Make no mistake, this is a serious decision. The divorce lawyer you choose to represent you will have an impact on some of the most important matters in your life. You should dismiss most of the “information” about divorce attorneys you get from cultural and societal cues, like movies, novels and newspaper stories. Instead, do your research. Look around. Ask for referrals from those you trust. Interview your attorney beforehand, just as you might vet a contractor or a family doctor. Approach the choice from a well-informed position.
1. Don’t choose a lawyer because he or she offers free consultations.
Real legal advice is valuable – that is what you are paying for when you hire an attorney. Good advice will more than pay for itself in the end. There is a huge difference between the free “consultation” and the one you pay for. We put the word consultation in quotes in reference to the free ones, because these are not really consultations. They are generally 15-minute sales pitches that do not give you specific information or provide an analysis of your case. In contrast, a good paid consultation can last up to two hours, with information provided on most aspects of your case, applicable divorce law, how the process works, and how it effects you. You should walk out of a consultation feeling that you have a solid grip on what lies ahead.
This is not to say that every divorce lawyer who charges for a consultation will give you great advice. But, in general, you get what you pay for. You should not shy away from an attorney because they charge for consults. In fact, we would suggest that you shy away from attorneys who give free consults. More often than not, these will be a waste of your time.
2. Arrange for several consultations.
We would also recommend that you visit more than one divorce lawyer, and go through several consultations. You may end up spending close to $1,000 on consults. But selecting the wrong attorney can cost you many, many times that amount in either attorney fees (due to excessive billing) or as the result of poor judgment or case preparation. You will get a good idea of the attorney’s style and knowledge of divorce law on the basis of the consultation alone.
3. Don’t choose an attorney because they are well known.
Paying a premium for an attorney, or getting a well-known divorce attorney, does not necessarily get you a good attorney. There is one attorney from our area who immediately comes to mind as a self-proclaimed “expert,” who often appears on television and on radio stations. This is all self-promotion. She is one of the worst attorneys we have come across in our practice. Her legal strategy consists of acting inappropriately in court, calling other attorneys and their clients “liars” in court, and in general offending the principles of jurisprudence. From our experience, this attorney gets her clients so fired up about their estranged spouses that they want to fight for everything. Then she uses up the entire estate in legal fees. This is the worst kind of attorney out there. A self-promoting attorney is merely that: self-promoting. Do not be fooled by bluster.
4. Ask family and friends who have been through a divorce for a recommendation.
Probably the best way to find a reputable family law attorney is through family and friends who have gone through a divorce. It’s amazing how much people learn about the process and about good lawyering when going through a divorce. Some people will have gone through several attorneys, and will have seen a variety of styles and effectiveness. Some people will have had a great experience. Perhaps surprisingly, people will often recommend the attorney who represented their spouse. We love receiving those referrals, because it is a great compliment to our handling of the case. Talk to these people about their experiences. What did they like or dislike? What would they have done differently?
Besides friends and family members, other reliable referral sources include judges, court reporters, and other lawyers. When asking for recommendations, try to have in mind the kind of attorney you think you want. Do you want a “killer”? Do you want someone who is more low-key? Do you want someone with whom you can get along? These are not the only determining factors, but they are important to consider.
5. Surprisingly, searching the Internet is not a bad way to find an attorney.
Searching the Internet and reviewing firm websites is also not a bad idea. This is probably the next-best route to finding an attorney, (see #4). Individual firm websites can provide you with background information about the firm’s attorneys, and will give you a feel for the firm’s personality and philosophy. Visit lots of sites. Review the blogs and articles they wrote.
However, stay away from attorneys that use LexisNexis or FindLaw to create and maintain their websites. This will be indicated at the bottom of the home page in small print. These attorneys are paying for placement in web searches, and are generally not good law firms. Good law firms are willing to put in the time and resources necessary to crafting websites that instill confidence and demonstrate experience.
6. Don’t use bar association or Internet lawyer referral sites.
We strongly discourage the use of attorney-referral sources, such as local bar associations, Internet lawyer referral sources (e.g. lawyers.com), and other mass-referral forms for finding a lawyer. Bar association referral services do not screen attorneys for quality, and inquiries are generally assigned to attorneys on a rotating basis. It’s really the luck of the draw. With Internet referral sources, you basically get paid advertisements for lawyers (usually ones who have trouble getting clients elsewhere) that are, again, not an indicator of quality.
7. Don’t trust attorney “ranking” sites or services.
Don’t trust “ranking” sites, such as SuperLawyer, AVVO or similar “services,” as these are not independent or true ranking services. They are really just services designed to sell advertisements to lawyers. Similarly, we would also stay away from sites such as Angie’s List, Yelp, or other consumer review services. These services tend to disproportionately attract disgruntled clients whose issues have more to do with themselves than with their attorneys.
