Most people haven’t had to hire a divorce attorney before, and, even if they have, it was for something completely different. You probably can’t use the attorney you used when you closed on your house in your divorce and, even if you could, you probably wouldn’t want to. If you’ve had any experience with personal injury lawyers or estate lawyers, you’re probably pretty well aware that the subject matter is vastly different from what you’re experiencing now, and any of those lawyers you used before wouldn’t really be able to handle your divorce, too.
In a divorce, it’s important to hire an attorney that (1) you think you can be completely honest with (even if you’re discussing something that makes you a little uncomfortable, (2) you feel will be the best advocate possible for you, and (3) someone who listens and is attentive to you. You should feel good about your decision to hire your attorney.
I think most of these “feel good” things will give you a good gauge of all the things you need to know about the attorney—at least, enough information that you know whether you’d like to hire her (or him) or not.
Like with a doctor, sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion. If you meet with someone and you don’t agree with or question what they’re saying (or if, for some reason, they seem unsure themselves), you may want to talk to someone else. Most family law attorneys in our area do charge for consultations, so I understand that this isn’t an inexpensive proposition. Ideally, you’d like to meet with and hire the same person, rather than have several consultations all around town before you settle on someone.
You should probably do some internet research beforehand, so that you can get as much information about the firm in general and the lawyer in particular that you’re considering hiring. You can get a lot of information this way, and narrow down your choices to a few of the most likely candidates. That way, you won’t have to have consultations all over town. You can pick two or three likely candidates, meet with them, and make your choice from there. In the (unlikely) event that you’re not happy with any of the ones you met with, you can always broaden the net a little more and refine your search with your new priorities.
Like with any field, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. If someone that you’re looking at is a bad lawyer, you’ll probably be able to tell. You’ll see, on sites like Avvo, citations for professional misconduct, or bad reviews from former clients. You probably have to take some of the bad reviews with a grain of salt, because there are some people that wouldn’t be happy with anything (especially when they’re going through such a difficult personal transition as divorce), but you’re smart enough to read the review and be able to tell whether that person was just being difficult or whether there was a real issue.
These things will help tell you what the “feel good” things won’t. You want to know whether your attorney is really a “good” attorney. You can tell, usually by the attorney’s bio and profile Avvo or LinkedIn, how long the attorney has been practicing, how long she’s been with her firm, whether family law is the only area of law she practices, and things like that. You can also usually see what kind of skills, licenses, or other special endorsements she (or he) has. Avvo, in particular, has places where former clients can leave reviews, and also where fellow attorneys can review the attorney, so you can see what her reputation is really like.
Once you’ve done some of this preliminary research, you can make a short list of attorneys with whom you’d like to schedule an appointment, and maybe even narrow your list down to the one particular attorney you’d most like to see first. At that point, it’s time to bite the bullet and schedule that initial appointment!
When you go in to your appointment, you should have a list of questions ready. You should be asking questions that deal with the specifics in your particular case, and you should also be asking questions that deal with the attorney and her background. If case you feel like you’re just floundering around, wondering what to ask, I’ve prepared a list of 6 questions you should ask your attorney in the initial interview. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions, and that you should feel free to adapt them as you see fit. Add in questions of your own that relate to your specific situation, and you should feel pretty confident that your initial consultation will be informative and productive.
1. Do you practice family law exclusively?
Your attorney should exclusively, or at least primarily, practice family law. Why? Well, it’s a complex branch of the law, and it’s constantly changing and evolving. An attorney who doesn’t exclusively practice family law (like, for example, an attorney who is primarily a personal injury attorney but does a few divorce cases on the side) can easily miss out on some of the most up to date changes in the statutory and case law. Trust me, you don’t want that! You want someone who is knowledgeable and experienced.
In most cases, it’s far, far better to have a younger attorney (three or even two years out of law school) who practices family law exclusively, rather than an older, seemingly more “experienced” attorney who practices all sorts of different kinds of law and every so often handles a divorce or custody case. When you practice one area of law exclusively, you get years and years worth of experience very quickly, because those are the only types of cases you see. Not only that, but you stay up to date as the law changes, and don’t have to waste client’s money researching every single little issue, since a lot of the same things are constantly reoccurring.
It’s an important question! You want someone in your corner who is knowledgeable and experienced, not just in “practicing law” generally, but in practicing family law in your area in particular!
2. Is the lawyer attentive to you when you’re talking?
How does the attorney treat you? Do you feel like your case is important to the attorney? Is she listening, asking questions, and staying on task while you talk to her? Does she understand what you’re telling her, or does she keep missing the point? Are you getting your attorney’s undivided attention, or is she checking emails, texting on her phone, or taking other calls?
