Conflicting Out Attorneys: When Your Spouse Cuts Off Your Access to Top Attorneys

It's no secret that to get the best possible outcome in your divorce, you need to work with a highly skilled divorce attorney. For most people, that simply means asking around, getting referrals, taking a few meetings, and then hiring the attorney with whom they have the most confidence. Some people take this to the extreme and seek out the best attorney for themselves, but block their spouse from obtaining adequate representation in the divorce. 

What to Look for in an Attorney

High net worth, high visibility divorce involves complex issues including custody, identification and division of the couple's assets, business valuation, spousal support (sometimes called alimony), and child support. Attorneys must be skilled in all of these areas as well as have a deep understanding of brand, media, and public image. The more complex the divorce, the smaller the pool of attorneys available who have relevant experience and skills, so couples in these situations may find there are a handful of attorneys to consider who are the best of the best. 

What the Attorney Interview Process is Like

When you interview attorneys to represent you in your divorce, you'll want to set aside at least half an hour to confer with an attorney you are considering. 

Make sure to ask about:

  • Availability and time frame
  • Background 
  • Experience handling high net worth/high visibility cases
  • Rates

An important part of the consultation will be offering some information about your case and your situation so that the attorney can get an idea about the issues involved, how complex the case will be, and which items are unresolved. This also allows the attorney the opportunity to discuss the strategy they will recommend for your case as well as an opinion about the potential outcomes and their evaluation of the strength of your position.

Conflicting Out

Once you meet with an attorney for a consultation and discuss your divorce case with them, they are bound by attorney-client privilege, even if you do not hire that attorney. This means that once you discuss your case with an attorney, they usually cannot or will not speak with or represent your spouse because there would be a conflict of interest (or at least the appearance of a conflict). 

Attorneys are required to maintain records (called a conflict database) of whom they meet with so they can screen potential clients for conflicts. If your spouse contacts an attorney you have already spoken with, that attorney or anyone at the firm will not be able to meet with or represent your spouse in your divorce.

This rule is designed to protect everyone. It protects you because any information you shared remains private. It protects your spouse by ensuring that they do not speak with an attorney who may be representing the other side and could use them to seek information to benefit their client. It also protects the attorney from making ethical mistakes, such as letting slip something you told them in confidence if they meet with your spouse.

Conflicting Out As An Unethical Strategy

While conflicting out is essential to prevent conflicts of interest by an attorney in a divorce case, some unscrupulous clients and attorneys try to take advantage of this rule to gain an advantage. When a couple decides to divorce (or even if only one spouse decides they want a divorce and have not yet told the other spouse), one spouse will be the first to look for an attorney. 

If Spouse #1 usually might interview two or three attorneys and choose one. The other attorneys the spouse spoke with then cannot represent Spouse #2 should they attempt to contact them. To gain an advantage, Spouse #1 might decide to make appointments with all the top law firms in the area to prevent Spouse #2 from being able to retain any of them. Spouse #1 could also hire an attorney immediately, and this attorney could encourage them to make the rounds of the other notable firms to conflict them out. 

It has been reported in the media that supermodel Heidi Klum undertook this strategy in her 2012 divorce from singer Seal. She allegedly met with a large number of top divorce attorneys in L.A. to prevent Seal from hiring them. 

This strategy was recently portrayed in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story mini-series (based on a true story). Dan Broderick was a well-known San Diego attorney and president of the area bar association. He divorced his wife Betty and conflicted out so many attorneys that she was forced to hire an attorney from out of the area. She eventually represented herself. The tactic was also portrayed in the 2019 Netflix film, Marriage Story

Conflicting out can significantly reduce one spouse's options when it comes to adequate legal representation. The more specialized the case, the fewer attorneys in one city with the experience and ability to handle the case. Once a spouse conflicts out most attorneys and law firms, it can leave the other spouse with very few options for proper legal representation.

What to Do If You Are Conflicted Out

If possible, the best way to deal with being conflicted out is to get out and hire an attorney as soon as possible so you can avoid this problem. As soon as you think you might want to consider divorce, it can be a good idea to find and hire an attorney who can best represent you. If you find yourself in a situation where you are conflicted out from using the top attorneys in your area, the best solution is to find an even better attorney from out of the area. 

Many attorneys are admitted to the bar in several states. If you find that all the attorneys or law firms you want to meet with in your city are not available, there are attorneys in other cities and states who could provide excellent representation. You will likely incur additional costs due to the required travel, but your savvy attorney may be able to ask that your spouse pay those costs since they created the situation.

Conflicting out is an unscrupulous tactic that is not recommended or suggested by ethical attorneys. You will be best served in your divorce by finding a highly skilled attorney who has the experience, knowledge, and confidence to represent your case on its merits and obtain the outcome you desire without any underhanded.


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel founded and leads Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

To connect with Dror: 212.682.6222 | [hidden email] | Online

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