Choosing the right attorney is one of your most important decisions when ending your marriage and successfully beginning the next phase of your life. The right matrimonial lawyer can help provide you with financial security; the wrong lawyer may lead to the loss of marital assets that are rightfully yours, or may even result in your losing custody of your children.
You need an experienced and concerned attorney to fight for you, guide you through the legal process, and respect your needs. Litigants in divorce cases often change lawyers before the conclusion of their case. Part of the problem is that clients don’t always put enough time and effort into selecting their attorneys.
Before making your decision, interview at least three attorneys so you have a basis for comparison. Allow a wide range of factors to weigh into your decision. Don’t choose a lawyer based solely on what others say. The fact that your friend or relative has recommended a particular attorney doesn’t mean he or she is right for you; be discriminating.
Knowledge of family law and experience are the most important criteria for selecting a matrimonial lawyer. An experienced matrimonial lawyer will be familiar with the law, its trends, and the legal system. When a problem or crisis arises in your case, the seasoned lawyer is less likely to be caught off guard and more likely to be prepared to handle it. Pose the following questions to each matrimonial attorney you interview to determine their level of knowledge and experience:
- How many years have you practiced law? A lawyer who has practiced ten or more years is more likely to have a strong base of knowledge and experience.
- During the past ten years, what percentage of your practice has been devoted to divorce law? Look for a lawyer who devotes at least half of his or her time to matrimonial law.
- How many contested divorce trials have you had during the past five years? Although a lawyer may otherwise be knowledgeable, he or she may have limited courtroom experience.
- How many contested custody cases are you currently handling? Custody cases require special and unique skills; a lawyer may be experienced in divorce cases but have minimal experience with custody matters.
- Do you frequently handle complex or large asset cases? You don’t want to be the guinea pig for a lawyer who is just learning the ropes or who handles only simple cases.
- Have you written any articles or publications related to matrimonial law?
- Have you presented any lectures on the subject of divorce law? To whom? When?
- Are you a Fellow of the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML)? As a member of the Academy, a lawyer is acknowledged as an expert in divorce law and has met stringent standards for admission. (This point is only important if you’re looking for a US attorney — few Canadian lawyers are members of the AAML.)
- Have you received public recognition for your expertise in divorce law?
As a client, you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. In this area, your “gut feeling” about the lawyer can be your best guide. Do you feel comfortable talking to the lawyer? Do you feel that the lawyer is condescending to you? Be wary of lawyers who are abrupt and inattentive. Keep in mind that you’ll spend many hours with your lawyer during the course of your case. The process of a divorce is often time consuming and emotionally draining. If you are uncomfortable with your lawyer, this may be a constant source of additional stress to you.
Does the lawyer want to win for you? This may be difficult to determine during an initial interview. However, there is a greater likelihood that the lawyer will be committed to your case if he or she is interested in and excited about your case at the onset and is not distracted or preoccupied. A lawyer’s interest in your case may be revealed by a lively and energetic search for facts and detail.
A matrimonial attorney often needs the assistance of other attorneys and paralegals. Your lawyer can delegate certain tasks, such as legal research, to junior associates or paralegals with lower billing rates.
Similarly, a strong support staff can keep your case from grinding to a halt if your attorney is unavailable due to a prolonged trial or a vacation. In these instances, it may be necessary to talk to another attorney in the office who is familiar with your case. Ask how many lawyers in the firm handle matrimonial cases and about their availability. You may also want to meet other lawyers in the firm or department to determine whether you can establish a rapport with them as well.
A lawyer should have a reputation for being trustworthy, credible, well prepared and reasonable. To obtain objective information, ask other lawyers, accountants or former clients of the firm. Your lawyer can also provide you with references from former clients who have consented to the release of their names.
Often divorce cases require knowledge of other fields of law, such as real estate, bankruptcy, personal injury, criminal, commercial, estates, trusts, and tax law. You should ask whether the law firm has other departments that are available for consultation when needed. Also, a matrimonial lawyer must rely on outside experts to render opinions related to custody matters and appraise assets such as businesses, real estate, pensions and personal property. Find out whether the lawyer has prominent and credible experts accessible to him or her for these services.
Make sure you choose an attorney who is willing and able to adapt to your changing needs. Though you may want a lawyer who is sensitive and compassionate toward you, keep in mind that these qualities alone are insufficient. There are also times when your attorney must be assertive and tenacious, especially when dealing with your spouse, your spouse’s attorney, and the Court. A lawyer who exudes strength and confidence during your initial interview is more likely to be able to be aggressive when the need arises.
Every case requires a plan of action consistent with goals that the lawyer and client mutually agree upon. Unless your lawyer develops a strategy and remains focused on your goals, your case may become prolonged and costly. During the interview, ask the lawyer what result could be reasonably obtained and what strategies could be implemented to achieve your goals. The lawyer’s response to this question will give you insight into his or her analytical skills and ability to develop a strategy.
Of course, physical proximity is important, too. If your case is complex and contested, you may need to consult regularly with your attorney. The Rules of Court mandate that an attorney and client have a written fee agreement. The agreement normally provides for a retainer (an initial lump sum payment that will be applied towards future bills) and an hourly rate charged by the attorney. The difference in hourly rates and retainers among experienced divorce lawyers is relatively insignificant. It is most important that you feel confident that the lawyer is trustworthy because you cannot independently verify all the time spent on each task.
It’s important to realize that an expensive attorney is not always a skilled attorney. On the other hand, don’t let somewhat higher legal fees deter you from retaining a skilled lawyer. An experienced lawyer may cost more now, but the long-term financial benefits may outweigh that cost later. For example, if your lawyer obtains $50 more per week in child support for your three year old, after 18 years you would receive an additional $46,800.
After you have had several interviews with matrimonial attorneys, compare the results. Depending upon your needs, you may give greater weight to some criteria and less weight to others. A divorce can be extremely stressful and painful. It can be a very difficult time for you and your children, relatives and friends. If you are getting a divorce, you do not need the added stress of wondering, “Did I choose the right lawyer?”
If you have a strong, experienced lawyer fighting for your best interests, you can devote more time and energy to your emotional and psychological well-being, and start looking forward to your new life.
David Wildstein, Esq. has been practicing matrimonial law for more than 30 years. He heads the 12-member family-law department of Wilentz Goldman Spitzer P.A. in Woodbridge, NJ and New York City. He has been listed in Best Lawyers in America.