Sara’s Law: A Law Intended to Protect Family Law Attorneys in Wisconsin

Family law is a unique area of law, often accompanied by an overabundance of emotions. Strong emotions typically tie in with family matters such as divorce, child custody and placement issues, and maintaining the co-parenting relationship for divorced or separated parents. It is not surprising that there are certain risks inherent with the officers of the court (attorneys, judges, guardian ad litems, etc.) involved in family law matters.

A tragic example is the story of Sara Quirt Sann, a Schofield, Wisconsin family law attorney. Quirt Sann, along with three other individuals (Everest Metro Police Detective Jason Weiland and Marathon Savings Bank employees Dianne Look and Karen Barclay) were killed on March 22, 2017 when Nengmy Vang carried out a violent attack on Quirt Sann’s office. Quirt Sann had been representing Vang’s wife in a divorce.

Quirt Sann’s story prompted the drafting of Wisconsin Act 272, colloquially referred to as “Sara’s Law” in memory of Quirt Sann. Sara’s Law was enacted on April 11, 2018 and makes it a Class H felony in the state of Wisconsin to harm or threaten to harm a current or former guardian ad litem, corporation counsel, attorney, or any of their family. Sara’s Law further specifies that the harm or threat of harm is in response to an action taken during a proceeding or other action that affects the family (i.e. a “family law” proceeding). Until Sara’s Law, threats made against family lawyers were not treated the same as judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers.

If a person is convicted under Sara’s Law, it would mean they are guilty of a Class H felony, which could result in the mandatory surrendering of weapons, a $10,000 fine, and up to six years in prison.

Sara’s Law is the first of its kind in the United States, and could prove to be indicative of a trend in American law to recognize and address the intrinsic risks with practicing an area of law so wrought with emotion. The attorneys at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC are sensitive to the psychological and emotional tolls of family law, and are skilled in navigating these difficult matters. Should you have any family law related questions, please feel free to contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free ½ hour consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.  Or, for more information, visit our website at http://www.nkmfamilylaw.com.

 

 

What to Look for in Hiring a Divorce or Family Law Attorney

Once you make the difficult decision to pursue legal action such as a divorce, paternity action, or a a post judgement modification or enforcement motion in a family law matter, the next decision you are faced with can be as equally difficult. Will you hire an attorney and, if so, which attorney will be best suited to represent your best interests in your legal matter? There can be many attorneys to choose from and the internet may seem to be overloaded with information and options.  Below are some tips for what to look for in hiring a divorce or family law attorney.

 

If you do not have a direct referral to an attorney, most people start their search with an internet search with terms such as divorce attorney or ____ (fill in the blank with the type of attorney you are search for) attorney in your area.  This brings up a list of attorneys or firms who practice that type of law in that certain geographical area.  The attorneys or firms who appear on the first page or high up in the search results are often the attorneys or firms who have the best reviews or have the highest volume of cases in that particular area.  This generally means they are also the most experienced attorneys in that practice or geographical area.  Generally, people choose attorneys from those who appear first in those couple of pages.  From there, when searching for the right attorney, you may want to review an attorney’s or firm’s website, online reviews, and schedule a consultation. When doing this, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind. For example, a website can be very helpful in showing whether or not an attorney has kept their page up to date,  whether  they write articles or blogs, which can offer helpful information and tips and also provide insight into whether the attorney, or whether their firm, is truly knowledgeable in that area and stays up to date with the laws that apply to family law.  Websites can also provide information as to which specific areas of law an attorney or firm practices, how experienced they are, or whether they have won any awards or are members of any specific organizations.  For example, please review our website at www.nkmfamilylaw.com. All of this information can give you a better idea about how experienced an attorney is in the area you are searching for.  The more experienced an attorney, the better chance you have at receiving a positive result in your matter and/or obtaining the best possible advice about what may happen in your case.

