Hiring the biggest law firm you can afford is not always in your best interest. When you interview divorce attorneys, ask the questions below about the person’s qualifications and how cases are handled at the firm to ensure you and your case receive the attention and effort you need to obtain the best results. I suggest you interview two to three lawyers. More if you are not comfortable with the ones with whom you have spoken. Some fine lawyers do not. It is probably worth it to pay a modest amount for an initial consultation in order to select the right attorney for you. Of course you need a good lawyer. The real issue is will your lawyer put your interests first or line her pockets unnecessarily at the expense of you and your spouse. You need a lawyer who will work hard to obtain the best possible results. Using the checklist below will help you determine whether the person is a lawyer you can count on.
- Does the county have a self-contained family law division of judges familiar with dissolution law, or is there a chance that a motion or trial will be heard by a judge with unknown family law experience?
- Are there one or two appraisers or auction houses in the geographical area that do most of the furniture evaluation in dissolution cases?
- In this county do all judges refer custody disputes to mental health professionals to prepare a recommendation to the court?
- Is mediation of custody disputes confidential or will the mediator reveal my statements to the judge.
- If mediation fails is the mediator the person who makes a custody recommendation to the court?
- Is the attorney a certified family law specialist? This doesn’t mean the attorney is great. But it is something to consider. It means the attorney passed an examination on family law and is required to take a certain number of continuing education classes in family law each year.
- Is the attorney rated by Martindale-Hubbell? An A-V rating is the highest possible and only 5 percent of U.S. attorneys have the rating. It is an indication of the highest legal skill and ethical conduct.
- Even more important is how many divorce cases does the attorney handle. Is he a “dabbler”? Is he offering to take the case as a favor to you or a friend? Not good signs.
- Does the firm handle thousands of cases? It’s a divorce mill. Not a good sign. Your case rarely gets the attention you want it to if the firm is very large or handles lots of cases. Most of the work is done by paralegals or junior lawyers.
- Does the firm handle celebrities and multi-millionaires? At first blush you may assume that hiring a divorce firm that works for “stars” or high net worth people will ensure you terrific representation. That’s true if you are a star or a squillionaire, too. If not you will just be a number. Remember with divorce lawyers to the stars, your importance to the firm decreases significantly if you are not a star or wealthy.
- Will the attorney send you copies of all letters sent to and received from opposing counsel, and copies of all pleadings filed with the court. (My office sends these documents as.pdf files via email to make it easy for the client to store them.) You want this so you can remain current on your case status.
- Will the attorney personally return calls about substantive questions? If you are calling to confirm a hearing date or a location you needn’t speak with your lawyer, but if you have a question about the matter it is better to be able to speak to the lawyer or lawyers working on the case.
- What lawyers other than the one you are interviewing will work on your case? If your spouse files an emergency motion for example (known as an ex parte motion) and your attorney has a conflicting appointment who will accompany you to court?
- Will you be charged for secretarial time? (Not at our office. I think this practice is very unfair to a client. Beware also of being charged for paralegal time. A paralegal is not a lawyer. He or she is usually simply an experienced secretary. Paying for paralegal time is something you might not want to do.)
- Will the attorney be willing to suggest a settlement conference to opposing counsel as soon as possible? Usually after you and your spouse have made their financial data available. Will the attorney be willing to commit to a face-to-face settlement conference if your spouse’s attorney agrees? (Obviously, the more you can agree upon the less there is to fight about and the less traumatic, expensive and time consuming your divorce will be)
- If your spouse already has an attorney, ask if the attorney is familiar with the lawyer. Has the attorney worked with the other lawyer before? Does the spouse’s attorney normally make reasonable efforts to settle the case?
You want someone who knows the way the judges operate in your area. If the lawyer does not seem to know the answers to the first five questions above, he doesn’t know the local procedures in your area which means you are at a disadvantage. You want someone who cares about your matter. The truth is that if you have no assets your divorce will be straight forward. The people who face the most difficulty in divorce cases are middle class couples. People with assets, but who are not wealthy. In other words most people. You have to find out if the person you talk to is a figurehead, or will be doing the work. What good is it to you if you meet with a divorce lawyer with 20 years of experience, but your case will be handled by underlings–junior lawyers or paralegals? Divorce is one of the most important things that can happen in your life. Take some time to ensure the lawyer you hire is a good fit.
Usually your lawyer should invite an open exchange of information with the opposing side followed by hard negotiation aiming for a fair result. But if the opposing counsel or spouse attempts to gain an unfair advantage in a contested divorce, child custody, child support or spousal support case you need to be confident your attorney will litigate the disputed matters to ensure your interests are served.