From my many years of experience as a family law attorney, I can assuredly say that one of the most challenging, stressful decisions for those contemplating divorce is finding a lawyer they feel good about and who they can trust to optimally guide them in navigating this major life transition. And for good reason! This decision will have a lasting impact on the trajectory of the case, the costs, and the ultimate outcomes.
A myriad of personal and emotional challenges come with facing divorce, especially for those who have children. For many people, the legal world is foreign and feels like an additional daunting, intimidating hurdle, and here I’ll help demystify the attorney search process by providing clear guidance for anyone who is going through this time of upheaval.
If you are considering divorce and are uncertain about the direction you wish to proceed, you may feel incredibly vulnerable to ask for recommendations of attorneys, especially if you haven’t yet told anyone that divorce is something you’ve been thinking about. Even so, I encourage you to privately ask close friends or family who have been through a divorce or know someone who has because they often are a great, non-biased primary source for experiences with family law attorneys in your area. In fact, many of our clients at Conscious Family Law & Mediation come to us from referrals and word-of-mouth from previous clients. Delving in further, a Google search can provide a plethora of results and reviews for local firms.
So now what? If you are in the difficult position of having to look for a divorce lawyer, here are several important factors to consider before signing a fee agreement.
We’ve all heard the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” when it comes to first impressions, but the way an attorney conducts his or herself during an initial consultation can be very telling as to how they will act as your representative moving forward. Did they provide you with directions to the office in advance of your appointment? Is the receptionist friendly and able to accommodate your scheduling needs? Did the attorney seem organized and prepared for the consultation? Did they listen to your specific concerns, ask good questions, and stay grounded and objective, or did they have their own objectives or get entangled in your emotional state? If you feel “off” for any reason, do not hesitate to move on and meet with other attorneys. It’s essential to partner with someone you feel comfortable with and can trust.
When you first meet with an attorney, it’s important that you express your immediate, short-term goals as well as your big picture goals as you move forward into the next chapter of your life. Goals can be legal in nature, which your attorney should spend time identifying and issue-spotting with you. Your goals may also be personal in nature, relating to custody of your children, finances, or property. They can also be emotional, as you embark on finding an entirely new sense of normal for yourself and your family. A Conscious Family lawyer or mediator is going to be mindful of your unique goals when handling your case, navigating and rising above the conflict to provide you with clear, effective legal representation.
You’ll likely want to entrust your case, family, and future to an individual who is both highly professional and experienced. As a very basic litmus test for starters, you can look up your attorney online to make sure they have never been the subject of any disciplinary action relating to violations of the attorney professional codes of conduct. Then you can clarify how many years your attorney has specifically been practicing family law (as opposed to how many years they have been a licensed attorney). A licensed attorney who has years of practice in civil litigation or criminal law may not be familiar with the nuances and statutory requirements of domestic relations cases. Many divorce attorneys are starting to expand their practice into collaborative law as well, which applies not only to how that legal representative interacts with the other attorneys, but how they interact with you as well.
A familiarity with the county where your case is filed also plays a role. How familiar with the county and judicial officers is your divorce attorney? Do they regularly attend Continuing Legal Education classes, lectures, and conferences? Are they involved in their local bar associations and legal community?
It is an unfortunate reality in family law that conflict has a cost, and so do attorneys. It is important to be aware of what your prospective attorney charges as both a retainer and an hourly rate. This information should be available up front and broken down in detail in a fee agreement. Take time to carefully review and make sure you understand your fee agreement because it is a contract between you and the law firm regarding their billing practices, expense allocation, and details regarding your representation. Don’t hesitate to speak up if you have any questions about provisions in the fee agreement. You have the right to have another lawyer review the agreement, and you should never feel pressured to sign in a short amount of time.
In addition to a fee agreement, law firms require a retainer (or down payment) to represent you and provide you with legal advice. The retainer is applied toward the work performed on your behalf and can vary in amount depending on the type of case. Most firms will require that you keep your retainer at a certain minimum balance each month, so do not expect the first payment will cover your entire divorce case. This is important to keep in mind because most divorce cases take approximately six to eight months, during which there will be ebbs and flows to the work and charges.
You also need to factor in the fees of potential experts and valuators who may become involved in your case. Although these costs may not be immediately apparent at your initial consultation, they are a common necessity in divorce cases for things such as custody disputes, child and family investigators, real property appraisals, and retirement account valuations.
A lot of firms will offer free consultations in an attempt to get business in the door, then try to sell you on promises to deliver in your case. You can always find someone who will tell you what you want to hear. While that might feel good in the moment, like overindulging in your favorite ice cream, the outcomes are usually less than optimal.
Attorneys who tell you what you want to hear to get your business may be more interested in your money than in your and your children’s well-being. And attorneys who seem to feed off your emotions or get emotionally entangled in your situation can do you a huge disservice. Since you may understandably be in “crisis mode” when you are looking for an attorney, it’s essential that you are met by an experienced, grounded professional who will give you sound, realistic advice, with an eye toward your financial bottom line and your and your children’s long-term financial and psychological health.
At Conscious Family Law & Mediation, we know how difficult it can be to choose a divorce lawyer, and we take your time and family disputes seriously. We strive to operate above the painful, distracting drama that pervades so many family law conflicts. You deserve to find an attorney who will collaborate with you constructively and help you to navigate the legal landscape in service to a healthy process and a better future for you and your family.
Janette Jordan is an attorney with Conscious Family Law & Mediation LLC, a law and mediation firm providing efficient and positive family legal transitions without costly, painful legal battles.