8. Choose an attorney you feel comfortable taking advice from.
In addition to finding a competent attorney, finding an attorney whose personality meshes with your own is almost equally important. Divorce lawyers are also part psychologist. Our legal advice includes trying to talk common sense into clients who are emotionally distraught or reactive. Finding someone you can work with and whose personal advice you can accept is important. Again, interview more than one attorney to find a good fit. It will become very important to trust your attorney, such that you will follow his or her advice even if it is not what you want to hear.
Along this line, you should actually follow your attorney’s advice. It is surprising, and dismaying to see how often clients pay for good advice, and then end up rejecting it or acting to their own disadvantage.
9. Prepare some questions ahead of the consultation to ask the attorney.
Along with any documents, pleadings, or orders that you have received already in your divorce matter, you should take to the consultation a list of questions to ask the attorney. Write them down, as this will help you to remember what you wanted to ask. Here are some suggestions:
- What would your strategy be for getting my case resolved fairly and in a timely manner?
- What is your approach to settling cases; do you try to resolve the issues with opposing counsel, or do you prefer battling it out in court? (Note: Avoid attorneys who like to take everything to court.)
- What percentage of cases do you settle outside of court?
- What steps can I take on my own to assist in getting my case revolved? (e.g. collect documents, talk to spouse, etc.)
10. Hourly billing rates have virtually nothing to do with how good an attorney is.
We have seen divorce attorneys charge anywhere from $200-$500 per hour for their services. These rates have virtually nothing to do with effectiveness or results. As with fashion, attorney hourly rates are more of a marketing ploy. People tend to believe that if a lawyer charges a lot of money, then he or she must be a great at what they do. This is a false assumption. For one reason or another, certain attorneys have positioned themselves through marketing as “premium” attorneys or attorneys for “high asset divorces.” They are not worth the price. What matters is not price tags, but experience and knowledge of the law.
11. Hourly billing rates have very little to do with what you will spend on your case.
Another significant problem is focusing on how much an attorney charges by the hour. This is not an indication of what will be spent on your divorce matter. An attorney who charges $350 an hour is a great bargain when compared with an attorney who charges $200 an hour -- if the first attorney only takes one hour to complete a task that the attorney with the lower rate takes three hours to complete. Think that comparison is unrealistic? Think again. Attorneys use wildly different amounts of time to complete the same task. We’ve seen an opposing attorney bill upwards of $30,000 for what we would consider minimal work … something we might have expected to be in the range of $2,500. That’s right – the attorney billed $27,500 more than we would have anticipated. We could not figure out how that cost was justified. And guess what? You won’t figure it out either. As a layperson you will have absolutely no idea whether something should take one hour or 10, whether something should cost $250 or $2,500. Bottom line: use the right criteria in determining who will be your divorce lawyer, and you will not have to worry about trust issues when it comes to billing.
12. Don’t look for an aggressive attorney.
If your first thought is, “I want an aggressive divorce attorney,” you have probably watched too many television courtroom dramas. Chances are, you are going to end up wasting your money. Frequently, clients will ask during consultations whether we are “aggressive” attorneys. We are never quite sure how to respond to this question. Probably about 90% of the time, clients are looking for an affirmative answer to their question. The other 10% of the time the question comes from people who know better – their past attorney was “aggressive” and they learned the hard way that you don’t want an attorney who sells him or herself as aggressive.
We’re not sure how to answer this question because, on one hand, yes, we are aggressive. On the other hand, we are not aggressive in the way the clients imagine we should be. A good “aggressive” attorney will know the law, know client’s case inside and out, be a good negotiator, and get their client a good result economically and efficiently. This can be done politely and in a calm and reasoned way. Bad aggressive attorneys, or “bull dogs,” tend to shout, use demeaning language, write insulting and entirely unnecessary letters, take matters to court for no good reason (on the client’s dime), and fight about minor issues where the cost of the attorney’s fees to do that far exceeds the value of the issue at stake. We’ve seen “aggressive” attorneys fight for hours in court about who is going to pay for the kids’ sports teams. You don’t spend $1,500 in attorney’s fees on a $100 issue.
Our advice is to stay away from attorneys whose main selling point is that they are “aggressive.” These types of attorneys are not helpful in resolving your case amicably and don’t get you better results. They just end up billing you excessively.
13. Consider alternative dispute resolutions.
The points we have been discussing mostly cover attorneys who do traditional, litigated divorce. You should at least educate yourself about other options, and consider if one might be a better choice. Meditation and arbitration are options that are gaining in appeal as court battles become increasingly expensive and arduous. A good attorney can, and should, at least mention those options, too.