 

When searching for an attorney, it is important to find out how the attorney how their fees are charged.  Some attorneys and firms charge an hourly rate and calculate your fees by the amount of time it takes to work on your matter. When you are considering attorneys, it is important to ensure that you will get an itemized billing statement on a frequent basis. Other firms may bill at a flat rate based upon the work that needs to be completed in your matter. That may be a cost-effective way to handle certain matters, but it may also be difficult to know if you are going to get the attention and dedication to your case once your flat fee has essentially “run out.” It is important to know what services the flat fee will cover, and if any future fees may be required if your matter becomes more time intensive, or if something changes in your matter, that would require additional fees and how much.

 

It can also be very helpful to look at online lawyer client reviews to help you when choosing an attorney. While many of these reviews can give you a better understanding of how the lawyer practices, it is also important to keep a few things in mind. Attorneys have certain ethical obligations that prohibit them from making any in-depth comments about client’s cases.  So, if you encounter a bad review of an attorney, keep in mind that the attorney may not be able to respond to the commentator, whose review may or may not be truthful or relevant to the quality of services that the lawyer or law firm provides. It is also helpful to remember that anyone can leave a review, including an unhappy or unsuccessful opposing party, which has been known to happen. There are also cases where a client is in the wrong or is the cause of the problems in their own case which causes an unfavorable result.  These clients often are the ones who leave negative reviews which really do not accurately reflect the competency of an attorney as a whole.  You should take into consideration the above if the majority of the reviews for the attorney or firm are positive, except for one or two.  To determine for yourself if the reviews are accurate, it may be best to review the attorney’s or law firm’s website and utilize a consultation with the attorney or law firm to decide for yourself if that attorney will best represent you in your legal matter.

 

Finally, you may be able to schedule a consultation with one or several attorneys to see who is right for you. Some attorneys and law firms offer a free consultation, while others may charge a fee for their consultation.  Whether there is a charge for a consultation or not does not necessarily indicate the quality of that attorney’s or law firm’s services.  Instead, consultations, like job interviews, are helpful for both clients and attorneys to ensure that there is a good fit for any future legal representation.

 

These examples show why it is important to consider many factors when choosing the best attorney to represent you in your family law matter. After reviewing our firm and our attorneys, we are confident that you will find we fit all of the above criteria.  If you wish to contact our firm to see if we can best represent you in your upcoming or pending family law matter, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.

The Importance of Being Honest with Your Family Law Attorney

More often than not, people hire family law attorneys during a difficult time in their lives. Understandably, some of the facts that may lead you to seek counsel may not be easy to discuss with an attorney. However, it is imperative for the attorney who is representing you to know all aspects of your case and for you to be honest with your divorce or family law attorney.

In the early stages of a case, the attorneys in our firm will often ask “What would the other party tell me about you if they were sitting in my office today?” The reason we ask this question is to find out any negative or difficult facts in a case that will likely come up during litigation. Your advocate counsel needs to be informed of all potential issues that you are aware of, so that we can properly advise you of what next steps should be taken to benefit you throughout your case. More importantly, if there is a “bad fact”, your attorney can address it proactively.  We will not judge you or think poorly of you but we do need to know of any issues which may negatively impact you in a divorce so we can assist you in addressing these issues.

An example of this would be if someone came into our office and admitted to being an alcoholic if they have minor children. With that knowledge, we can advise our client to seek treatment, attend meetings and hopefully be in a position to provide proof of a solid period of sobriety by the time this issue would make its way into court. If we are not made aware of this issue and/or if the first time we hear of this issue is in court from the other attorney or party, we will not be in a great position to defend this allegation or to show what steps have been taken to address this concern. In this example, if your attorney knows about your condition, she can be honest with the court about your issues and, more importantly, she can tell the court what you are doing (or have done) about it.  When your attorney knows all facts, good and bad she is able to control how the information gets into the court.

It is also important that you continue to update your attorney throughout your case, even if those updates are difficult to discuss. Using the example of the client who is an alcoholic, it may be the case that the client relapses during the pendency of the action and is too embarrassed to tell his/her counsel. The fact is, not telling your attorney “bad” facts is far worse than sitting through an uncomfortable conversation with your attorney about mistakes you have made. Once the information is disclosed, you and your attorney can brainstorm ways to address the issues. The court is likely to find out about it anyway.  You want your attorney to control how this information is presented to the court.  The only way for that to happen is for you to be 100% honest and open with your attorney.

