Choosing a divorce lawyer to represent you may be the most important decision you’ll make during your divorce proceedings. Begin your search by talking to those you know: ask for recommendations from a close friend or family member (your friends and your family – not your spouse’s) who have been through divorce themselves. If you can’t get any personal recommendations, there are professional organizations that offer lawyer referral services, such as The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (www.aaml.org), The American Bar Association – Family Law Section (www.abanet.org), and The Law Society of Upper Canada (www.lsuc.on.ca). Ask for two or three names of local lawyers who devote their practice to family law.
Check out the “Divorce Professionals Directory” on this website; all lawyers listed there practice family law, and some have detailed profiles about their practice. You can search for a lawyer that is close to home or work by selecting how far they are from your location. You can also go to Martindale-Hubbell (www.martindale.com) or Avvo (www.avvo.com), both of which offer lawyer profiles and ratings of lawyers categorized by state and ability. Read the biographies and make sure the attorneys you select specialize in matrimonial or family law.
“How much” lawyer do you actually need? The best (and most expensive) litigator money can buy, or someone who can handle the whole thing quickly and inexpensively? Is it important to find a lawyer who’s “compatible” with you: one who understands and respects your thoughts and feelings about your divorce? Your answers to these questions will be determined by your own unique circumstances, but here are some basic guidelines to help put you on the right track.
Choosing a Divorce Lawyer: Finding the Right One
As in any profession, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. It’s up to you to do your homework – and to ask the right questions – to determine which group your lawyer falls into. The best lawyers will listen to your concerns, ask questions about what you hope to achieve, and give you an honest assessment of your chances of achieving your goals. At the end of your initial consultation, ask yourself whether you feel comfortable with this lawyer, and whether you respect each other’s positions and opinions.
When choosing a divorce lawyer, look for someone who:
- Practices matrimonial or family law.
- Has worked with – and can recommend – other professionals, such as forensic accountants, CDFA® professionals, business valuators therapists, and custody/parenting experts.
- Has a lot of relevant experience. When choosing a divorce lawyer, look for one who has worked on many divorce cases similar to yours. If your lawyer is fresh out of law school, make sure he or she has an experienced mentor at the law firm – one with an excellent knowledge of divorce law – to go over your case.
- Is a skilled negotiator. If your case can be settled without a protracted court battle, you’ll save a great deal of time, trouble, and money.
- Is reasonable. You want someone who’ll advise you to settle if the offer is fair – not encourage you to have the case drag on to satisfy your need for revenge.
- Is compatible with you. You don’t have to become best friends, but you must be comfortable enough with your lawyer to be able to share with him or her some deeply personal aspects of your life. If you can’t bring yourself to disclose information relevant to the case, you’ll be putting your lawyer at an extreme disadvantage. Your lawyer isn’t your therapist or confessor, but he or she does need to be aware of all pertinent facts in order to do a good job for you.
- Is totally candid. Your lawyer should be up-front about what he or she thinks your divorce will cost, how a judge would be likely to rule on your issues, if there are holes or any problems with your case, and whether or not you have any aces up your sleeve.
- Is not in conflict with your best interests. Don’t share a divorce lawyer with your spouse; don’t hire your spouse’s best friend, business partner, or any member of your spouse’s family to represent you – even if you’re on good terms with them. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest involved, you’ll have created enemies – and probably a whole new family feud – before your divorce settles.
- Is more than a pretty face. This may seem painfully obvious, but given our frail human nature, it bears noting here: don’t choose a lawyer based on physical attractiveness. You’re looking for competence – not for a date on Saturday night.
Choose a Divorce Lawyer Well-Versed in your Unique Issues
In each divorce, different issues come up that require special attention, so it is best to find a lawyer who concentrates on the specific issues that may arise in your divorce. Here are some examples:
- Custody. If you believe custody of your children will become a major battle, then choose a lawyer who concentrates on custody issues. Men may want to choose lawyers who are sympathetic to and experienced with men’s/fathers’ rights, and women need to find lawyers who are equally sympathetic to and experienced with women’s/mothers’ issues.
- Small Business. If one or both of you owns a small business, you should look for a divorce lawyer or a family law firm that has knowledge of businesses and corporations, and one who has relationships with reputable business valuators or forensic accountants if necessary.
- International or Out of State/Province. If your divorce deals with property located outside your state/province or country, or if there is a threat of having your child removed from the country, hiring a lawyer who knows international laws and policies is essential.
Family Law Firms: Does Size Matter?
