Choosing a divorce attorney is not a quick, easy job. Like a buying a new home or moving across country, your divorce has the potential to be a very significant event, affecting everything you do for the rest of your life. The truth is there’s no “standard” divorce. Some couples who have only been together for a few years have contentious breakups; some couples who have been together for decades and have children are able to resolve their separation without hostility.
Whether your divorce encounters rough seas or smooth sailing, choosing an attorney to represent your case is a crucial decision that should not be taken lightly. In this guide, we will review the “why” of hiring an attorney, provide insight on the “how” and what steps to take when hiring representation for your divorce.
Do you need an attorney?
If you are reading this guide, then you have most likely answered that question for yourself. Many divorces are handled without counsel, but there are several things to consider if you are still unsure.
- Has your spouse hired an attorney? If so, they may be anticipating a lengthy or heated split. Representing yourself in this case would be like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Unless you are an experienced divorce attorney yourself, you will likely be unprepared to handle the case alone. Even an experienced divorce attorney would likely hire counsel, knowing the emotional pitfalls of representing oneself in such a situation.
- What’s at stake? Most parents would tell you that they could not emotionally afford to lose custody or visitation rights of their children. Many people may not be able to calculate a fair maintenance payment from a spouse who earns more than them. The experiences or money you miss out on later may be more devastating than the near-term expense of getting proper representation to help negotiate a fair settlement.
- Should I represent myself? If you choose to represent yourself (known as a pro se litigant), you will need to conduct yourself and file documents as an attorney would, even if you have had no formal training in the law. This includes following court protocol, filing a notice of hearing, entering evidence and taking depositions. Consider also how much time you will need to devote to the case including appearing in court for administrative matters, delivering documents, taking part in mediation sessions, following up on disclosure requests – the list goes on and on. And lastly, do you have the emotional resilience to stand up in court and be level-headed when arguing your case? In the end, you only need to ask yourself one question: Would you hire yourself to be your attorney? If the answer is no, then you should retain a lawyer to represent you.
Finding an attorney
The first impulse many people have is to gather information about potential lawyers from friends and relatives. While it helps to have references from people you know, keep in mind that every divorce case is different. Your brother may have had a lawyer he liked, but he has children and you do not. Or your boss brags about how her attorney gouged her ex and got her a high maintenance payment, but your separation is low-key and amicable.
Luckily, you do not need to just rely on word-of-mouth; you can do your own research! The internet can be your best tool in finding an attorney. You can look into any recommendations you get from family and friends and also explore the options on your state bar association’s website. Sites exist where you can search specifically for an attorney who has experience with the kinds of situations you are experiencing or expecting.
What To Look For
In seeking an attorney, look for these qualities to help you choose the right person.
- Proven courtroom success. Choose a lawyer who has a positive record in the courtroom.
- Fights for you – a warrior. While warrior may seem like a strong word, you want someone who has your best interests in mind and wants to get you the best settlement possible. Persistent. Inquisitive. Calculating. Someone who knows the terrain and how to get you to the other side of the mountain.
- Employed full-time as a lawyer. A part-time lawyer may have other commitments that can interfere with your case. An attorney who does not have outside obligations will be able to focus on your situation.
- Strong communication skills. Someone who knows the law and can discuss it confidently will get you farther than someone that comes across as unsteady or hesitant.
- Self-assured. As referenced above, a confident and strong lawyer can be of benefit not only in the courtroom but also when deposing witnesses or requesting assistance from people or businesses related to your case.
- Personally involved and committed to a satisfactory resolution. This shouldn’t just be a paycheck for your lawyer. They should care about you enough to help resolve your case positively for you.
- Leads a network of support professionals to help with your case. If your attorney is part of a larger firm, they will have support staff – paralegals, administrative staff, accounting department, etc. – that can cost effectively help with details of the case. This team can also put you in contact with your attorney at any time.
- Focused exclusively on your area of law. In this case, you will want an attorney who specializes in divorce and family law. You don’t want a bankruptcy lawyer, no matter how skilled, negotiating your child visitation schedule.
- Able to draw upon a group of attorneys for assistance. Additional attorneys on your legal team can offer multiple perspectives, help your lead attorney with strategy and even be present in court if the lead gets sick or has an emergency. This provides continuity and stability for the process.
