Five Tips for Hiring the Right Divorce Lawyer
You might smile or cry when you think about how naïve you were when you married. You probably thought that you and your family would never end up in divorce court. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Half of all those who say “I do” in this country finish by saying “I don’t.” It’s healthier and more realistic to view a divorce as one more round for experience than any kind of personal failure. This is easier if your divorce doesn’t turn into a long, drawn-out nightmare.
The key to moving through the divorce as quickly and painlessly as possible is to hire the right divorce lawyer. Even the best and the most experienced divorce attorney doesn’t have a magic wand that will make your life full of joy again, but what he or she can do is get you everything you are entitled to under your state law.
How do you find the divorce lawyer that will work well for and with you? Here are five tips to get you on the right path.
STARTING YOUR SEARCH
There is no shortage of attorneys in this nation. Narrow your search by applying these basic rules.
Only consider experienced attorneys
Hire an experienced family law attorney, not a general practice attorney – the kind who may do a criminal case on Monday, a personal injury appeal on Tuesday, and fill in child custody forms on Wednesday. Court rulings often change the fine points of divorce law quite rapidly and a generalist is unlikely to keep up with every new appellate decision. So only consider an attorney who focuses on divorce cases.
You want an attorney who practices in the state where your divorce is pending, which is usually the state you live in. An out-of-state lawyer, even one with a flashy reputation, won’t know the ins and outs of the court the same way a local professional will, nor will he or she know the judges or the reputation of your spouse’s attorney. In addition, it can be a logistical nightmare to confer regularly with an attorney who isn’t in the same region.
Go with experience
Yes, every divorce lawyer has a very first client, but you do not want to be that very first client. Nor the second, nor the third. Experience counts in the law, and an attorney who has participated in many divorce cases is much more at ease with the law and the procedure than a new attorney right out of law school.
Don’t impose irrelevant limitations
Top attorneys come in all sizes, shapes, genders, ages, and races. Having a preconceived notion that you want your lawyer to look a certain way will serve you poorly in the long run. Don’t limit yourself by refusing to consider experienced professionals who don’t happen to look like the lawyers you see on television.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR DIVORCE
Every divorce lawyer will fall somewhere between two poles: combative and complacent. You don’t want either extreme, but you can gauge where your attorney needs to be on the spectrum if you think through and understand your divorce.
Understanding your divorce doesn’t mean you need to guess the details of the property settlement or comprehend your spouse’s motives in moving on. Rather it means that you need to think through your history with your spouse to figure out how the divorce is likely to come down: whether you two will be able to remain courteous through the process, or whether the best endgame scenario for you will be tenacious fought but unbowed.
Considering that almost 90% of divorces end in settlement, it’s important that your attorney knows how to negotiate and work through issues. However, you will need more advocacy horsepower in some cases, including any of the following:
- your spouse is a narcissist
- your spouse is or has been physically violent with you or the children
- your spouse is a bully who insists on getting his or her own way
- your spouse has threatened you or vowed that you won’t see the kids again
- your spouse held all the power cards in your relationship
- your spouse was the wage earner and has cleaned out the bank accounts
- your spouse abuses drugs or alcohol.
In any of these circumstances, or if for any other reason you are afraid of your spouse, you want a lawyer who falls farther toward the tenacious pole, one who knows how to stand up to your spouse and has the courage, character, and force of personality to do so.
MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE
You definitely do not snap up the first attorney who happens your way before you talk with other lawyers. Try putting together a list of experienced divorce attorneys gleaned from recommendations.
Who to ask for a recommendation? Start with your family and friends. Ask if they have gone through a divorce – personal recommendations are always helpful—but also ask if they know somebody who has. Mine your social networks.
If you have an attorney you hired for other matters, like making a will or setting up a trust, ask him or her for divorce attorney recommendations. Lawyers are aware of the reputations of other local lawyers, even attorneys in different practice areas, so an attorney can prove an exceptionally good referral source.
Ask other professionals you know and trust for names of good divorce attorneys. You could ask your accountant, psychotherapist, tax professional, teacher or member of the clergy if the person is someone you know and trust. Be sure that the people you ask for referrals are aware of your ground rules (e.g. local, experienced and focused on divorce).
You can go online to search. You’ll find numerous websites that provide client reviews of attorneys near you. You should look for a law firm who has multiple positive reviews on their website, as well as awards and recognitions.
Once you have a short list, pull up the website of your state bar association and look up each name. In many states, you can get a lot of information about attorneys from the state bar, including whether they are in good standing and whether they have ever been disciplined for breaking the law or violating the code of ethics.
FACTORING IN FINANCES
Most divorce lawyers charge their clients by the hour and require you to put down a sum of money, called a retainer, from which they withdraw money every month as they do work. The fee and retainer amounts are not set by law and therefore they can vary significantly.
It isn’t easy to talk about money for most people, but this is a discussion you can’t avoid, so get it out of the way sooner rather than later. Attorney fees are a great subject to raise in an initial phone call with each attorney.
Have a cost range in mind but be realistic: divorce counsel is expensive and you don’t want cut-rate representation. Once you get the fee information, ask about the possibility that the court will order your spouse to cover your attorney fees at least until the property division.
If an attorney is really out of your price range, don’t waste your time on further interviews with him or her. Move on to lower cost lawyers. Understand, however, that a less expensive lawyer could cost you more in the end either because they have to spend time researching issues that are already known by an experienced divorce attorney or you receive a less than fair ruling because the attorney lacked the advocacy and preparation skills of the more expensive divorce attorney.
EVALUATING YOUR TOP CANDIDATES
In the end, a friend or professional’s recommendation is enough to get an attorney’s name on your list, but after that, you need to do your own evaluation. It is critical that you feel comfortable with the attorney you select and that you have the same agenda. The best way to evaluate this is to schedule a meeting with each of the attorneys on your shortlist. Your less experienced attorneys often offer an initial meeting free of charge; whereas your more experienced attorneys will often charge a consultation fee.
Think of this meeting as a job interview, with you being the person hiring and the attorney being the job candidate. Don’t be intimidated by posh offices or accouterments into reversing these roles. The divorce is yours and the decision of you divorce attorney is also yours.
To that end, you’ll want to prepare a list of questions to ask the attorney. Include questions about background and experience, but also general questions to give you an idea of this attorney’s legal philosophy. Here are a few to include:
- How many divorce cases have you worked on? How many have you handled as the lead attorney?
- What is your experience with child custody battles?
- How would you handle my narcissist (or whatever label applies), spouse?
- What is involved in the divorce process and how long does it usually last?
- How much of my divorce will the attorney handle him or herself? Who will handle the other matters? Can I meet that person or persons?
- What is your personal philosophy on divorce? Do you believe that mediation or other alternative out-of-court dispute resolution is appropriate for this case?
At the same time as you jot down answers to these questions, take notice of the office, the attorney, and the attorney’s conduct. Jot down anything that bothers you, like if you feel he or she isn’t really listening, interrupt, stop to take phone calls or read emails. Other possible red flags include an attorney pressuring you to sign up that same day, discussing famous clients or telling you confidential information about other cases, speaking disrespectfully of your decision to interview other attorneys or insulting those attorneys.
Write down everything you learn, then take the time when you leave the office to make further notes of your impressions. Once you have finished interviewing your top candidates, review all of your notes before you make a choice.