Do You Know What to Look For When Hiring a Divorce Attorney?

Perhaps one of the most important and difficult tasks for someone facing divorce is finding the right attorney. First off, though, you might be wondering if you even need an attorney.  In almost all cases, the answer is yes.  Divorce is not the time to be a do-it-yourselfer. You can reach an agreement with your spouse, but an attorney will help guide you in the process.

Here are my tips on choosing a divorce attorney:

Word-of-mouth is usually the best way to start looking. Feel free to consult friends and colleagues, and ask them if they “know anybody good” (don’t forget the “good”!).

Do some research. Check out the attorneys’ websites.  How long have they been practicing?  Do they belong to any bar associations?  Have they been recognized by their peers?

Don’t be afraid to contact any attorney you are considering to arrange a face-to-face consultation, and when you meet with him or her, let them know that you’ll be meeting with other attorneys.  Some attorneys offer free consultations, others charge.  You can learn a lot simply meeting with an attorney for a consultation. A reasonable consultation fee is a good investment because you will soon learn that there may be more than one approach to your situation.

Don’t hire an attorney that you’re not comfortable with. A lot of people are intimidated by lawyers: they feel that if their lawyer intimidates them, the lawyer must be good. That’s just dumb. You should seek out a lawyer that you can relate well with and who makes you feel comfortable.  Each attorney has his or her own style. Your friends may tell you to hire a “shark”, but in my experience, the best family law attorneys are knowledgeable and reasonable both with their clients and with “the other side.”

Feel free to ask the attorney to estimate the cost for handling your matter, but don’t be suspicious if the attorney is unable to give you more than a range. The cost will depend on the litigation involved and what the other side does; many factors are out of the attorney’s control or are dependent on decisions that you both make along the way.

Be careful about the attorney who predicts the outcome of your case. If you meet with an attorney who promises to vanquish the opposition or who predicts without reservation how a judge will rule on the issues, be careful.  I’d be wary of any attorney who says your case will never settle or who says it will never go to trial.

Be wary of the attorney who tells you he or she has handled many cases “just like yours…”  You  want an attorney who will handle your particular case individually and who won’t stereotype it.

Make sure the attorney you choose has the experience you need. Ask specific questions, such as: How many cases have you tried? When is the last time you tried a case? How many times have you appeared in this court? The attorney doesn’t have to have tried hundreds of cases (after all, most cases settle before trial) but you generally don’t want to be the attorney’s lab rat.

It’s important to hire the attorney with the expertise that you need.  If you have a complex custody matter, you’ll want an attorney who has a lot of experience in custody matters, which calls for skills and knowledge that are somewhat different than for financial issues.  If your case involves complex financial matters you don’t want an attorney who can’t deal with numbers. On the other hand, don’t hire an attorney who has expertise that you don’t need, but which you will likely have to pay for.

Ask the attorney what his or her philosophy is about trials.  My philosophy is to prepare for trial and work towards a settlement on parallel tracks.

If you’re hiring a law firm, get a clear understanding of who will be doing the work and who you’ll be dealing with. If the person you’re meeting with won’t be doing the actual work, be sure you won’t be paying for conferences within the office, where attorneys meet with one another and bill you for their time.

Don’t be afraid to ask the hourly rate of each attorney working on your matter. In New York, lawyers are not permitted to work on a contingency basis in a family law matter. However, lawyers are permitted to accept cases on a flat rate basis. This is still somewhat unusual as it can be difficult for the attorney to estimate what the other party will do in setting a fair flat rate.

Find out if the attorney charges for travel time: Consider how long it will take the attorney to get from his point of origin to the courthouse and back. It may be less expensive for you to travel to the attorney than for the attorney to repeatedly travel to Court for you. You can also ask how the attorney charges for disbursements. Some firms charge for every postage stamp and every photocopy.  Others don’t.

Find out the attorney’s availability: Does he or she work 9-to-5? Available on weekends? Does he use email (most attorneys now do). Will she provide a cell phone number? If the attorney is billing on an hourly basis, make sure the attorney bills on a monthly basis and gives fairly detailed bills, usually to the tenth of an hour.

Finally, be honest with your attorney. Don’t hire an attorney you can’t afford. If your budget is limited, discuss it upfront. Remember, the attorney must also decide if he or she wants to represent you; it’s important that a relationship of trust and respect is created at the outset.

Now don’t you feel a bit better about finding the right attorney for you? Please share your experiences below.

Copyright 2012 Donald R. Wall, Esq.  Copying is prohibited; thank you for only quoting with a link back.