You also need to decide whether you’d like to be represented by a sole practitioner or a full-service law firm. Your choice will be partially dictated by your spouse’s choice: if the divorce is relatively easy and friendly, you can probably agree on what kind of representation you need. If the divorce is very bitter; if there are children, money, or large assets at stake; or if your spouse is just plain “out to get you”, consider hiring a “top gun” – whether that be a well-respected individual or a team of lawyers at a prestigious law firm.
The main advantage to hiring a sole practitioner is that you know exactly who will be working on your case; in bigger law firms, the lawyer you speak to initially may not be the one who does the bulk of the work on your case. You will get to know your sole practitioner well, which should make office visits or phone conversations a little more comfortable.
Law firms come in all types and sizes. A firm can be three lawyers and a few paralegals, or 100 lawyers and more than 20 paralegals. You can hire a general practice firm that deals with various areas of the law and has a smaller department that handles divorce and family law, or a matrimonial law firm that handles only matrimonial matters.
A full-service firm can give you access to specialists in other fields if your case requires it, and they can handle complications such as shareholders’ agreements, business organization or reorganization, tax-driven settlements (including asset transfers), establishment of family trusts, real-estate transfers, or estate planning.There may be a number of people handling your divorce at a big firm, which has its own set of pros and cons. One advantage is that you get the experience of a senior lawyer while lower-priced associates, paralegals, and legal secretaries handle some of the standard elements of your case, saving you money.
Your Initial Interview with When Choosing a Divorce Lawyer
The outcome of your divorce proceedings will change the course of your life forever, so invest the time and money to find the lawyer who will do the best job for you. Interview two or three lawyers before deciding who’ll represent you. Remember: it’s your responsibility to retain a lawyer who’s not only good at his or her job, but one whose personality and outlook are compatible with yours.
Here are the questions you should ask during your initial interview with your prospective lawyer:
- Do you practice family law exclusively? If not, what percentage of your practice is family law?
- How long have you been practicing?
- What is your retainer (the initial fee paid – or, sometimes, the actual contract you sign – to officially hire a lawyer)? Is this fee refundable? What is your hourly fee?
- What are your hourly rate and billing terms? You should know what you’re paying for, how often you will be billed, and at what rates.
- Approximately how much will my divorce cost? The lawyer will only be able to provide an estimate based on the information you provide – and your realistic estimation of how amicable you and your spouse are. If you think your case is extremely simple, but your spouse’s lawyer buries your attorney in paperwork, you can expect your costs to increase.
- What do you think the outcome will be? Remember, you’re looking for truthfulness here – not to be told a fairytale.
- If your spouse has retained a divorce lawyer, ask your prospective lawyer whether he or she knows this lawyer. If so, ask:”Have you worked with him or her before? Do you think the lawyer will work to settle the case? And is there anything that would prevent you from working against this lawyer?”
- Are you willing and able to go to court if this case can’t be settled any other way? Your lawyer must have trial experience if your divorce is likely to be high-conflict and/or you have a difficult soon-to-be-ex spouse
who is going to fight you every step of the way. You also want to make sure your lawyer has won more cases than they have lost at trial.
- What percentage of your cases go to trial? If you and your ex-spouse are relatively cooperative – agreeing on many issues from the outset – you actually want to choose a lawyer with a low percentage here: a good negotiator who can settle your divorce without a long, expensive court battle.
- How long will this process take? (Again, the answer will be an approximation.)
- What are my rights, and what are my obligations during my divorce?
- At a full-service law firm, ask who will be handling the case: the lawyer you’re interviewing, an associate, or a combination of senior and junior lawyers and paralegals?
- Should I consider divorce mediation? Ask if your case – at least in the initial stages – might be a good one for mediation. If there has been violence in the relationship, or one spouse is seriously intimidated by the other, mediation may not be a viable alternative.
- Should I consider Collaborative Divorce? If you and your ex are interested in Collaborative process, each of you should interview a collaboratively-trained lawyer to find out whether you are good candidates for this alternative dispute resolution process. Each of you hires a collaborative lawyer to serve as your advisor, and both you and your ex-spouse and your lawyers sign an agreement stating that you will not go to court. If you and your ex-spouse fail to reach an agreement, both lawyers must resign and you have to start the divorce process over again with litigation lawyers.
- What happens now? Do I need to do anything? And when will I hear from you?
Finally, if there’s something you really need to know, or if you don’t understand something the lawyer said, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. It’s your divorce and your life, so make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to and what your future will look like if you choose settlement offer A or B.
Diana Shepherd is the Editorial Director and co-founder of Divorce Magazine and a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®. She has been writing about divorce-related issues since 1996.