You should choose your lawyer very carefully when you are planning to get a divorce. This is especially important when you're the parent of a special needs child and are about to go through divorce. Divorce cases involving special needs children require a level of expertise that most lawyers do not possess, because most lawyers have not handled divorce cases involving children with special needs. I am a divorce lawyer, and I went through my own divorce when my son was 6 years old and non-verbal with autism. Since I have walked this path, I want to help you get through this difficult time.
You need to choose one of the following:
· a good divorce lawyer who is open to learning about your child's particular special needs and how those needs must be addressed in the divorce, or
· a good divorce lawyer who has experience handling divorce cases involving special needs children.
There are far more lawyers in the first category than in the second. More lawyers are getting experience handling divorce cases involving special needs children, there will be more lawyers in that category – to help you and your family. Another option within this category is a lawyer who has served as a Guardian ad litem (GAL) on divorce cases involving special needs children. A Guardian ad litem is a lawyer who is appointed by the court to represent the needs of the children. I often find that the lawyers who understand the special needs issues most quickly are those who have done Guardian ad litem cases. A Guardian ad litem often handles cases involving children have been neglected or abused. They are, therefore, already experienced in dealing with children who are at risk. This mindset easily transfers to cases involving special needs children.
There are some general guiding principles you should keep in mind as well as the above information. These principles apply to all people who are wanting to hire a good divorce lawyer, but they are even more important in your case, as you have a special needs child.
You need to choose a divorce lawyer who specializes in divorce law, also known as family law or matrimonial law. While there are some good lawyers who handle many different types of cases: divorce cases, traffic cases, criminal cases, business law cases, among others, the practice of divorce law today has become so complex that in order to best stay on top of the constant changes in the law, the lawyer needs to specialize.
You also need to choose a divorce lawyer who is experienced in divorce law. Ask the lawyer how many divorce cases he or she has handled, and how long he or she has been handling divorce cases. You don't want to get someone who is just starting to practice divorce law because they tried some other area of law and couldn't make a living at it.
You should choose a divorce lawyer who regularly takes continuing legal education courses in divorce law subjects. The best way to find out about this is simply to ask any lawyer you are considering hiring. Ask them how much of their CLE (continuing legal education) is in the area of family law. If it is a small percentage, it might indicate that the lawyer doesn’t actually specialize in family law, but does many other areas of law.
Not all state require or even offer certification in family law, but if your state does, ask if the lawyer has that certification. If you're going to hire a brain surgeon, you would certainly want them to be board-certified as a neurosurgeon.
When you do meet with a lawyer whom you are considering hiring, pay attention to your immediate emotional response to the lawyer. If your first impression is that the lawyer is a jerk, you will be very sorry if you hire that lawyer -- unless of course, you are wanting to hire a jerk. If your first impression is that the lawyer is sloppy, disorganized or unprepared, realize that the lawyer may well be sloppy, disorganized and unprepared in their handling of your case as well. If for any reason you have a strong dislike of the lawyer, you are well advised to not hire that lawyer. If you have a dislike of the lawyer early on in the case, also known as the "honeymoon" stage, this is likely to only get worse as the case proceeds. Divorce is difficult and stressful enough. The least you can do is hire a lawyer in whom you have confidence, who treats you with respect, and with whom you can get along.
So how do you find a good divorce lawyer to evaluate on their specialization, experience, continuing legal education, certification and personality? This is easier than you may think.
Most courtroom proceedings are open to the public. Call your local courthouse and find out which judges hear divorce cases. Call the clerks of those judges and find out when they will be having hearings. Go sit in the courtroom and watch the lawyers in action. When you find some who impress you, find out who they are. The clerk or bailiff should be able to help you find out their names.
Another way you can find a good divorce lawyer is to call your local bar association and find out who the local divorce specialists are. There are several levels of bar associations. There is the American Bar Association, which is national. Not all lawyers are members of the ABA. There are also state bar associations in every state of the country. In addition, your city and/or county may have a local bar association. Ask for a list of the family law specialists.
Utilize the power of the Internet. Do a search for lawyers in your area who specialize in divorce or family law. Other search terms include child custody, child support, visitation and alimony or maintenance, among others. There are also legal directories on the Internet - avvo.com, Findlaw.com, Divorcesource.com, Divorcehq.com are a few of the sites you could search. When you get the names of several lawyers, then go to their websites and see if they list only family law as their area of practice, or if it looks as though they will take anything that comes in the door. Check the attorney profile section of their website to see what certifications or experience they have in divorce law, and to see if they have ever been a speaker on divorce law topics, have taught classes on family law, or have published books or articles on the topic.
Contact the national and regional offices and websites of the organizations which serve your child’s special needs – Autism Society of America, American Cancer Society, etc. Check their resources and referrals lists, and ask for recommendations. Contact lawyers in your area who are affiliated with the Special Needs Alliance or other special needs organizations.
Do not forget the importance of word-of-mouth referrals. People who have used a lawyer in the past are a valuable resource for you. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers if they know any good divorce lawyers. This is also a very good way to avoid lousy divorce lawyers, which is just as important. Even when someone recommends a divorce lawyer to you, still go through the process described above to evaluate them thoroughly.
People often ask me if they should hire a lawyer who advertises heavily. While it is a professional’s right to try to bring in business through legitimate means, and some areas of law have to advertise in order to reach their intended market, family law is not one of those areas. I have always suspected that if a family law lawyer or law firm has huge ads in the phone directories, newspapers, radio or television, they must not be getting much work from satisfied clients. If they rely upon a gimmick to bring in clients, you should be very suspect. This is your life and your child’s life. This is no time to be suckered in by some “dog and pony show."
Once you have obtained the names of several lawyers who seem well qualified, call your state bar association and find out if they are in good standing with the bar, and if they have ever been disbarred or had their license suspended. Just as you probably would not hire a doctor who had lost his medical license or had his license suspended, you should consider carefully whether you should check such a person off your list of prospective lawyers.
This is a great deal of work, but on such an important decision, it will be worth it to you to be thorough. Hiring a good lawyer can make the difference between a good or a bad result in your case. Get a good divorce lawyer who meets all of your criteria. If at all possible, find a good divorce lawyer in your area who has experience handling special needs cases, either as the attorney for one of the parents, or as the Guardian ad Litem. If you cannot find a good divorce lawyer in your area with experience handling special needs cases, get the best divorce lawyer you can, educate them on the special needs issues of your child, and use experts to provide guidance and testimony to the court on the special needs issues.
Copyright Pegi Price 2009, 2011. All rights reserved.