The first thing you want to consider is how experienced your lawyer is in the matrimonial field. Attorneys who primarily handle divorce and family law have managed more cases and presumably, have more knowledge than those who handle divorces along with everything else. They also have more connections with judges and other lawyers, and familiarity with the court process and court personnel.
Schedule a free consultation with the lawyer you’ve selected and considered it a job interview for the lawyer. Do not be intimidated; instead, focus on asking questions and deciding if this is a person you trust and with whom you want to work. These are some questions to ask when you are evaluating an attorney:
- How long have you practiced this type of law?
Ideally, you want someone who has been doing this for at least three years.
- How many cases of this type have you handled in the last six months?
A lawyer who has handled ten divorce cases in six months is someone who definitely specializes in this area; however, if you live in a less populated area, it may be difficult to find a lawyer who just does divorces.
- What are your fees?
Ask for information about in-court and out-of-court rates. Ask if a retainer fee (an up-front payment, similar to a down-payment) is required. Determine if a separate rate is charged for paralegal work or if you will be charged for expenses.
- What are the court fees?
Each jurisdiction has its own fees, so ask.
- How much do you think a case like mine would cost?
If the lawyer is unable to give you an estimate, you should get a second opinion.
- Can a payment plan be worked out?
Many lawyers are willing to do this. Be concerned, however, if an attorney suggests a lien against your home in exchange for legal work.
- What are the chances of my spouse paying some of my legal fees?
As mentioned, the court may order the moneyed spouse to pay the legal bills of the non-moneyed spouse.
- Do you provide a written contract?
Always insist upon this.
- Who will handle my case?
If it won’t be the lawyer you are interviewing, ask to speak to the person who would be in charge.
- How likely is it I will get what I want? What am I asking for that is not realistic?
You really want a lawyer who can be realistic with you and not promise you the moon.
- Is this a case you would try to settle?
Most cases can be settled, and a settlement is much less expensive than going to trial.
- How quickly do you return phone calls?
Your calls should be returned within 24 hours.
- What do I do if there is a problem after hours?
Most lawyers do not accept calls after hours, but the fact of the matter is that all divorce crises do not happen between nine and five.
- How long would you anticipate this case lasting?
In addition to weighing the answers to these questions, you need to consider how the lawyer and his office make you feel. There is a lot of personal choices involved in selecting an attorney. You may prefer a woman or a man, or someone you feel is intimidating, while others want someone friendly and accessible. You need to decide what you are comfortable with and what will help you feel you’re getting the best service.
Look around the lawyer’s office while you are there. A friendly staff is a good sign. Piles of disorganized, messy files can be something to be concerned about. Consider how convenient the office is for you to get to, since it is likely you will need to go there several times.
This article has been excerpted from The Complete Divorce Handbook (Sterling, 2009) by Brette McWhorter Sember, JD. This book provides expert guidance on social, psychological, and financial issues in an easy-to-understand manner. Topics include reasons for a divorce, what a legal separation means, how to handle a divorce yourself or find an attorney to manage it for you, the benefits of medication, helping children cope with parental conflict, child and spousal support, planning for your future, and much more.