Your experience with your lawyer will be one of the most important variables that will determine how you feel when your divorce is over. And, to be sure, unlike a chronic illness, your divorce will, at some point be over. There are many things to consider before hiring a lawyer such as experience, education, and training, but there are less obvious things to consider which is what this article is about.
Don’t forget to ask yourself these seven questions before settling on a lawyer.
1. Have you chosen carefully and slowly? Not all divorce lawyers are alike. This is not like choosing a landscaper or even an accountant. There is much gray area in family law, and different lawyers and have different approaches to similar problems. You should definitely interview more than one lawyer to get a feel for how they approach your situation. Trust your gut. If you don’t feel comfortable, pay attention and keep shopping. Most lawyers will make themselves available for a short introductory phone or in person meeting at a reduced rate or for free. Make sure to spend some time with the lawyer before hiring him/her. Don’t just go on reputation, because there are many lawyers who have great reputations but will be terrible for you to work with. Be careful if it is free. Most good divorce lawyers with decent reputations in major metropolitan areas get more than one inquiry from potential new clients, each day. A lawyer can go broke spending hours with potential new clients every day if they don’t charge for these meetings. If your lawyer has time to spend more than a half hour with you before you start incurring charges, you should draw the obvious conclusion: he/she either doesn’t have much work or isn’t very good, or both!
2. Does your lawyer have people skills and are you comfortable with him/her?
I have a psychologist friend who is fond of reminding me that 80% of what I do I am not trained to do, but he is. All divorce lawyers need that reminder every now and then. Clients’ experience going through divorce has a lot to do with how they are treated and how they relate and communicate with their lawyer. You should look for a lawyer who is easy to talk to and who listens to you. You are going to spend a lot of time with this person as you go forward. You should work with a lawyer who does not hide behind legal terminology. Do you understand everything your prospective lawyer is telling you? Does he/she speak in plain English? Does he/she stop periodically to check in with you to see if you understand what is being discussed? Is the lawyer asking you questions about the psychological dynamics of you, your spouse and your children? Does the lawyer express appropriate concern about how your children are doing? These are all signs that the lawyer is the right one for you to work with. You are not looking for a soul mate but you have to be sure that you can tolerate spending time with your lawyer and that the communication will be open and easy.
3. How do I work best with professionals and will this lawyer work with me the way I want?
Some patients of medical doctors want them to make all the decisions for them. Other patients want to work with doctors who give them choices and work with their patients collaboratively. If you are someone who wants your doctor to make all the decisions, you will be frustrated if he/she gives you choices. If you want to participate in your care, you will be frustrated by a doctor who makes all the decisions, and won’t give you choices and options. The same dynamic works with lawyers. There is no right or wrong way to practice law. Every lawyer is different on this issue, as is every client. Just make sure you are matched with the right lawyer, and make sure you talk about this when you are interviewing your lawyer.
4.Will your lawyer encourage you to help with the case in an effort to keep costs down?
Organized, thoughtful clients can save a lot of money by preparing their own budgets, financial summaries, written marital histories, lists of questions for discovery and in many other ways. I have even permitted clients to do first drafts of certain correspondence that I have directed to opposing counsel, because it is much more efficient for the client to write a first draft of a detailed letter, than to spend time and money educating me, so that I am in a position to write it myself. There are some lawyers who would be horrified to read this in print, but other lawyers value the contribution that their clients can make to the resolution of the case, and most lawyers are willing to consider as much involvement as the client can successfully handle in an effort to cut down on expenses. If you think you have the skill and desire to be actively involved in your case, you should have a conversation with your lawyer before he/she is hired.
5.Does your lawyer offer process choices to you, such as mediation, or collaborative law, or are they traditional in their approach, only believing in litigation?
You may come to your divorce lawyer with only one approach in mind, but it is still important to make sure you consider everything available to you. Another analogy to medicine: If you have back pain, you can go to a chiropractor, an orthopedic surgeon, an internist, or a massage therapist. Each of them will be likely to recommend what they do: A chiropractor can manipulate your spine, a surgeon primarily views surgery as the best therapy. An internist will likely prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or muscle relaxants, and a massage therapist will rub your back. You need to know what your prospective lawyer has in his/her bag of tricks. If they can only do litigation, then you are not likely to get a recommendation to try mediation. If they never go to court, you will be pushed in the direction of collaborative law or mediation. That doesn’t make them bad divorce lawyers, but you need to try to understand the bias that the lawyer operates under.
6. How much will it cost? Is your lawyer cheap…or expensive?
Human beings have very complicated relationships with their money. Just because your lawyer is charging $850 an hour doesn’t mean he/she is the right lawyer for you, but some people just don’t want to work with anyone who is not “the best there is” and they assume that the more a lawyer charges, the better they are. Similarly, hiring a lawyer you are not comfortable with because he/she is cheap, can really set you back. Divorce is the biggest financial transaction most people will enter into during their lives. It is no time to cut corners or try to save money. Furthermore, an inexperienced lawyer will likely waste your money, no matter what their hourly rate, and botch your case to boot. So just because the lawyer you are talking to is charging a lot doesn’t mean they are any good and there are very capable lawyers who have very reasonable hourly rates. So how is one to know what to do? The answer is that a lawyer’s hourly rate has very little correlation with how good the lawyer really is. You should not work with a new lawyer unless that lawyer is closely supervised and working with an experienced lawyer. In family law I would probably use the term new lawyer to describe any lawyer who has been working less than five years in the field. The best option for most people is to work with a team of lawyers with a variety of experience levels and hourly rates. That team should have paralegals available for more routine matters that don’t require lawyer attention and billing rates, and more experienced lawyers who can be brought in to consult when things get complicated. But don’t let that hourly rate be the deciding consideration.
7. Is my lawyer open to second opinions or consultations with experts?
There is a great deal of unpredictability in divorce. Family court judges have wide discretion and in most jurisdictions, there are few guidelines that you can depend on. It is important to get as much input from as many people as you can afford. Lawyers often lose perspective on a case, especially if they have strong positive or negative feelings about the client. For example, if a lawyer really likes their client and believes strongly in their case it might be hard for that lawyer to appreciate the risks that the outcome will not be as good as hoped for. No case is without risk. Good divorce lawyers routinely get consultations from Accountants, Appraisers, Financial Planners and Psychologists or other mental health professionals. There are also many retired judges who are willing to consult with lawyers and their clients privately to give them feedback about where they think a case might end up if fully litigated. A good lawyer will be open to a client seeking a second opinion from another practicing divorce lawyer before an important decision or strategic move. Talking with a prospective lawyer about this issue before you make a decision to hire, will give you a good idea how the lawyer will be to work with when the rubber hits the road. If your lawyer claims to know everything there is and reassures you that you won’t need any advice from outsiders, then you should question him/her more closely because any lawyer who is defensive about getting opinions from outsiders, has an ego that is much bigger than it should be and this should be a warning sign. You have a right to multiple opinions if there is any doubt about how to proceed.