If you’re looking into hiring a family law attorney, chances are you’re going through (or getting ready to go through) a divorce or a custody case. Depending on the type of case you’re facing, though, divorce and custody cases can take all types of shapes.
Divorce cases can be simply that: divorce cases. Whether there are children or not, divorce cases be very simple, very complicated, or somewhere in between. Many divorce cases these days are simple affairs, where the parties negotiate separation agreements and move forward with uncontested divorces. But, in other situations, the divorce itself can be contested (whether or not custody is also contested), and it can be much more complicated.
Custody cases can be part of a larger divorce action, or entirely separate. You can have a contested custody case in the middle of a divorce, or you can file for just custody, support, or visitation, regardless of whether you were ever married to the child’s father.
What difference does it make whether I’ve got a divorce case, a custody case, or both?
Divorce cases are handled in the circuit court. Custody matters that are part of a divorce are also handled in the circuit court. The circuit court is a court of record, which means that anything that happens there is recorded, and follows you if you decide to appeal a decision later on.
Custody cases, on the other hand, start out in the juvenile and domestic relations court, if they aren’t part of a larger divorce action. Whether you’re filing for custody, visitation, or support (or some combination of all three), or petitioning for a modification, you’ll find yourself in the juvenile court. The juvenile court is a court not of record, which means that, if you appeal the judge’s decision, the case doesn’t follow you. You’ll move up automatically to the circuit court, where your case will be heard de novo (which is just a fancy Latin word that means your new case won’t be prejudiced by whatever happened in your last one).
I get it. Family law cases are complicated. So how do I decide who to hire to represent me?
I’ve you’re looking for a family law attorney, you’ll definitely want to do some research beforehand to be sure that the attorney you’re meeting with is a good fit for you and your specific situation. As you can already tell, there are lots of different types of family law cases, so it’s important that you take the time out to find out whether the attorney you’re considering hiring is really the appropriate person to handle your case.
What can I do before my appointment to make sure that the attorney I’m considering hiring is a good choice?
You’ve probably already discovered that most experienced local family law attorneys charge a fee for an initial consultation. Even though you definitely want to be sure that you’re hiring the right person, your pockets aren’t deep enough that you can run all over town having initial consultations before you find the perfect attorney to handle your case.
Before you even think about scheduling your appointment, it’s a good idea to do some good, old-fashioned internet research. These days, there is so much information online that you’re bound to stumble across some good information that will help make your search for the perfect family law attorney a little bit easier.
Most reputable law firms have websites, and those websites include attorney biographies. If you’re considering hiring a particular law firm, it’s definitely a good idea to take a look at the attorneys practicing there, and read each of their biographies. It’s not so much that you need to be impressed about what schools each attorney attended or whether they’ve received any awards; mostly you want to find out about their level of experience, what types of cases they prefer to handle, and whether you think they’re the type of person that you’re going to be able to work with for the next year (or more) while your case is pending. Because family law requires that you share personal details with your attorney, your ability to be comfortable and work with the person you hire is key.
Most attorney bios are full of “puffery” (and, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just read a couple and you’ll know exactly what I mean). Most attorneys want to impress you with a list of their accomplishments, degrees, and awards, but you’re not hiring them for their degree. You want to hire a real person, with real experience, who can remain focused on the task at hand (rather than talking endlessly about him or herself).
After you’ve checked out the attorney on the website, you can also perform a Google search. There are lots of websites that feature individual attorneys, so you may be able to find even more information—including reviews by other clients who hired the attorney in the past.
In fact, there are lots of places to read reviews in this day and age. Google Local, Yahoo, Bing, and other services have reviews listed for other consumers to see. Yelp, MerchantCircle, Angie’s List, and other similar places may also have reviews for your attorney, too.
While you’re searching for your attorney, you’ll probably also see other related newspaper articles, publications, presentations, or anything else that the attorney has published with his or her name on it. This way, you can find out a lot more about the attorney (and exactly what types of cases he or she is called to speak on) than you might find in his or her bio.
