If you are thinking about getting divorced, choosing a divorce lawyer is going to usually be one of the first, and most important, decisions that you make. If, like most people, you haven’t had a lot of experience with the legal system, and you have never been divorced before, choosing a divorce lawyer often seems like a huge task. Here are five steps for how to choose a divorce lawyer who will be right for you.
Step one: Decide what divorce process you want to use. If you want to get divorced amicably, you don’t want to hire a shark attorney who will only escalate the conflict between you and your spouse and blow up any deal you could have made. On the other hand, if your spouse has already hired a shark attorney and you’re in court fighting for your life, you need to hire an attorney who can handle that level of litigation, and can fight back on your behalf. So, the first question you need to ask yourself when you’re looking for a lawyer is: what process do I want to use to get divorced?
Step two: Ask your friends and acquaintances for referrals. Try to get a referral from someone you know who went through a divorce (and hopefully used the same divorce process you want to use) and was happy with his or her attorney’s services. If you know people who went through a divorce and were NOT satisfied with their attorney, make a note of that person’s name too. While negative recommendations won’t help you find a good attorney, staying away from the wrong attorneys are just as important as finding the right attorney.
Step three: Use the internet to verify what you have found out, or to find an attorney if you have no referral source. Look at the attorney’s website. Read any information the attorney has posted there. Review the attorney’s credentials. Again, you want to make sure the attorney you choose is a good fit for you and for the kind of divorce process you want to use. If you decide to use collaborative law to resolve your case, then you need to find a lawyer who is trained in collaborative law to represent you. If you want to use a mediator to help you settle your issues, you need to find a lawyer who is comfortable working with a mediator, and won’t try to sabotage the mediation just so you have to fight in court.
Step four: Prepare a list of questions to ask prospective attorneys when you meet with them. Education is everything. You want to make sure you understand the divorce process, understand what you are facing, and understand what your options are. Even if you think you know how the divorce process works, ask the attorney to explain it to you again. Your understanding of the process may be incomplete or inaccurate, so it doesn’t hurt to have your prospective attorney educate you about the divorce process.
You also need to know from your prospective attorney how s/he would suggest approaching and handling your specific case. You want to know how much experience your prospective attorney has had handling divorce cases, and, if your case is going to be complicated, or involves any special issues, the amount of experience that attorney has had in handling complex cases, or cases involving the special issues involved in your case.
You also need to know up front how much your prospective attorney will charge, how much of a retainer s/he will require, and how you will be billed. If you are hiring a law firm, you want to know which attorney will be responsible for handling your case, and what the hourly rates are for the various lawyers in the firm. If you are hiring a solo practitioner, you may also want to ask whether s/he has an assistant who will perform routine tasks on your case, and whether you will be charged a lesser rate for that assistant’s time.
Step five: Go with your gut, but don’t be foolish. It is important that you find an attorney with whom you connect and feel comfortable. If you walk out of an attorney’s office feeling sick to your stomach, belittled, or bullied, that is not a good sign. If the lawyer didn’t answer your questions, or didn’t seem to care about you, don’t hire that person. If your gut is screaming “No!” walk away and don’t look back. On the other hand, you have to use your head, too. If you have been married for decades, have issues surrounding your children, and have a complicated financial situation, you may not want to hire the lawyer who just graduated from law school last year and has only handled one divorce case in his or her career, no matter how wonderful that attorney made you feel.
Bonus Step six: If you screw up, cut your losses quickly. No matter how much research you do, or how careful you are in choosing an attorney, after you’ve signed on the dotted line and put your money down, you may find that, for any number of reasons, the lawyer whom you chose isn’t right for you. It happens. If you feel like you’ve chosen the wrong lawyer, don’t be afraid to find someone new who is a better fit. While you don’t want to jump from lawyer to lawyer at the drop of a hat, it is better to change lawyers early if you find that you are not comfortable with your initial attorney, rather than to wait until your case has been pending for months or years, after which time getting a new attorney is both more difficult and more expensive.