Ultimately, you should feel like your lawyer “gets it.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that she will automatically agree with everything you say, but it does mean that she should be listening, thinking critically about what you’ve told her, and coming up with solutions that address your concerns. If she’s suggesting alternatives or coming up with forward thinking plans that address problems you haven’t even thought of yet, then you should probably feel pretty confident. The initial consultation is a great opportunity to talk to the attorney and see how she relates to you. You should feel important, and you should feel like you’re being listened to.
The initial consultation is a great time to figure out whether the attorney will treat you kindly and compassionately, or whether you would just be another name on a file in a bookcase in her office.
3. How quickly will phone calls or emails be returned?
Family law attorneys are super busy. They’re constantly in and out of court, meeting with potential new clients, attending settlement conferences, and preparing documents and arguments for these appearances. In fact, when people complain about what bugs them the most about attorneys, one of the things they say the most frequently is that their attorney didn’t return their calls or emails. Most attorneys juggle a fairly heavy workload, and family law attorneys are no exception.
Still, you should feel like your case is important to the attorney both before and after you hire her. She (or her firm) should have some sort of policy in place regarding how quickly a return call or email must be made. If there’s no policy in place, that’s definitely a red flag you should consider before hiring her. Communication between you and your divorce attorney is key, and you don’t want to be endlessly frustrated by attempting to get in touch with an attorney who is never available to take your calls. “I’ll put you in her voicemail,” is probably one of the most annoying phrases in this century, if you ask me!
Ask your attorney whether she prefers to use phone or email, and whether she’d prefer it even more if you set up appointments ahead of time to talk about whatever may come up in the future. A lot of times, it’s much, much easier to set an appointment to talk than it is to just call the office on the off chance that the attorney might be there. Your attorney’s response to these questions should give you an idea of how she practices and what her system is like, so that the two of you can work together. Your case should be important to her, and she should be willing to plan to answer calls, emails, and other communications from you in a timely fashion.
4. Who else will be working on my case?
A lot of times, you don’t just have your attorney working on your case; you have a whole team of people. In most law firms, there are attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, and sometimes even interns. Any of these people may be working on your case, and you have a right to know who they are (and how much they bill) ahead of time. Most of the time, these people are brought in because the attorney wants to save you money (after all, a paralegal’s time costs less than an attorney’s, and an intern’s time probably costs even less), but you should still know about it, and have a chance to meet them, if that is important to you.
It’s important to know where the line is drawn between what the attorney does on her own, and what the paralegal, secretary, or assistant does for her. Find out what will be prepared by the attorney, and what the paralegal will do. Ultimately, all documents are likely reviewed by the attorney, anyway, but it’s still good to know ahead of time what to expect.
5. Are you willing to attempt to negotiate a settlement in my case?
Very, very few divorce cases actually go to trial (unlike what you may have seen on TV), because going to trial is time consuming, expensive, and, generally unproductive. Keep in mind that, in a divorce, you can only divide the things that you had before you separated, so fighting for longer and spending more money on legal fees really only means that there will be less (not more) to divide between the two of you.
There is a general misconception among non lawyers that you want a “shark” as your attorney, especially in divorce. Aggression is sometimes mistakenly appreciated by clients who think that their attorney is doing them a favor, but usually aggression creates unnecessarily high costs. Find an attorney who is appropriately aggressive, so that she can zealously promote your best interests, but who is in tune enough with what is REALLY in your best interests to know when to negotiate it out.
You want your attorney to be capable of balancing the two possibilities; she should be prepared to negotiate (with your approval, of course) a settlement, and also diligently preparing for a possible trial. Cases settle when lawyers are prepared and dedicated, and that almost always results in the best possible results for you. What’s more important than that?
6. Will you explain things to me and answer my questions?
The divorce process is confusing. It’s technical, and filled with lots of nuance. (Again, remember, you want an attorney who practices exclusively family law!) It takes an attorney handling a lot of divorce and custody cases before she becomes truly experienced, so if you’re confused or don’t understand something, don’t beat yourself up. Speak up and ask questions where you’re unsure or confused. Your attorney should understand, and be willing to answer any question that you have.
Every good divorce lawyer knows that a client who understands what’s going on is better able to make sound and informed decisions with respect to their future—and the future of their children.
You may want to ask other questions, too, but this is just a quick list to get you started. You should feel comfortable about your decision to hire this person to represent you. Do you feel safe and secure with this person? Do you get the impression that she knows what she’s talking about? After you’ve had an initial consultation, you should be able to make a great decision that will help you protect your future, and help provide you with the best, freshest new start possible.
To schedule a consultation with one of our experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200. Good luck!