- Recognized by their peers. The legal community recognizes attorneys with awards, which you can research online. You may also check to see if they have regular involvement with the community including pro-bono work, speaking engagements, or serving on boards of legal associations.
Skills & Experience
Do you know if your case is going to trial? Not all attorneys have trial experience. If you know you will end up in court, you will need to make sure your lawyer has experience in front of a judge.
It is also important to know that lawyers have different strengths within their specialty. Some lawyers are expert at settling cases; others stand out in trial. A lawyer who can argue your separation in court has an advantage over a settlement lawyer. All cases which are prepared for trial can be settled, but cases that are only prepared for settlement will likely lose if the opposing party refuses to settle.
Another detail to look out for when going to trial is hiring a lawyer who has experience in the local court where your case will be tried. Judges are individuals with their own preferences and traditions, and each courtroom has its own unique culture. When you retain an attorney familiar with the judge and attendants who will be handling your case, your case is more likely to be resolved in your favor and with less expense. Hiring a lawyer who is not local to the court is like hiring an out-of-town cab driver. They can probably get you there, but it might take more time and cost more money.
Once you have collected some names and researched a few attorneys, you can start reaching out to schedule an assessment. This meeting is like many professional interviews – you are trying to determine whether the attorney will be a good fit for both your personality and your legal situation. The interview allows you to get to know each other, lets the attorney gauge their interest in your case, and decide whether their expertise is relevant to your circumstances. You can also determine their availability for the proceedings (especially if it is a trial case), how technologically savvy they are (do they use email or text, etc.), and if they communicate well via phone. Note your first impression and feelings toward them because you will be spending a lot of time together. This is definitely a time to “go with your gut.”
As we have noted, each divorce is unique and your specific situation should guide the questions you ask each potential counselor in the preliminary consultation. This discussion will both help you learn more about them and give the attorney the information to decide whether they are the right fit.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- How many years have you practiced family law? What is your specialization?
- Do you have a “typical” client you prefer to represent?
- How do you approach a new case?
- How many cases do you settle versus taking to trial?
- What causes you to settle a case versus taking it to trial?
- Do you have any reservations about my goals for the case?
- Who will you have working on my case and how much will I pay for their time?
- What are the contingency plans if you have an emergency? Who handles my case in the short and long term?
- Are you generally available to talk to me about my case?
- Do you think we can work together?
- Did they talk to you in clear language or “lawyer speak”?
- What is their personal style? Is brash, quiet, thoughtful, assertive, angling, etc.?
- Did they brag about high-profile cases or award amounts?
- Do they seem genuinely concerned about your situation and well-being?
None of these questions is a deal-breaker. One person may want a flashy high-rolling attorney, someone else may want quiet, calculating, crafty representation. You should think about what kind of lawyer you want.
We are not visiting the issue of cost last because it should be the last consideration. On the contrary, it may be the first question some people ask, and for good reason. Legal help can be expensive, but cost should not be the ultimate decision-making factor. Your attorney’s hourly rate is not a good way to determine how much a case will cost if you consider that you will live with the results forever.
There are ways to keep costs down. Specifically, does your prospective attorney have associate attorneys and paralegals that help them? Your lawyer’s time is the costliest hourly expense and if they work for a firm that has resources to spread the labor, you can reap the benefits of their experience without paying the price. Keep in mind also that many firms offer multiple methods of payment. Some firms offer a limited scope arrangement where they will only work on the case plan and trial prep. Retainer size also varies – some attorneys do not charge a retainer while some have a hefty upfront advance. If the firm you are interested in requires a large retainer, feel free to ask for monthly accounting and find out whether any unused monies are refundable.
Recap & Conclusion
A good attorney can help salvage an agreement even when the cause seems to be lost, and can make small adjustments to a deal to make it more palatable to both parties. If you need an attorney, take the time to make sure that you are getting someone who is the right fit for you and your specific case. We hope this guide provides you with the foundation you need to gather the relevant information for you and your situation.
Sometimes divorce is a cause for celebration; sometimes it is unpleasant and nasty. A good attorney cannot change that for you, but they can do their best to secure the best settlement or judgment possible given your circumstances. To schedule an assessment, call us at 303-688-0944.