HIring a family law attorney: What most people get wrong and how to get it right
You’ve just been served (or threatened with) divorce or custody papers. The initial reaction is fear, shock, anger or even all of the above.” I don’t believe this!” “What’s going to happen?” “He/she is going to take our children, my money, everything!” These thoughts are common. So, what do you do?
How to ChooseMaybe you don’t know any divorce attorneys. That’s common. Many people dislike or distrust attorneys or experience a general aloof vibe from those they have met. You might begin your search by looking at websites. There are a lot of those, and most look the same. Professional photos, accolades and client reviews. After reading a few, your vision may start to blur. Or maybe you ask friends, coworkers or other professionals if they know someone.
What I believe you should be looking for is a personality fit with experience to match. It’s important that the person you meet with knows the law and can handle your situation. Equally important is that you are comfortable with this person (I said person and not lawyer for a reason). Yes, you are seeking to be educated on an unfamiliar process. But you should feel that you are speaking with another human being who can relate to you and accurately advise you on the process and a strategy for going forward.
One of the best ways to find this is to seek recommendations from people to whom you relate the most. Ideally, these should be people who know or have worked with the lawyer before. They are better able to tell you what might work for you, and far better than all the fancy websites and online reviews.
Is anything really free? Why free consultations are a waste of everyone's timeDo you do free consultations? I get this question a lot. Seems more popular these days with so many graduating from law school and hanging their shingles. The answer is no and I’m happy to tell you why.
In my opinion, free consultations are about the lawyer and not the client. The person offering you the “free initial consultation” is just trying to get your business. You probably know this already. Lawyers need to make money too and the only reason a lawyer is offering you free legal advice is because they want money from you in the future.
Family law consultations are far more important that people realize. This is not only your chance to see if the lawyer is a good fit, but its also to get information you can trust and a game plan for moving forward. Many free consultations are like lawyers’ websites- vague and generic. You may get some information, but not enough to tell you what your best options are for moving forward.
For me, consultations are always in depth. I review information provided to me beforehand and begin with a working knowledge of the basic facts and what the legal issues might be. The goal of the consultation is to give the client sound advice on moving forward, the different ways to move forward (which may include the client representing him/herself for some of the process or a discussion of flat fees for certain portions of the process) and a discussion of the best way to proceed. My practice focuses on the needs of the client and the consultation is no exception. I’m looking for ways to be cost effective rather than convincing someone to hire me.
To litigate or not? Why an aggressive lawyer is the last thing you (or your wallet) needMany people think they need to hire an aggressive “pitbull” or “bulldog” lawyer. It seems the thing to do when you feel scared or the other party has launched a plan of attack against you. Here is why that thinking is flawed.
Aggressive lawyers generally talk a good game about how they will protect your interests or ensure victory. If you listen closely, you might find that there’s no real plan to get the promised outcome. There are a lot of promises, but no step by step plan to back it up. Ask for specifics and you will get a vague response. You are probably hearing more about the lawyer him/herself- their track record, how many cases they have “one”, how weak opposing counsel is, etc. The conversation is often more about the lawyer than the client. That’s the first red flag.
The other problem is that most cases settle. The goal of any experienced lawyer who is intent on protecting the client’s interests (rather than running up fees) is to figure out how to create the best possible outcome in the most efficient period of time. Granted, you do not want to hire someone who is afraid to stand up for themselves- or you. But you don’t want to pay out your life savings or take a second mortgage on your house to feed an aggressive campaign that could have been settled far more quickly, with far less expense and often having the same outcome.
The biggest problem with aggressive family lawyering I that the aggressive behavior and tactics drives conflict, which keeps things going, both your case and your fees. I’ve settled cases where parties paid their first round lawyers tens of thousands of dollars to send angry messages to each other. This is not money well spent. Negotiation is the most important skill a family law attorney can have. Finding someone who’s a skillful negotiator will go much farther than seeking a barking dog.
Who's handling your case? Co-counsel, coverage counsel, who has my file?Some law firms use associates or co-counsel to handle some or all of your case. So the lawyer you met with, whom you selected, may not be the one whom you interact with on the aspects of your case. And others may delegate most communication to a paralegal or legal assistant. That is fine for routine scheduling matters. And, while it might be a way to keep costs down, things can get lost in translation if you and your lawyer are not communicating about the main issues in your case or your concerns.
In family law cases, you and your lawyer need to have a one on one working relationship. It needs to work well for you, the client, to make sure your concerns are addressed and that your interests are served. If your case is delegated to someone else, or your calls are handled exclusively by someone other than the lawyer you hired, you may find yourself feeling less than comfortable with the situation. This is something you will want to address before you hire someone.
Divorce and custody matters are some of the most difficult challenges you will face in life. It’s hard enough to navigate the process without having to second guess your decisions about the professional you hire to assist you. The decisions made by you or for you by a judge will greatly affect the course of your life and should not be taken lightly. And the hiring decision you make at the outset will play a large role in the outcome and the time and cost expended in getting there.