Choosing the right lawyer to help you in your divorce is hard work. But it’s important and worth taking the time to do it right.
First, ask yourself what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Do you just need an uncontested divorce? Is mediation a possibility? Or has your relationship with your spouse deteriorated to the point that what you really need is simply a warrior to go forth and do bloody (and frightfully expensive) battle on your behalf in an adversarial divorce?
Are your affairs fairly simple, so that most any lawyer with basic understanding and good people skills can help you, or do you have complex property holdings and support goals, so that you need a lawyer with sophisticated tax and financial awareness to help you design a plan that yields the most after-tax dollars? Knowing the kind of legal services you’re going to need will help you shop for those services more effectively.
Once you have a list of prospective lawyers, use the following guidelines to do some initial screening and narrow your list down to three or four prospective candidates:
- Look at biographical information, including whatever you can find on Web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of family law that you need? Do they have any information on their Web sites that is helpful to you?
- Use search engines to surf the Internet. Do searches under the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQ’s or other informational pieces that the lawyer has done that that give you a level of comfort?
- Ask other people if they have heard of the attorneys and what they think about them.
- Contact your state bar association or visit their Web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- Check out the online archives of your local newspaper. Has there been any publicity about the lawyer or the cases that he or she has handled?
- Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
- Your analysis of each prospective lawyer begins with the first phone call. Many lawyers with predominantly courtroom practices are hard to reach on the telephone, so you may be spending a good bit of time with the person who answers the phone. Does the person answering seem pleasant? Well informed about the issues you are facing? Able to deliver results?
- Are you able to schedule an appointment with the lawyer easily? If the lawyer can’t see you to talk about new business, it may be even harder to get his or her attention to talk about your case once it’s been underway for a while.
You shouldn’t necessarily cross a lawyer off your list just because he or she didn’t have the time to meet with you on short notice. Good lawyers are busy so they may not be able to spend as much time as they would like with prospective clients. You should also anticipate that whomever you hire may have to delegate a lot of responsibility to his or her staff. In turn, an important consideration should be to assess the way the lawyer’s staff treats you since they are a reflection of how the lawyer practices. At a minimum, you should expect to be treated courteously and professionally both by the staff and by the lawyer.
- You will probably want to hire a lawyer with at least a few years of experience.
- Look to see if a lawyer is affiliated with associations that cater to your needs. Contact your State Bar to see what associations may be active in your state.
- Unless there are special circumstances, you will want to hire a lawyer with a local office. Family actions can take place in another state, and you will need an attorney licensed in that state, and close to the court where your action will take place.
- Before you hire a lawyer, ask for references. You want to talk to people who could comment on the lawyer’s skills and trustworthiness.
- Ask about conflicts of interest. Does the lawyer represent any opposing or interested parties?
- Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.
- Ask to be provided with a copy of the lawyer’s retainer agreement and have it explained to you before decide on retaining the lawyer or the lawyer’s law firm. You may end up paying a lot of money to the lawyer who you retain so make sure you understand what you are signing up for. You should note that the professional rules which attorneys must operate under usually prohibit contingent fee agreements in domestic matters like divorce and seeking support orders.
Use your common sense and gut instincts to evaluate the remaining lawyers on your list. You’ll want to be comfortable with the lawyer you hire. You want to choose the best lawyer who you think will do the best job for you. Start making some telephone calls.