How to Select a Family Law Attorney
SELECTING A GOOD DIVORCE LAWYER AND FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY
Going through any type of legal proceeding can be a harrowing experience, especially when the issues are of a personal nature. So, amidst all the emotions and confusion, how do you find a good family law attorney to meet your needs and guide you through the arduous legal process?
If there is any piece of advice you take away from this primer let it be this: hire an attorney that you can not only trust, but also a lawyer that makes you feel comfortable.
ALIGNING YOUR VALUES WITH THAT OF YOUR ATTORNEY
Take some time to gather your thoughts and clearly think about how you want your family law case to proceed. Think about the following and note your answers:
1. Do I want to fight (litigate) my case from beginning to end? Choosing this route can be very costly, for both you and the other party. If you have children, bear in mind that you may be tapping into their financial future as well. If you are at a stage in life where retirement is closing in, do you want to spend your retirement money on attorney fees?
2. Do I want to hire an attorney whose main goal is to fight or negotiate first? Not all lawyers are alike. Some take the stance that courtroom litigation is the only option. Other lawyers negotiate first, and then seek judicial remedies second. If you hire an attorney who only wants to deal with the issues in the courtroom, this may not benefit you if cost is an issue. The more time an attorney spends in court, the higher your attorney bill will be.
3. If children are involved, do I want the lawyer to put a strain on my family or my child’s best interest first? The answer to this question goes hand in hand with the type of attorney you hire. Family Law is a very emotional area of the law, especially when children are involved. Some attorneys seize on the emotional vulnerability of clients and entice them to battle for their children and fight till the end. However, how will the children benefit if both parents are embroiled in a nasty battle. Sometimes, a courtroom dispute is inevitable, but a good attorney will assess the law, your facts, and outline to you a plan of action that puts the children’s interests first.
4. Do I want the attorney to tell me the truth or just tell me what I want to hear? Believe it or not, many people shop around for attorneys until one gives them a “yes” answer to their issue, whether it’s feasible or not. A good attorney will not tell you what you want to hear, that’s just a sales pitch to get you in the door, spend your attorney fees, and then use the discretionary court ruling as a scapegoat. A good attorney will explain to you why the remedy you are seeking is or isn’t feasible, how the law applies to your case, the discretion the court has in making a ruling, and the likelihood of succeeding. A good attorney will never guarantee you a win, because in the end, the judge has the final say, and no one knows how he or she will rule.
EXPERIENCE, SKILLS, AND KNOWLEDGE TO LOOK FOR
5. Do I want an attorney whose emphasis is family law or an attorney who does a little of everything? There are many areas of the law; therefore there are lawyers for all types of legal issues. Ideally, it is best to hire an attorney who focuses his or her legal practice in family law only. Family law is a small legal community, so it is good to have an attorney who is apprised with other family law attorneys and judges, understand and know how certain judges may rule and what they look for when hearing a case. Having a lawyer well versed in the family law courts and community makes him or her adept in determining a legal strategy and style to your particular case.
6. Problem solver not a problem creator. In looking for your ideal attorney, you may want to know whether he/she is adept at compromise and negotiation, but yet comfortable arguing in court as well. You want a lawyer who is willing to solve problems, but yet foresee possible issues. You do not want an attorney who creates problems by seeking vindictive measures, thus increasing your bill, and your potential liability.
7. Ask, Ask, Ask!! During your initial meeting, find out how many divorce cases your attorney has handled. Some divorce cases are more complex than others, therefore if applicable, ask the attorney whether he/she has experience handling child custody, child support, property division, prenuptial agreements, etcetera. Do not be shy. You are making an investment and you should be as well informed as possible before signing a retainer agreement.
8. Who will work on my case? When you have your first meeting with a family law office, depending on the size and number of lawyers, you may only meet with the managing partner or lead attorney. You may want to ask the attorney you meet with whether she/he will personally handle the case or if your case will be handed over to an associate. If your case is handed to someone other than the attorney you meet with, you may want to ask more questions about the person who will personally handle your file.
COST: LEGAL FEES, COURT FEES, AND ETCETERA
9. Questions to ask regarding legal costs and attorney fees:
- Initial retainer?
- Hourly rate of all the attorneys working on your case?
- Frequency of replenishing the retainer?
- What miscellaneous costs are covered? Or how are costs billed?
- Does the attorney bill at an hourly rate or at a flat rate?
- If the attorney bills at an hourly rate, what billing increment does the attorney follow?
- How does the attorney bill correspondence, in other words, phone calls, e-mails, or mail?
10. Initial consultation cost? Some lawyers offer a complimentary consultation. This is done so the potential client and attorney can get to know each other and determine whether they can work well together.
11. Types of legal representation offered and their respective retainer fees? Some family law offices offer different types of representation for their clients. An attorney can offer full legal representation, where they handle every aspect of the case. There is also limited scope representation. Limited scope occurs when you hire the attorney to complete a specific task. The attorney may help you fill out and draft legal documents or offer you advice and guidance, or represent and appear on your behalf at a one-time hearing. It depends on what you need and a fine balance between the client’s available financial resources. The depth of this representation varies from attorney to attorney. Ask the attorney you interview what types of representation they offer, what each representation covers, and what retainer is required for each representation.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER AND/OR ASK
12. Language. If language is an issue, make sure you hire an attorney that speaks your language fluently and is able to relay information accurately and comfortably in your native tongue.
13. Location. Many attorneys travel to different county courthouses for their clients. However, it is best to hire an attorney who either has an office in the county where your case is located or is familiar with the judges in that county. Of course, if you hire a local attorney, then you may save on travel fees an attorney will incur. So keep distance in mind when looking for an attorney. Also, if you do hire a non-local attorney, ask him/her how travel costs are billed.
14. Accessibility. Did the attorney return your phone call or e-mail within a reasonable amount of time? Keep in mind that the office is not the only place an attorney may be. Many attorneys are also in court during the week and that may take up a day or half a day or more, depending on the case he/she is handling. It is good practice to be able to schedule an appointment with the lawyer easily, if not, then perhaps they may be equally as inaccessible once you hire them. Just food for thought.
15. Demeanor. When you spoke to the attorney, what was he/she like? Were they pleasant to speak with? Helpful? Knowledgeable?
16. Gender of the attorney. Family law can be very personal. You have to feel comfortable discussing every aspect of your case with the attorney. That is why some people feel more comfortable talking with someone of a particular gender. If the law firm you interview has both genders, consider interviewing with both to determine whether either may be a fit for you.
17. California Bar License. Make sure the attorney is licensed to practice law in California. You can go to www.calbar.org to look up the attorney, whether they are licensed to practice law, and whether they have any disciplinary actions against them.
18. What happens if the attorney declines my case? First and foremost, do not take the decline personally. Attorneys can get very busy and some have a limit as to how many cases they take on. Consider the decline as a positive: you wouldn’t want an attorney taking on more cases than they can handle and thus sacrifice the integrity and quality of their representation.