In Part 2 of a three-part series on divorce in France, EL offers sound advice on how to seek the right lawyer to represent you in a split that could bring serious consequences to your life.
You might hope to be two untroubled people going your separate ways. More likely, preparing a divorce, you are in a state of shock, despair, and anxiety for your future and that of your children.
You are probably not in your best state of mind when you have to make a major life decision: who is your lawyer?
Can you find one to explain complicated laws in English, while you are totally stressed out? You have to share family secrets with this stranger. You might never have had anything to do with lawyers, who at times can seem a law unto themselves.
Welcome to the shark pool
This is not to say there are not some who are hardworking, dedicated professionals. But with more than 20,000 lawyers in Paris alone, stiff competition means a survival game and a hunger for blood money. You may end up paying stupefying fees up to 50K euros a year, and that will not guarantee sound guidance – you could be given advice that seeks to manipulate you into procedures that generate higher than necessary fees and drain family resources. You might be easy prey for this when you are upset and vulnerable and confused by French legalese. In addition, you may be facing conflicts with your ex over money and custody that you hadn’t bargained for.
Just how difficult can divorce be in France? Read Divorce in France: Part 1 – Hard Facts and Painful Truths.
Shopping for a good divorce lawyer
Lawyers cannot advertise in France. There is no web tool to assess their reputation. You can go by word of mouth and get lucky. You can go to the Palais de Justice in Paris, or a local accès aux droits point, where you can see a lawyer for free for 15 minutes. You can call lawyers from the Yellow Pages or the internet at random, and arrange a consultation. Most will charge for this, up to a thousand euros, while some do it for free. Whether the initial meeting is free does not determine how much they bill you later on.
Normally, under the 2015 loi Macron updated in 2017, lawyers need to draft a contract or convention d’honoraires before charging any fees, but many do not apply this for a first consultation. If you sign on, they must inform you in writing of their fees, their mission, and the total this is likely to cost. You can ask to modify this contract, for example, stipulating that you want to collaborate on strategy, which will protect you but not please the lawyers, and they may not comply.
Friends might tell you to trust your lawyer. However, not all of them are competent. Some lawyers have no experience in contentious divorces and will try to convince you to make peace when you know this is not possible because you know your partner. Others may try to get you into a divorce pour faute when you don’t want to spend years and lots of money citing fault in your ex. Some sign you on and pass you to a collaborateur whom you may not like and who may be fresh out of law school. A big cabinet will cost more than a one-man band.
For a deeper look into your rights on divorce in France with recommendations for lawyers, consult: https://www.divorcefrance.fr/
How much will a divorce cost?
You have three options for fees. You can pay a forfeit or a flat fee, or, more rarely, a percentage of your award sur le resultat with a reduced hourly fee. Most commonly, you pay by the hour based on their assessment. You will pay for every text, phone call, email, appointment, letter or defense they write, and their research. They are supposed to give you a detailed breakdown in their bills, but sometimes they take carte blanche.
The unbalanced power relationship with your lawyer is represented by their title: Maître, or literally, master. Lawyers take an oath called the serment d’un avocat, promising dignity, conscience, probity and humanity – which they may ignore.
While they might have a box of tissues in their office, they may declare, “Je ne suis pas votre psy,” or “I am not your shrink,” as a few friends have told me.
They might ignore your emails and phone calls; delay procedures when anticipating missing deadlines; neglect to inform you of your rights, best strategy, or details of procedures; and they tend to work at the last minute, giving you little review time. They have a right to drop you at any moment, keeping any fees you already paid. They might also refuse to hand over your documents to their successor, against protocol. Know that if they drop you, they are supposed to represent you until you find another lawyer. The judicial system gives them near impunity.
You must be careful to control the fees by creating well-organized files, with your documents annotated, keeping a copy for yourself. Do your own research online or use books to stay informed. You have to be something of your own lawyer if you want the best outcome.
And don’t forget to take good notes during your meetings and to watch and see if your lawyer can read fast – communicate the need for speed as everything is so slow.
The last thing you need in this slow-administrative-process country is a slow lawyer.