money to my favourite charity this year, instead of giving me presents. But how do I go about doing this without causing offence?

Yours sincerely, Lucy