You’ve Decided to Mediate Your Divorce. Should You Bring a Lawyer?

Deborah ReiserDeborah Reiser

You’ve decided to mediate your divorce case. You wisely decided to avoid the expense, acrimony, and uncertainty of a contested court proceeding in favor of a negotiated resolution with the assistance of a neutral third party. You’ve selected a mediator, and now are faced with the choice of whether you should go to mediation with or without your lawyer.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, and the decision deserves thoughtful consideration.

When You May Not Want an Attorney

Obviously, mediating without two additional lawyers present is, at first, less expensive. The math is easy — you are paying two fewer professionals for the real time of mediation. If you and your spouse are able to communicate civilly, if the issues are not mired in complexity, if positions are not hardened in concrete, and if both sides recognize the wisdom of compromise — then, by all means, consider meeting with the mediator alone.

When You Should Consider Bringing an Attorney

On the other hand, what if one spouse holds all the advantages, financially and otherwise?

  • What if one spouse is unable to appreciate the value of achieving a resolution even if imperfect?
  • What if the complexities of resolution are outside your comfort zone?
  • What if there are issues which require specific expertise, such as identifying and valuing business interests? Or dividing retirements and pensions?

Having your lawyer present in real time can make the difference between success and disaster.

Remember: The mediator is a neutral. S/he cannot offer legal advice to either party; rather, the mediator’s job is to get the parties to agreement. There may well be issues where you need actual advice about the wisdom of your position, about the risks and exposure you face with different choices, or about whether your negotiating strategy is even prudent or smart.

As a neutral, a mediator should not say to you “You would be unwise to do this, this is a mistake for you.” If your lawyer is present, you can address strengths and advantages, pitfalls and risks in real time. Otherwise, stopping the mediation to consult with your lawyer and then re-grouping not only slows progress; actually, the fits and starts can easily cost more money over the long run.

Similarly, suppose you reach a tentative agreement in mediation. The mediator should advise you to consult with your own attorney before signing what will be a binding contract. Suppose further that on consultation with your lawyer you become aware of a major issue you failed to address, or worse, resolved in a manner that can actually cause you harm. Then you have to return to the negotiating table. You’ve lost time, money and quite possibly have created a more intransigent bargaining position on the other side.

At the very least, you should consult with your own lawyer In advance of mediation in order to become educated as to your rights and obligations under the divorce law, to think through your goals and areas of potential compromise, and to “game-plan” your negotiating strategy. Discuss with your lawyer whether to have him/her accompany you to the actual mediation. Then, and only then, decide what course is best for you.