Until you need a root canal, you probably don’t pay a lot of attention to commercials or advertisements from dentists. Until you’re in the market for a new car, you’re probably using your DVR to fast forward through all of the advertisements from the local car dealerships. Likewise, until you’re interested in an attorney, you probably have no idea who is out there.
It’s hard to trust advertisements and marketing, though, right? And you know that, especially when it comes to your divorce, who you hire makes a difference. Doesn’t it?
Of course it does! Who you ultimately choose to hire can make a tremendous difference in the resolution of your case. You want an attorney who is ethical, honest, hardworking, diligent, returns phone calls, is knowledgeable and patient, and always works hard to promote your best interests. But how do you know where to find an attorney to fit the bill? There are so many attorney rating services out there! How do you know whether you can trust what you’re reading, or whether the review was written by an unreasonable ex client (or the attorney’s mother)? It’s so hard to make heads or tails of these things, especially when you’re already in a difficult place personally.
What do I need to know to hire a great attorney?
Probably the best way to find a great local attorney is by utilizing a combination of approaches. You should probably start with a Google search, because so much information is online these days. The firms who are the big players in any area have developed an impressive website that is chock full of valuable information. You want this, because, for one thing, you want to be as informed as possible yourself. For another thing, you’d like to know that your attorney is as knowledgeable as possible. Look for law firms that help give you the information you need to get started. Check their website, their blog, and their YouTube channels. Do they have good information? Does it seem like they know what they’re talking about? Do they provide information that helps you feel more informed? If so, you’ve probably found a great place to start.
You can also talk to your friends and family for recommendations. Many people have been through a divorce themselves, or know someone who has. They can tell you a lot about their experiences, good and bad. Though their case absolutely will be different from yours (so you should be careful not to tell yourself that you’ll probably end up like this person), you can find out some valuable information from these insiders. Was their attorney a good listener? Did he or she return phone calls promptly? How did they bill (and how much)? Did the atmosphere feel friendly and inviting? Was the attorney prepared for court? Did the attorney make your friend feel like her case was important? Does your friend have confidence in the lawyer’s abilities? What would your friend do differently, if she had it to do all over again? This information can be incredibly valuable to you as you’re making a decision.
Finally, you should meet with an attorney. After you’ve had a chance to do some preliminary internet research and you’ve talked to your friends about their cases, you’ve probably been able to put stars next to the names of a couple attorneys and cross through the names of others.
Can’t I just go have a free consultation?
In most cases, family law attorneys don’t give free consultations. Why? Well, family law is a lot different from other kinds of law. The attorneys who we often see giving free consultations are personal injury attorneys, or attorneys whose practice isn’t limited to any particular kind of law. What’s the difference? A personal injury attorney is looking for cases to take on a contingent basis. They’ll take the case for free up front, but take a big cut of the award (if there is one) at the end of the case. They offer a free consultation to bring good cases in the door, because they want to give those injured people a reason to bring their big money case to their law firm. You may be thinking, “That sounds GREAT! I’d love for an attorney to take my divorce case for free, and then I’ll just pay from what I get in my settlement from my husband!” Not so fast. In Virginia, attorneys aren’t allowed to take divorce or custody cases on a contingent fee. It’s considered unethical, and we could be disbarred for it.
General practitioners (lawyers who haven’t limited their law practice to a specific kind of law) usually offer a free consultation just because they want to get someone, anyone, in the door. You don’t want an attorney who is struggling to get anyone in the door. You also don’t want an attorney who doesn’t practice family law exclusively. Divorce and custody are two of the areas in law that change the most. You want an attorney who stays up to date on all the changes.
Most family law attorneys just don’t offer free consultations, so you should definitely do some research before you set an appointment with anyone. When you leave your appointment, regardless of whether you’ve decided to actually hire that particular attorney (it is not unusual for women to meet with 2-3 attorneys before making a final decision), you should walk away feeling like you know a lot more than you did when you started.
What should I be looking for? What are some common red flags?
During your appointment, you should feel like you’re important to the attorney. An attorney who is checking her phone during your appointment is probably not one you’d like to hire, because chances are that he or she will behave the same way on all aspects of your case. Your attorney should listen carefully to you, respond appropriately to what you’ve said, and indicate what might be a reasonable course of action for you.
You should also feel comfortable with your attorney, especially since you’ll have to tell him or her all sorts of personal details about your life. It can be uncomfortable to discuss these things, but your attorney should make you feel as at ease as possible.
You should feel confident that your attorney can do a good job on your case. Feel free to ask questions about whether the attorney has handled cases like this before and what he or she thinks you can reasonably expect. Ask about settlement and what it might look like. Ask about trial, and how often the attorney finds himself or herself in court. Ask about fees and billing and how it all works. Ask who else might work on your case, and what their hourly rates might be. Ask about what the attorney thinks is reasonable. Talk about your goals and what you’d like to get out of the divorce. You should feel like the attorney is being transparent with you and is giving you all the information you need, without promising you the moon and stars (because that’s just not realistic).
What if I can’t afford to pay what the attorney is asking?
Most people are under the impression that they want the oldest, most experienced attorney at the firm, and maybe you do. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that at all. Still, if you’re on a budget, you may also be wise to consider alternatives within the same firm.
We can’t take contingent fees, so most family law attorneys bill on an hourly rate. As I’m sure you can imagine, the hourly rate is different for the super-experienced attorney who has been practicing for thirty years than it is for the new associate who has been practicing three years.
Where do you think the newer attorney is learning about the law? In the office of the super-experienced attorney! Who do you think proofreads the newer attorney’s documents? The super-experienced attorney! In a law firm, there are certain standards to uphold, and it is unlikely that a firm would send an attorney out if it felt like she was unprepared. You may find that, all things considered, you prefer to pay the lower hourly rate of the newer associate who will certainly benefit from the knowledge and instruction of the older attorneys. You may find that the newer attorney exhibits a zeal, an attention to detail, and a level of personal attention that you couldn’t hope to expect from the older attorney.
Once you’ve narrowed your focus to a specific firm, keep an open mind about which attorney you choose to hire. Ask about billing and things like hourly rates, because these are factors that may affect your decisions. Sure, you’d probably prefer if money was no object, but it’s better to consider your finances now rather than later. Hiring a newer attorney can afford you a similar level of representation for a fraction of the price.
Hiring an attorney is a difficult decision, but it’s one that you are perfectly capable of making. If you use this information to help inform your search, you should have no trouble finding someone who meets your needs. Do you research, ask the right questions, and, ultimately, go with your gut. Find someone you like and trust. Good luck!