There also may be situations where you do not want to disclose certain information.  Your conversations with your attorney are 100% protected by client confidentiality rules and your attorney must not reveal any information given to her in confidence.  However, if presented with all of the facts, your attorney can either discuss with you ways to protect this information, explain to you why it must be disclosed (in the instance of financial information) or, again, find the best way to disclose this information in a way that is most beneficial to you and your case.

As attorneys, we cannot protect clients from their actions that may negatively affect their case. If a client continues to take actions that negatively affect his/her case, despite the advice of his/her attorney, it may result in a situation where the attorney no longer believes they can represent that client’s interests. However, if clients are honest with us throughout the process and listen to the advice we give to them, we are in a better position to help advocate for our client’s interests.

If you wish to speak with an attorney about a difficult family matter, please feel free to call our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free consultation with one of our skilled attorneys.

Can My Spouse and I Use a Mediator Instead of Lawyers In Our Divorce?

Mediation - dispute resolution process.

Many people ask if they can use a mediator instead of lawyers in a divorce.  Recent changes by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, redefining the role of a mediator in a divorce action, have caused many people to ask this very question.  In order to determine what is right for you, an understanding of the difference between Lawyer-Mediator and Advocate Attorney is needed.

Typically, a mediator’s role has been to help parties find solutions to disputes from a neutral, third party perspective. Mediation is confidential and scheduled outside of court, so it aims to promote open, honest and unreserved discussion between the parties. Mediators can benefit parties in a divorce by helping suggest constructive alternatives to the positions of each of the parties and to help to find a reasonable solution based on the presentation by both parties. Mediators will sometimes prepare a short and neutral-toned memorandum of the agreement between the parties if agreements are reached. Then, the parties are responsible for ensuring that an agreement is drafted and submitted to the court so that it becomes an order of the court.

Recently, however, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has approved the expansion of the role of a lawyer serving as a mediator.  Specifically, “lawyer-mediators”, are now permitted to draft, modify or file documents confirming, memorializing, and/or implementing the parties’ mediated agreement.  In order to do so, the law requires that the lawyer-mediator maintain neutrality throughout the process and also have the written informed consent of the parties.

As this new rule is rolled out (effective date of July 1, 2017), it is important to understand that lawyer-mediators are not interchangeable with advocate counsel.

In fact, as part of the written “informed consent” that the lawyer-mediator must obtain the lawyer-mediator must inform the parties that it is important to seek independent legal advice before executing any documents prepared by the lawyer-mediator. This is done because the lawyer-mediator cannot assume an advocate role. Therefore, a mediator does not necessarily replace the need for an attorney to advocate for your interests.

By nature, mediators must be neutral.   Mediators are hired to help the parties reach an agreement and not advocate a certain theory or provide advice to the parties.  Therefore,  lawyer mediators may only perform these additional duties allowed under the new rule if it can be done without compromising his or her neutrality and so long as they do not assume an attorney-client relationship with either party.  This means that any document drafted by the lawyer-mediator would need to be a “neutral” document; that the lawyer-mediator shall not attempt to advance the interest of one party at the expense of the other party; and that the lawyer-mediator may not give legal advice to either or both parties while acting in that neutral capacity.

This can lead to issues however, because often times one or both parties do not understand all of the consequences of their decisions. An attorney acting as neutral mediator may attempt to explain these consequences to the parties in mediation but only if they can do so without giving legal advice, without acting as counsel for either party and without compromising his/her neutrality. Practically speaking, this is a very difficult task when many issues impact the parties differently in a family law matter. As is often the case in family law matters a question from one party may have an adverse effect on the other party.  How does a lawyer mediator answer questions without giving legal advice or advocating (albeit innocently) for one party or the other? At Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC, we believe mediation is a valuable tool and resource in many family law matters. As such, we often use the assistance of lawyer-mediators in cases where we need a neutral opinion on unresolved disputes.  However, at all points during the case, and during the mediation, our clients have an advocate who is consistently working to advance your interests and explain the consequences of your decisions.  This is not a benefit afforded to litigants who move forward with mediation without the benefit of advocate counsel.

