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5. Selecting a Divorce Lawyer


A. Introduction

Selecting a lawyer to represent you in your divorce is more than just picking a name; it means establishing a close and sensitive relationship that will continue for months and perhaps years. It is important to find and hire the person who is right for you and your case.

B. Getting Names of Lawyers

1. From other professionals

Lawyers, accountants, psychotherapists, members of the clergy and other professionals meet and work with divorce lawyers in the course of their work and are often a good source of referrals. Ask them for the names of family law specialists with good credentials and reputations and whose qualifications are most appropriate to your case. Lawyers, in particular, are aware of the reputations of other lawyers, even those outside their specialty, so a lawyer you already know and trust can be an exceptionally good referral source. If you need a divorce lawyer outside your geographical area, divorce lawyers in your area often know who the best people are in other regions.

2. From organizations

Your state bar may have a process for certifying family law specialists and may give you names. While certification is no absolute assurance of quality, it usually requires a certain proven level of experience, study, and interest in the field. Certified specialists have usually passed an examination in this area of the law. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is an organization with a rigorous screening procedure which admits only qualified specialists.

The American Bar Association and most local bar associations have family law sections. Although any lawyer can join these sections with no screening or testing, lawyers who belong may have a higher level of interest and involvement in the field of family law than those who don't.

3. Referrals from other persons

You may have friends or relatives who have gone through a divorce. They are a good source of information about lawyers, with two qualifications. Every client and every case is different, so it is difficult to evaluate the performance of a lawyer in someone else's case. Also, the lawyer-client relationship is highly personal. So while the impressions of a former client about a lawyer are useful, you should meet the lawyer and make your own judgment.

C. What to Look For

When asking for names of lawyers, when interviewing lawyers, and when deciding which lawyer to hire, different things are important to different people. For example, a person of limited means may be most concerned about cost. Another person may require experience with a certain type of family law problem. Decide what is important to you and select accordingly.

Here are some criteria to consider:

1. Cost

While local market conditions such as supply, demand and competition determine in large part what lawyers charge, there can be a significant variation in fees. Generally, better known, better established lawyers charge more. The quality of representation you get may or may not be worth the higher price they charge. There are often highly skilled and experienced lawyers available who charge less because they are not yet as well known and are therefore not in such demand. A lawyer in this category can be an excellent value.

Even if cost is very important to you, it is false economy to reject a referral because you are told that a lawyer charges for a first consultation. Although some lawyers may give useful information and advice in a free consultation, there is a chance that a lawyer who is not charging for the time will treat the meeting more as a sales session and not feel obligated to deal with substantive issues. Even if your purpose is to interview the lawyer in order to help you decide whom to hire, you will not learn enough about the lawyer unless you talk about your case and hear what the lawyer really thinks about it.

2. Gender, age, race, religion, national origin

Competent lawyers come in all sizes, shapes, genders, colors, religions and ages. None of these factors has anything to do with the lawyer's ability. Irrespective of the lawyer's ability, your comfort level is important if the relationship is to work. If you are inclined to hire a lawyer that you feel a common background with, there is no reason why you shouldn't. Just be sure you are not being swayed by stereotypes.

3. Credentials

There are objective factors that may help you evaluate the lawyer's professional competence and appropriateness for your case. Although mere membership in professional organizations may not mean a lot, active participation in the work of the organization is one mark of a lawyer's involvement in the specialty. Publishing articles, books and treatises on family law and teaching other lawyers are even better indicators of experience, competence and reputation. The length of time in practice, and the amount of family law experience are also important criteria.

4. Personal compatibility

You must feel comfortable with the lawyer you hire if you are to work effectively together. If you are not comfortable with a lawyer you interview, you should probably trust your instinct and not hire that person, even if you cannot isolate the cause of your discomfort. The relationship between lawyer and client in a family law matter is especially important. You will be telling the lawyer intimate facts of your life and the lawyer may have to give you advice and information that you may not like. Be sure the lawyer is one to whom you can talk and listen.

5. Location

The location of the lawyer's office may or may not be important, depending on the circumstances. Here are some things to consider.

It is a great benefit to be able to go conveniently to your lawyer's office to meet and work on your case. And if the lawyer's office is far from the courthouse, you may have to pay for the lawyer's travel time. On the other hand, lawyers sometimes represent clients who have never seen the lawyer's office, especially in large, sparsely populated areas where it is common for lawyers to travel long distances to court, to depositions, and to meetings.

D. Interviewing

Many people hire the first lawyer they meet. Others interview several lawyers before deciding which one to hire. How many you interview may depend on how much time you have, the urgency of your situation, how many lawyers there are to choose from and how quickly you find one you like.

Tell the lawyer about your situation. Take a list of your assets and debts and sources of income with you. A copy of the last several years' tax returns can also help speed the discussion and make it more meaningful. A narrative or outline of the important events in your relationship with your spouse can also be helpful.

Make a list of things you want to discuss and take it with you to the interview. Ask questions. Then ask more questions. Listen carefully to the answers and write them down. Review the answers later and think about them. Listen not only to the information the lawyer gives you, but also to the way it is presented. Think about how the lawyer related to you. While a lawyer may be appropriately optimistic about your case, do not hire a lawyer simply because that lawyer predicts a better outcome than another lawyer.

Here are some questions you might ask:

  • What is likely to happen to me?
  • How much property will I get?
  • How much support will I get?
  • How much support will I have to pay?
  • Do I have a choice of courts?
  • Does it make a difference?
  • Do you have associates or paralegals?
  • How do you decide who does what work on my case?
  • Are you reachable by phone?
  • If I call and you aren't available, how is my call handled?
  • How much do you charge for travel time, secretarial time, photocopies, postage, faxes, long distance calls, mobile phone calls, supplies, computer use or anything else other than your time?
  • What expenses do you pay from the money I pay you and what do I have to pay directly?
  • Under what circumstances would you refund all or part of my retainer fee?
  • Do you have any personal feelings about the positions you would have to take if you represented me?
  • How often are you out of the office in court, at conventions, on vacation, and for other things?
  • How do you cover my case at those times?
  • How much do you know about the judge who will decide my case if it goes to trial?
  • Do you think we can work together?
  • Will you be available at the times that are convenient for me?

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