While the legal system is, in theory, designed to a place accessible to citizens without the assistance of counsel, the most prudent course of action is to seek out and retain counsel. Legal disputes can be complicated, and licensed lawyers have undergone the training and testing deemed sufficient to appear before judges as professionals. In addition to this role as your advocate, however, attorneys are also valuable insofar as their role as your counselor, which is arguably more important of the two in the sense that the lawyer's role as counselor is to make sure you understand (a) what is going on and (b) what you can do about it. Either way, be sure to give the idea some serious thought.
If You Intend to Retain Counsel, Shop Around
Not all lawyers are created equal. Many have their own strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. Some may be older and presumably more experienced, while others are younger and presumably less experienced - but typically more affordable. Differences in acumen and intellect also abound, as do each individual lawyer's sense of what a family lawyer should be and how one should act.
In other words, selecting a lawyer, should you decide to, is something to which you should devote serious time and thought. Meet with the lawyer face-to-face. Does the lawyer appear interested? Does the lawyer appear to be someone with whom you could work closely? Does the lawyer appear to be someone you can trust? Does the lawyer appear to be knowledgeable? Are you comfortable with the lawyer's personality and style? All of these questions are fair and reasonable.
There is nothing wrong with "lawyer shopping," and one might reasonably argue that failing to do so is folly.
Going It Alone: The Original Notice
The first foreign looking document you will likely find with the papers you were served with will be called "ORIGINAL NOTICE." The purpose of this document is to get your attention in that it lays out what you must do as a litigant to a lawsuit. In Iowa, the document will state that you have "20 days after the date of service" of the notice within which to file an "answer or a motion" in response to the petition. The should also tell you where to file your answer or motion, and upon whom you must file a copy of the motion or answer.
If you have decided to try to represent yourself, the best way to file things is to take an original and two copies of whatever it is you are filing to the filing location. The original is filed and remains with the court. The other two copies are "file-stamped" like the original, but one is for you and one is for the opposing party. Note: There is no rule that says you have to do it this way - but it is the best way of filing.
What am I Filing? An Answer to the Petition
The second document you will find with the papers will be the "petition" (which is Iowa's name for what is commonly referred to in other jurisdictions as the "complaint"). The petition will lay out the petitioner's (i.e., plaintiff's) cause of action, which in this case will obviously be his or her desire to have his or her marriage dissolved by judicial decree (i.e., order). This document (if drafted properly) will contain all of the requirements of a petition for dissolution identified by the Code of Iowa. Once served with this petition, you have a duty to either answer it or file a motion in response. You will notice that the petition will be drafted in numbered paragraphs. Your answer should correspond to each numbered paragraph, and should either admit, deny, or deny each allegation in the petition for "lack of knowledge to admit or deny." (You can also use "no response required" if appropriate.) A motion would be a more complex affair and will not be covered in this guide.
What is a Case Requirements Order?
You should receive a copy of a "case requirements order" along with the original notice and petition. This order is something that the clerk of court provides a party who files a dissolution of marriage action. The filing party must then serve a copy of that order upon the other party along with the other documents. Both parties must abide by this document, as it is a court order.
The case requirements order is designed to organize the progression of a dissolution proceeding after an answer (or motion) in response to the petition is filed. The order will set forth a number of deadlines by which the parties must do certain things, like make a full disclosure of all financial information (assets and liabilities), complete a couple very short classes designed to educate divorcing parties about the divorce process and its effect on kids (if kids are involved), as well as identify a "default mediator" and the deadline by which mediation should be completed.
In between filing and serving upon the opposing party your answer, there will be substantial gaps of time. One thing to consider doing during these gaps is to engage in "discovery," the term used to denote the concept of each side exploring the other side's evidence. There are three main ways one can "discover" the other party's evidence. One way is by demanding (or requesting) that the opposing party answer questions put to him or her under oath. Another way is to request certain documents from the party. A third way is to arrange to depose the opposing party or any witnesses whose testimony you deem relevant. Note that discovery can be complicated and is governed by the rules of civil procedure. Having a lawyer during this phase of a lawsuit is particularly prudent to ensure that discovery, if it occurs at all, occurs smoothly and prudently.
What is Mediation?
"Mediation" is a means of "alternative dispute resolution," that is, a way of resolving cases by sitting the parties down before a neutral third party who is, in theory, supposed to foreshadow how a court will decide the various disputes after trial. The concept here is that, with expectations tempered, the parties will hammer out a proposed settlement agreement with the mediator's assistance and encouragement.
The case requirements order will likely identify a "default" mediator that the parties may contact to schedule mediation, but the parties may agree to use someone else than the person identified. One should go into the mediation session armed with one's main points of contention and reasons for why one believes the way one does about them. It is also advisable to provide to the mediator a copy of the petition, answer, and any discovery completed by the parties so that the mediator has as much information as possible about the facts and circumstances of the case.
Trial and Judgment
If no settlement can be reached despite all of the foregoing, there is usually nothing left to do but "try the case." In a dissolution of marriage action, trials are held before judges alone - no jury gets involved. The trial is the place where the parties present their evidence and have the opportunity to cross-examine each other's evidence. This is often the place where a lawyer is most valuable because he or she will know in advance what it is the judge is wanting to know about and what to avoid as irrelevant or a waste of time. This is not to say, however, that you can't conduct your trial by yourself.
After trial the judge will "take the matter under advisement" and decide the issues of the case by applying the divorce law to the facts elicited at trial. Once the court has reached its ruling on all issues, it will issue its ruling and incorporate it into a decree dissolving the marriage that will contain the structure of how the parties must govern themselves permanently.