Lawyer-mediators also cannot act on the behalf of a party in court, cannot assist the parties in court matters such as scheduling or procedure and cannot appear in court with the parties.  Many people are confused and intimidated by the court system.  Advocate counsel can assist you in all aspects related to the court system itself.

So, while lawyer-mediators may assist advocate attorneys greatly in family law matters, they have different roles than advocate attorneys and that should be well understood before the decision is made to use only one or the other.

If you have a family law matter that you wish to discuss with an advocate attorney at our firm, please do not hesitate to call our office at 414-258-1644 to set up a free consultation with one of the attorneys.

How to Stop a Divorce Bully!

Boss Shouting At Businesswoman Through Loudspeaker In OfficeIn the context of family law, especially in a divorce, some individuals may find that their former partner transforms into a divorce bully. A divorce bully is a spouse who exhibits bullying behavior during the process of divorce. This person may not have previously displayed bullying behavior during the marriage. This behavior may not rise to the level of domestic violence, but instead is more subtle. Bullying behavior may include: lying about past incidents in order to make the other partner look bad; threatening to take full custody of the parties’ children or withholding the children from the other party; isolating the other party from friends and family; withholding money or refusing to pay bills; removing the other person from or canceling insurance; cancelling cell phone service; or attempting to intimidate the other partner from hiring a lawyer. While being a victim to a divorce bully adds another dimension of stress to the divorce process, it is not necessarily dangerous or constitutes domestic abuse.  Therefore, it may be difficult to deal with.

Another tactic of a divorce bully that can be especially damaging is to attempt to rush the divorce proceeding. This can often result in an inequitable agreement at the expense of the victim. Most parties to want the divorce to be over as quickly as possible. At the same time, it is also important to take the time to ensure that all marital assets and debts are divided equitably, that maintenance is considered when appropriate, and that custody, placement and child support are determined accurately, and in the best interest of the children.

If you find yourself the victim of divorce bullying, there are some important steps to take to protect yourself and to minimize the damaging consequences. One step may simply be to take care of your own health, both physically and mentally. Seeking counseling is a good way to help you find ways to deal with this type of behavior and get you through your divorce.  Another step may be to set firm boundaries with the divorce bully. For example, inform the bullying partner in person and in writing to refrain from specific abusive behavior, such as showing up uninvited to your home, or involving your children in the details of the divorce. It can also be helpful to document specific incidents of bullying, including when the incident occurred, and the details of what happened.

Hiring an attorney can be the most effective way of stopping a divorce bully.  An attorney can intervene on your behalf – either with your spouse, the opposing attorney or by filing a motion with the court.  Also, an attorney can intervene on your behalf with third parties, if necessary (as in the case of insurance or creditors).  Lastly, an attorney can reassure you as to what may or may not happen (i.e. you will not lose your children!) and give you advice as to how to best deal with this behavior.

Mediation may also be a helpful option in diffusing the situation. Mediators are specially trained to help control tense and emotional situations of divorce without involving litigation. However, if the bullying has existed throughout the marriage, then mediation may be ineffective because of the lack of trust between the parties, and may legitimize an abusive viewpoint of the bullying partner.  Your attorney can discuss various options with you.

The law requires that each party enters into a settlement agreement freely, voluntarily, knowingly, and without threat or coercion. It is ok to slow down the divorce process in order to understand your agreement, seek the advice of an attorney, and to come to a final agreement that you can successfully follow. If you find yourself the victim of a divorce bully, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss your case.

What if I Am Unhappy With My Current Divorce Attorney?

If you are not satisfied or unhappy with your current attorney, you may have the option to hire a new attorney who would “substitute” into a case for your current attorney.

Typically, an unhappy client seeks new counsel while their current attorney is still retained. Clients seek new counsel for a number of reasons. One of the most common is because the client believes there has been a breakdown in the communication or relationship with their current attorney. The client then seeks the advice and counsel of a new attorney and if the client believes the new attorney would provide more suitable counsel, then they can hire this new attorney and the new attorney is “substituted” for the current attorney.

