Hiring a family law attorney – what most people get wrong and how to get it right: Part One

You’ve just been served (or threatened with) divorce or custody papers. The initial reaction is fear, shock, anger or even all of the above.” I don’t believe this!” “What’s going to happen?” “He/she is going to take our children, my money, everything!” These thoughts are common. So, what do you do?

In going on twenty years of being a family lawyer- in and out of court- and mediator, I’ve met with a lot of people who are experiencing what you are experiencing right now. Some I’ve met with for a second opinion after they hired a lawyer who is not a good fit for them or after they took an approach that did not work. Changing lawyers can be costly, not only financially (lawyers generally don’t give refunds), time consuming and can create delays in a process that you’d rather be finished with sooner. So, how do you hire the right lawyer for you? Here are some tips.

How to choose

Maybe you don’t know any divorce attorneys. That’s common. Many people dislike or distrust attorneys or experience a general aloof vibe from those they have met. You might begin your search by looking at websites. There are a lot of those, and most look the same. Professional photos, accolades and client reviews. After reading a few, your vision may start to blur. Or maybe you ask friends, coworkers or other professionals if they know someone.

What I believe you should be looking for is a personality fit with experience to match. It’s important that the person you meet with knows the law and can handle your situation. Equally important is that you are comfortable with this person (I said person and not lawyer for a reason). Yes, you are seeking to be educated on an unfamiliar process. But you should feel that you are speaking with another human being who can relate to you and accurately advise you on the process and a strategy for going forward.

One of the best ways to find this is to seek recommendations from people to whom you relate the most. Ideally, these should be people who know or have worked with the lawyer before. They are better able to tell you what might work for you, and far better than all the fancy websites and online reviews.

Is anything really free?

Do you do free consultations? I get this question a lot. Seems more popular these days with so many graduating from law school and hanging their shingles. The answer is no and I’m happy to tell you why.

In my opinion, free consultations are about the lawyer and not the client. The person offering you the “free initial consultation” is just trying to get your business. You probably know this already. Lawyers need to make money too and the only reason a lawyer is offering you free legal advice is because they want money from you in the future.

Family law consultations are far more important that people realize. This is not only your chance to see if the lawyer is a good fit, but its also to get information you can trust and a game plan for moving forward. Many free consultations are like lawyers’ websites- vague and generic. You may get some information, but not enough to tell you what your best options are for moving forward.

For me, consultations are always in depth. I review information provided to me beforehand and begin with a working knowledge of the basic facts and what the legal issues might be. The goal of the consultation is to give the client sound advice on moving forward, the different ways to move forward (which may include the client representing him/herself for some of the process or a discussion of flat fees for certain portions of the process) and a discussion of the best way to proceed. My practice focuses on the needs of the client and the consultation is no exception. I’m looking for ways to be cost effective rather than convincing someone to hire me.

Those are just a couple things to consider. In part two of this article, we’ll explore litigation vs. negotiation and a couple other things to keep in mind in the family law lawyer hiring process.

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