How to Find a Lawyer
Personal recommendations. The easiest way to look for a lawyer is by asking friends, neighbors, and business associates. Your family counselor, psychologist, or pastor also might have some names. This is good—as long as you know whom to ask.
To save time in running down false leads, ask those who are recommending personal divorce lawyers whether their attorney was supportive of their position and attentive to their needs. Were they kept informed as to the progress of their case? Were fees and costs reasonable? Did the attorney further alienate the former spouse? Most importantly, would they use their attorney again without hesitation?
There are some drawbacks to personal referrals, however. You may not want to ask those close to you for names of divorce lawyers if you want to keep matters quiet in the early stages. Also, your friend's case may be very different from your own. Does the lawyer practice in family law regularly? Your friends may not be sure about this. Make sure that those giving you recommendations are thinking of your best interests.
Local references. Check with your employer's lawyer. Court reporters, clerks at your local courthouse, secretaries, and law clerks for judges often know good attorneys. After all, they see the lawyers in action. If there is a law school in your area, check with the alumni office for qualified graduates.
Other attorneys. Ask attorneys you know who practice in other areas of the law for suggestions. Also, call several family law attorneys and ask whom they would hire (present company excepted).
Lawyer referral services. Lawyer referral services sponsored by local bar associations are also excellent sources. In 1992, more than 53,000 clients were referred to the 600 attorneys who participated in the Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service. In the years since, hundreds of thousands of clients have participated successfully in state lawyer referral services. Your state bar association often has a referral service listed in your local yellow pages or a statewide toll-free number.
Referral services have some disadvantages. Sometimes these services are training grounds for recent law school graduates or incompetent lawyers with few clients. While the American Bar Association encourages the use of "recently admitted and less experienced lawyers" for lower-cost service and personal dedication, be careful. Not all services maintain high standards. Many of them charge your lawyer a referral fee (usually about 10% of the lawyer's fees). Ultimately, these fees are charged back to you. Finally, these services recommend lawyers on a lottery system rather than by expertise or price. Carefully check out the qualifications and personal demeanor of any lawyer recommended to you.
Law clinics. Legal clinics are a low cost source of legal services. Advertisements typically tout completion of uncontested divorces for a few hundred dollars. The attorneys’ competence is not emphasized because you will not spend much time with a lawyer for that low fee. Do not expect to interview and consult at length with attorneys in legal clinics because they make liberal use of forms and non-lawyer paralegals and secretaries. Use this alternative at your own risk. However, if cost is critical and your divorce is uncontested, this is an option.
Prepaid legal plans. See if you are covered by a prepaid legal services benefit through an employee assistance plan. According to the National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services, 71 million Americans are in such legal services plans, which are similar to prepaid dental or medical plans. Typical plans allow for free initial consultations, with further work handled at reduced rates and/or a cap on fees. Review different plans endorsed or sponsored by a reputable organization, such as the American Bar Association (www.abanet.org). These provide affordable legal services, but limitations could affect your choice of attorney. Also, the quality of services may differ between plan clients and other clients of the attorney, although ethically this is prohibited.
Yellow pages. Relaxed restrictions on lawyer advertising now allow attorneys to publish their specialties in the yellow pages. Look for ads that provide information such as the length of time the attorney has practiced, as well as his or her professional experience and certifications to practice. Does the listing express concern toward clients or promise reliability, speed, and intelligence? Use listings to shop prices among lawyer candidates. Look for attorneys close to your home or office to make meetings convenient. Remember, however, that advertisements and listings in the telephone book can be misleading. Be skeptical of whatever you cannot independently verify.
Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory is a multi-volume legal directory alphabetically listing most lawyers in the U.S. and Canada. With this directory, available at your local library or law school, you can look up the biography of licensed attorneys and learn of their education, honors, and personal background. (Obtain additional lawyer locator information at www.martindale.com.)
There is this added attraction: Martindale-Hubbell develops ratings for individual lawyers by asking for confidential opinions from members of bar associations -- including judges -- who have some knowledge about the attorney. Two ratings are given. The legal ability rating evaluates the lawyer's ability in his or her city and takes into consideration experience, nature of practice, and qualifications. The general recommendation rating considers faithful compliance with standards of conduct and ethics of the legal profession, professional reliability, and diligence. The directory gives an "AV" rating to the most highly regarded and qualified lawyers.
Use this valuable directory to find family law attorneys in your area. Before your interviews, make notes on all of your attorney candidates. If you can afford it, try to hire an "AV"-rated lawyer, although lawyers with that high rating will be among the most expensive. A "BV"-rated lawyer, being the next highest rating, is also a good attorney but should be less expensive.
Other resources. Marquis publishes Who's Who in American Law with a helpful biography on listed attorneys, although only a few selected attorneys are listed and no expertise ratings are given. The American Bar Association also lists many attorneys with family law litigation experience in its "Directory of Litigation Attorneys". Both publications are available at most law libraries or universities.
Community action agencies such as Parents Without Partners, Legal Awareness for Women, and special-interest groups have information on attorneys. Local divorce support and recovery groups meeting at churches or community centers are also helpful resources.
In your search to find a qualified attorney, resist the urge to hire the first impressive lawyer you interview. Shop around. Ask many questions. Most lawyers will meet briefly with you to discuss your case and their qualifications for free or a nominal fee. (Be sure to confirm this in advance.)
Interviewing a Lawyer
Before scheduling an appointment with a lawyer candidate, specify that this is a "get acquainted" interview. Ask for the attorney's résumé, firm brochure, or newsletter. This will acquaint you with his or her qualifications and achievements. The purpose of the interview is to secure background information about the attorney, the general nature of your case, and his or her availability to handle it. Be sure to ask about any materials you should bring to the conference. Also ask in advance about the range of fees. Lawyers do not like to waste time attending an initial meeting if the client cannot afford the work.
Before your interview, outline the facts of your case. Prepare a detailed list of questions to ask the lawyer. Be frank in divulging all of the legal facts, good and bad. Since your interview is confidential, your candor will allow the lawyer to provide you with an accurate assessment of your case.
When you meet, be on time. Also be sensitive to the lawyer's time. The attorney may begin by asking you to describe your legal problem briefly, then will listen to your explanation. After all, you and the lawyer will be evaluating each other in this interview. The attorney needs to know whether you will be a cooperative and pleasant client.
After you describe your case, ask the attorney about any obvious strengths and weaknesses in your case. Ask what strategy the lawyer would use. Find out how long it may take to complete your case based upon the lawyer's previous experience. As different lawyers answer your questions, you will see how well this candidate knows the law and focuses on the issues.
Ask whether the lawyer can work on your case right away. Will the attorney be personally handling your case or assigning it instead to another lawyer or paralegal? How will he or she keep you informed about your case? What fee arrangements and billing procedures apply? Make notes of all responses. If the lawyer has no objection, use a tape recorder.
Also be sure to ask the attorney for personal references to check out.
After a few of these interviews, you will see differences among the lawyers you meet. Quite often your decision will be obvious. There will always be some candidates who impress you more than others.
Joseph Warren Kniskern is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina with more than 32 years of experience, who has been cited in Who's Who in American Law. This article has been excerpted with permission from When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce (B&H Publishing Group, revised edition copyright @ 2008).