In Wisconsin, there is a formal process that your current attorney and the new attorney must go through in order to complete the substitution. A Substitution of Attorneys agreement is required. This agreement, or stipulation, must be signed by both the client and the former attorney and is typically prepared by the new attorney. If the client wishes, they do not need to communicate with their prior attorney at all. This can be handled strictly by the old and new attorney. However, the client can certainly tell their current attorney directly that they wish to substitute attorneys as well. Once this form is signed, it must be sent to the court and the court must also approve the substitution.

It is important to note that even if a substitution is approved by the client’s current attorney and then ultimately by the court, the client still must resolve all fees and costs associated with their prior attorney. In Wisconsin,  the previous attorney is entitled to a judgment for outstanding fees against client when a substitution occurs and sometimes they demand that this is stated in the Substitution of Attorneys form prior to signing same.

Also, there are instances where the court will not approve a substitution. For example, if there is an upcoming trial date and the new attorney would need an adjournment to give them time to prepare. Or, if there have been too many substitutions in the case already.

It is also important to note that there are drawbacks to substituting attorneys. The drawbacks include that a new attorney has to learn your case, essentially starting over, whereas your current attorney has your complete file and is more familiar with your case history. There are also costs associated with a new attorney: retainer fees, costs for having to have your file copied, and costs for completing the formal process of substituting the attorneys.

Despite the above drawbacks, creating and maintaining a healthy and working client/attorney relationship as you navigate through your case is often superior to the costs and drawbacks.

If you have any questions regarding substitution of attorneys or if you are seeking new counsel, please contact our office at 414-258-1644 to schedule a free initial office consultation or visit our website for more information.

4 Ways the Right Divorce Lawyer Can Make the Process Easier

Most people understand that, when they are going through a divorce, they need to have a good divorce lawyer on their side. After all, we all know someone who didn’t get the quality of representation they needed, and suffered heavy financial consequences – and perhaps even the loss of time with their children – because of it.

As important as it is to have a good divorce lawyer on your side, however, it’s also something that’s very convenient. That’s because part of a divorce attorney’s job isn’t just to ensure that your interests are protected, but also to make the process smoother.

Here are four quick ways that the right divorce lawyer can make things easier for you:

1. By looking out for your interests during your divorce proceedings. Beyond simply knowing the law, a good divorce attorney will learn about your situation, and your priorities, to make sure that they are properly represented. As tempting as it might be to simply work through a mediator, that person does not have your interests at heart and cannot work solely to protect your interests.  Alternatively, a divorce lawyer job is to advocate for their clients’ interests and help achieve clients’ goals.

 2. By understanding the nuances of divorce law. Given the complexity of different legal statutes, it’s probably not surprising that most of our clients aren’t very familiar with their rights during the divorce process. Having reviewed your case and gone through the process dozens of times before, a good divorce lawyer might be able to help you spot legal opportunities that you weren’t even aware of.  Although friends, family and coworkers may try to ‘help’ by sharing their own divorce stories, those stories may not be relevant to your situation and may only result in unrealistic expectations or misunderstanding of your legal rights and entitlements.

3. By negotiating with your spouse’s divorce attorney. Negotiating things like custody and placement of children and the division of property and debts between divorcing spouses can quickly become a personal and emotional process. Between seasoned attorneys who know their clients’ top priorities and goals; however, the process can often be handled much more quickly, calmly, and efficiently. This facet of what we do alone can dramatically decrease the stress and anxiety you feel during your divorce proceedings.

4. By keeping you calm during the legal divorce process. In the same way, your divorce attorney will have been through this process dozens (and maybe hundreds) of times before and they know what to expect, what’s reasonable, and where the major challenges are likely to lie. For that reason, they can help you remain calm and measured each step of the way, especially at times when you may feel that your spouse (or their attorneys) are being unreasonable.

Although you might wish to never need the services of a good divorce lawyer, when you do, it’s great to have the right team on your side. That’s because they won’t just give you a much better chance at finding the right financial and child-related terms that you’re looking for, but can make every step of the process easier, faster, and less emotionally taxing.

To schedule a free initial office consultation to discuss your divorce or alternatives, please contact us at 414-258-1644 or visit our website for further information.