Deciding whether a particular divorce lawyer is the right one for you is no easy task. If the world of lawyers and courts is as foreign to you as it is to most people, you could probably use some help making that all-important decision.
Cost, of course, is always a critical factor. But beyond hourly rates, you need to assess whether a particular lawyer has the appropriate credentials for your case, and will work efficiently and productively with you. To do that, you need to learn all you can about the lawyer concerning the following:
- The lawyer’s experience in family law
- How other lawyers and support staff might become involved in your case
- The lawyer’s billing practices
- How the attorney/client relationship would work
Now, let’s look more specifically at the information you will need to be able to evaluate each of those four subjects and identify your “Attorney Right.”
1. Experience in family law
You want a lawyer who has devoted at least 50% of his/her practice to family law, for not less than 5 years. It’s not necessary that the lawyer handles only family matters. In fact, an attorney with a more varied background may be better equipped to deal with estate, property or bankruptcy issues that might affect your case.
Also important is the type of family law experience a lawyer has. The great majority of divorce cases are settled without the need for a trial. Thus, you want an experienced negotiator. But at least in traditional “court-based” cases, you also need an experienced trial lawyer. That’s because even in cases that ultimately settle, there can be contested hearings on matters such as temporary support or custody, or depositions. These proceedings require litigation skills.
Finally, distinguish between “experience” and “credentials.” Diplomas from top law schools are impressive. I know this because some of my colleagues have them hanging in their offices, and it always impressed me. But diplomas don’t guarantee a quality lawyer. Some of the finest lawyers I know went to law schools you never heard of. And the longer a lawyer has been out of law school, the less relevant that school is. Sound judgment and problem-solving skills result more from experience than legal pedigree.
2. Whether and how other lawyers and support staff may be involved in your case
If you decide to hire a member of a firm, you want that lawyer—not a partner or associate attorney—to handle the significant aspects of your case such as settlement negotiation, and contested court proceedings. If a lawyer seems hesitant to make such a commitment, find another one who feels your case is important enough to remain personally involved with it.
Law firms usually have ample support staff, but not always. Ask about the availability and experience of associate attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants who may work on your case, and what exactly they will be doing.
If you hire a sole practitioner, the quality and role of support staff become even more important. You want your solo attorney to have experienced staff capable of answering questions and handling routine matters that arise when the attorney is unavailable. However, legal assistants and paralegals should not be dispensing legal advice or making decisions regarding your case, so discuss with the lawyer how all that will work. While you’re at it, make sure that you won’t be billed for purely secretarial/clerical tasks performed by these staffers, such as scheduling, photocopying, and responding to billing inquiries.
3. The lawyer’s billing practices
Make sure you receive a letter that clearly states the details of your fee agreement before you pay your retainer.
Read the agreement carefully and be sure you understand it. Your lawyer won’t be shy about billing you under the agreement, so don’t be shy about asking about it.
One key but frequently overlooked aspect of billing is the “billing increment.” Many lawyers bill in increments of 1/10 of an hour, which means that the smallest amount for which you will be billed is six minutes worth—even for a 3-minute phone call. (This is a good reason, by the way, to wait to call your lawyer until you have more than just one question to ask.)
However, some lawyers charge a minimum of 2/10 of an hour or even a quarter of an hour for each service rendered. That can make a big difference. For example, a 3-minute phone call to a $450/hr. divorce lawyer who charges in increments of .1 hours will cost you $45.00. The same call to a $350/hr. divorce lawyer who charges you .2 hours will cost you $70.00!
Finally, make sure that the fee agreement provides that any unused portion of your initial or subsequent retainers will be returned to you.
4. How will the attorney/client relationship work?
I hate it when people don’t respond to my calls, emails, texts… or my standing outside their office building hollering up at their windows after they haven’t responded to more traditional attempts to contact them.
Some lawyers are notorious for not responding to their clients. At the initial consultation, ask how quickly the lawyer will get back to you. If the response time exceeds 24 hours, consider going elsewhere. There’s no sense retaining a lawyer who you already know is gong to drive you nuts.
Also, find out on what tasks you might save money by doing them yourself. See if the lawyer is comfortable with you doing some things that you might otherwise have to pay a paralegal for, like organizing your financial documents.
Finally, ask how decisions will be made in your case. Generally, clients set goals and attorneys decide how to achieve them. To the extent that you’re able to establish some of your goals while you’re still in the process of selecting a lawyer, ask the lawyer to comment on them. Reach an understanding that the two of you will agree upon a (written) list of goals before settlement negotiation begins.
At an initial consultation, listen not only to the responses the lawyer gives but also to the tone of them. Try to get a read on the lawyer’s “emotional intelligence,” which includes qualities like empathy and perspective. These are critical factors that are too often overlooked by clients who are understandably focused on the likely outcomes in their cases and the legalities that affect those outcomes.
A good working relationship with a lawyer requires mutual respect and a willingness to address your concerns. Find out before you sign up if such a relationship is in the cards.
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