How Do I Choose a Divorce Lawyer?

Often when someone is thinking about the possibility of a divorce, the first basic question they have is “How do I choose a lawyer”? In fact, it is very common for clients, or potential clients, to tell me they do not know any attorneys because they have never needed one before. If you do an internet search for a divorce lawyer you realize there are a lot of them around. Figuring out which one is right for you is an extremely important decision.

I often recommend that potential clients interview two or three attorneys before they decide which one they want to hire. Friends can be a great referral source and can be very helpful in paring the directory listing down to a handful you want to meet with before you make a decision. But every case is unique. Ultimately you need to make the choice that will best meet your needs. So what should you look for? I think there are three areas that you should consider when interviewing attorneys: legal knowledge, personal compatibility and fees. One area which is frequently asked about is results, and I do not think this is particularly helpful at all.

1. Legal Knowledge.

Obviously you want someone who knows the law in your jurisdiction. It may be advisable to hire someone locally who knows the court system where your case will proceed. Many people have a family friend who is an attorney but who does not practice family law. They may not be able to help you with your case, but you can certainly ask them for a recommendation. The attorney you select should have recent experience handling family law cases. If they do not, but you still want to hire them, make sure they will not charge you for time spent educating themselves on family law.

2. Personal Compatibility. 

Far too often this criteria is overlooked in the hiring process. But it may be the most important criteria. You need to feel comfortable talking about your marriage with your attorney. Often times the conversation will be about things you would not want to discuss with your family or closest friends. You will certainly need to be able to speak openly and candidly about financial problems you may be having. If either party had an affair you may have to discuss that matter. If you do not feel comfortable with your attorney you may have problems telling them everything they need to know. In fact, I think it is very possible you would be better off with an attorney with less experience but a better “bedside manner” than the other way around.

It is also important that the attorney’s practice philosophy meshes with your view of the case. If you are hoping to resolve the matter amicably it probably does not make sense to hire a “pit bull” type lawyer who speaks in terms of being aggressive and forcing your spouse to back down. Similarly, if you want to be hyper aggressive because of issues in the case which need to be explored, going to an attorney who focuses on collaborative law or who views themselves as a problem solver more than a street fighter will probably not satisfy you.

3. Fees.

Many attorneys charge on an hourly basis so it is impossible to predict with certainty how much a particular case is going to cost. However that does not mean you cannot get some basic information. How much is the initial retainer? How much does the lawyer charge per hour? DO other attorneys or staff members bill you for their time? If so, what are their rates? Do you pay for copies, mileage, phone calls, faxes and other incidentals? If the attorney is a great fit under the first two criteria, but their fees are out of your price range, you may want to keep looking. You have to be able to pay your bills and support your family long after the divorce case ends.

There are some law firms, including my office, which will represent clients on a flat fee basis. Under this model you pay a fixed price for the divorce, regardless of the time involved. Obviously this solves some problems associated with the traditional fee per hour model. It allows you to know upfront how much you will pay. But that does not mean it is the right model for you. Again, meeting with two or three attorneys can help you find one who will work with you in the way you want your case to proceed.

4. Don’t focus on past results.

An obvious question many people ask is “how often do you win”? This seems like a good way to gauge the attorney you are interviewing. But it has a serious problem. Namely, it is almost impossible to define “win” in a family law case. I have personally seen a case where mom wanted to limited dad to only a few hours of supervised parenting time a week and dad wanted 50-50 parenting time. These two people were about as far apart as the could be on the issue of parenting time. The judge gave mom more custody than dad initially but placed no limits on dad’s parenting time and ordered that parenting time would move to 50-50 in about a year. Both sides where mad at this outcome because neither got what they wanted. So who won? This happens in almost every case – neither side gets everything they want but each side gets some of what they were after. Most family attorneys feel that there is no “winning” these cases, especially with young children involved. But this also means it is easy to manipulate statistics about your results. In the example above either party could claim they “won” because they got more than the other side offered. Both sides could also claim they “lost” because they got less than they demanded. Without a clear guide as to what is a win or a loss, the stats become entirely meaningless.

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