What are you looking for, exactly? You want to see satisfied clients. You want to see experience, particularly with the type of case that you have. You want to see that the attorney behaves ethically, and that there is no evidence of any misbehavior on his or her part. Just by looking at these sorts of things, you should be able to get a good idea what the attorney is all about, the types of cases he or she takes, and whether it would really be a good fit.
So, what’s next?
After you’ve exhausted all the internet sources you can think of and have uncovered most of the information you can hope to find, it’s time to start scheduling appointments. Because these appointments do cost money, it’s probably a good idea to schedule one or two at a time, and move on only if you decide that the attorney with whom you’ve met is not a good fit. Since you’ve already started to do some preliminary research, you probably have a good idea about who you’d like to meet with. Now, it’s time to actually meet with the attorney.
What questions should you ask your attorney?
1. Do you handle family law exclusively?
Like any area of law, family law is complex and full of nuance. The law changes all the time (because of cases that are decided and new statutes that are passed), and you want to be sure that your attorney is up to date on all of the changes.
You want to know that your attorney has experience handling family law cases, knows the law, and is prepared to grow and change with the law as it develops. You don’t want an attorney who is a jack of all trades—but master of none. As you can probably imagine, it takes time to have the kind of experience you need to handle everything that a case could possibly throw at you. An attorney who practices family law exclusively can have more experience in family law cases after just one year than an attorney who only sporadically practices family law.
2. What types of cases do you prefer?
Most attorneys have a certain kind of case that they prefer. They may not be all that comfortable admitting to it (or maybe they are), but everyone has a preference. Maybe your attorney prefers divorces with complicated equitable distribution issues. Maybe your attorney likes complicated custody cases, where relocation, sexual abuse, or homeschooling are an issue. Maybe your attorney enjoys handling military divorces, or negotiating custody arrangements for military service members. Whatever it is, there’s a particular case that your attorney likes doing.
It doesn’t matter so much if your case isn’t exactly, specifically, down to the letter like the type of cases your attorney likes handling. But it would matter if you have a complicated custody case—and your attorney doesn’t like handling custody cases. There are family law attorneys out there who don’t want to handle custody, so you want to make sure that your case lines up with what the attorney likes and is comfortable doing.
Most attorneys prefer either divorce or custody cases. Ask! If you’re looking for something that the attorney doesn’t do, ask whether the law firm has someone who is better suited. In most cases, you can meet with one attorney and then decide to retain a different attorney. Regardless, it’s important to find out that you’ve hired the most appropriate person.
3. Do you have any experiences with cases like mine?
Once you’ve figured out whether your attorney prefers to handle divorce or custody cases (and, of course, assuming that you got the answer you wanted), the next question is to ask whether the attorney has handled cases similar to yours in the past.
Ideally, your attorney has handled a case like yours, particularly if your case raises complicated issues. If the attorney hasn’t handled a case like yours, ask what his or her plan would be, what kind of choices they would make, and whether they believe they’re up to it. After that, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re comfortable letting the attorney handle it. Obviously, it’s your decision—but it’s best to know all the information ahead of time. Right?
4. What do you expect to happen in a case like mine?
You wouldn’t have surgery without talking to the doctor about what you could expect to happen afterwards, would you? You’d want to know all about the procedure, the costs, risks, recovery, and everything else related to your treatment. Wouldn’t you?
Same goes for your divorce or custody case. Even though (ethically) attorneys can’t guarantee a specific outcome, they can usually present you with a range of things they might expect. Of course, some things depend on factors you might not know at the beginning (like, what judge you’ll have, and whether your husband will hire an attorney), but it’s usually possible to get an idea ahead of time.
There are a lot of things the attorney can tell you at the beginning. In a lot of cases, the attorney can even tell you what common mistakes are made, or what you can do to make sure your case is as strong as possible.
You may want to ask more questions to your attorney, too, so, just in case you need a few extra ideas, check out the following blog posts: here, and here. These should give you an idea of what to ask, how to compare attorneys, and ultimately, how to make the best decision possible for you and your case. If you need help, would like to request a free copy of one of our books, or want to schedule a confidential appointment with one of our licensed, experienced, Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.