You've gotten a list of names from friends, family, your therapist, and the Yellow Pages. Now you're ready to interview some lawyers. How do you start? First of all, call the office for an appointment. Ask whether the lawyer you want to interview charges for an initial consultation. If there's a charge, find out how much. Is it a flat fee? Is it an hourly rate? Most attorneys charge by the hour, which is why it's important to prepare for the interview in advance. Ask some background questions before making the appointment. Find out if the lawyer limits her practice to family law; if not, ask what percentage of the practice is dedicated to divorce cases, how many years the practice has been open, and how often the attorney practices in your jurisdiction. The answers to these simple questions may prompt you to call a different lawyer.
Conflict of Interest
A lawyer can't represent you in your divorce if he has had previous dealings with your family or your spouse. However, it's okay for the lawyer to represent you if previous contact was with you alone and if that contact did not involve the issues of your marriage.
Some divorcing people meet with certain lawyers in the community just to try to prevent these lawyers from representing their spouses. Ethically, once a lawyer has discussed a divorce with one spouse, she is disqualified from representing the other spouse. Here's how it works. There's a local divorce lawyer known for tough tactics and making divorce cases long and painful. You don't want to hire that lawyer, but you also don't want your spouse to hire her, either. You meet with her and give her some information about your marriage. You don't hire the lawyer. Now that lawyer may be disqualified from representing your spouse unless he can show that you and the lawyer didn't discuss the substance of your case. While this tactic doesn't always prevent the barracuda lawyer from representing your spouse, it may work.
Sometimes a lawyer can't represent you because you and your spouse have worked with another lawyer in the firm. For example, you and your spouse had one of the divorce lawyer's partners draft your wills. This lawyer has obtained information about your assets; therefore, she can't represent you unless your spouse says it's okay.
Be sure to ask how you will be billed. If you do not receive a bill, call your lawyer immediately because you should closely monitor how your money is being spent. Compare the bill against your own records so you can settle any discrepancies as soon as possible.
When you call the lawyer's office to schedule an initial consultation, ask to speak with the lawyer directly. If the lawyer is too busy to talk with you, this is probably a bad sign. It may be a warning that the lawyer will be too busy to talk with you after you've hired him. You want to speak directly with the lawyer so you can briefly outline your case before scheduling a meeting and confirm that the lawyer handles your kind of case. For example, if you have a custody issue, you need to know whether the lawyer handles custody cases, and whether he has the time to take one on at this time. You save yourself time and money by finding this out by telephone.
If the lawyer can't take your case, ask for a referral. If he asks whether you're considering other lawyers, give their names and see if he knows the attorneys on your list. Lawyers rarely say bad things about other lawyers. They tend to be more subtle, so try to pick up on the message. If the lawyer knows the attorneys on your list but suggests names other than the ones you have, he is telling you he doesn't think too highly of the people on your list. However, don't select a lawyer based solely on the referral of another lawyer.
Review your objectives again as you prepare to interview prospective lawyers. You should plan to interview at least two or three lawyers.
Prepare a list of questions to include the following:
What is your lawyering style? You want to know how a lawyer sees herself. You want to know if the lawyer is proud of her trial work, the ability to help negotiate a settlement, or perhaps a combination of these skills.
What are your credentials? You want to know how long this lawyer has practiced family law and what his range of experience is. In particular, you want to know how much experience he has with cases like yours.
How many cases like mine have you taken to trial? You want to know if the attorney often takes cases to trial as opposed to settling. In addition, you want to know if she has trial experience should your case go to trial.
How busy are you? You want to know whether the lawyer will be available to answer your telephone calls. You want to be sure he will be the person you talk to and the person who comes to court with you for all matters, not just the trial.
Will any part of my case be handled by other staff in the office? You want to know who is actually going to be working on your case. Many attorneys have associates, paralegals, or legal assistants who also work on cases. This can help reduce the overall cost of the legal services provided. You want to make sure that all work is overseen by the attorney you are hiring and that she will be the one appearing with you in court.
Will you take the initiative to seek a settlement? It's important that your lawyer stay current with the facts of your case and take positive steps to get your issues resolved.
How much do you charge? You need to know how the lawyer charges for his work. You want him to explain the fee agreement clearly and in language you can understand. If he has indicated that other staff from his office will work on your case, make sure he tells you if and how the fee will change. If the lawyer is offering a flat fee for his representation, make sure you know what that flat fee includes and particularly what it does not include.
How much do you think my case will cost? It is difficult if not impossible to predict how much you will spend on a divorce. This is because there are so many unknown factors. If the case settles, it will be cheaper. If the parties can agree on the value of an asset rather than hire an appraiser, it will be cheaper. Beware of the practitioner who tells you that your case will cost a certain amount unless she is offering to represent you for a flat fee rather than an hourly rate. At best, a lawyer can offer you a ballpark figure of what your case will cost based on her hourly rate and whether your case settles or goes to trial.
Who makes final decisions as to tactics and objectives? It's important to know that you will have the final say on tactics and objectives.
If you anticipate you'll be dealing with a custody disagreement, you need to find out what experience the lawyer has in this area. When your children's future is at stake, you want a lawyer who has significant experience working with the courts and the experts who work with families. You need a lawyer who can evaluate your chances of obtaining the result you want and who will tell you when you aren't being realistic. Custody litigation is the single most effective way to create a war between you and your spouse where one does not currently exist. When interviewing a lawyer regarding custody issues, be honest about the situation and don't exaggerate facts and circumstances. Be cautious regarding promises that you will be awarded custody, particularly if the plan the attorney proposes involves drastic measures.
For example, let's say you've been a working father and your spouse has been a stay at home mother who has primarily cared for your children. The lawyer you visit suggests that your wife will probably be awarded custody unless you can prove she is unfit. To do this, he suggests you should hire a private investigator to follow her and photograph her in her daily activities with the children. The attorney assures you that everyone has something to hide, including your spouse! Think carefully about this course of action. If you have concerns then it may be a reasonable suggestion. However, if you know deep down that your spouse is a good parent, don't let a lawyer convince you she's not.
Big Money Cases
If you have significant assets, you need to find out whether the lawyer has handled big money cases in the past. Is yours the biggest to ever walk into his office? Maybe he doesn't have enough experience in handling complex asset issues to handle your marital estate. You don't want him to develop expertise at your expense. Rather, you want someone who knows the money experts in town and how to work with them to get an understanding of your situation.
Should You Hire the Hotshot?
Should you select a hotshot big-city lawyer? Your case is in another county, but you're attracted by this lawyer's reputation. Consider using an attorney who lives in your county. A local lawyer knows the judges, the other lawyers, and any quirks of the local practice. Big-city hotshots often aren't well received in the country. Ms. Local Lawyer probably will enjoy beating up on Mr. Big City Hotshot. If you're paying your fancy lawyer's travel costs at a significant hourly rate, your spouse may take advantage of this by setting lots of hearings that will eventually wear you down financially and lead you to settle for less.
Does Gender Matter?
In a metropolitan area, gender isn't an issue because as many good men as good women practice family law. In that locale the real issues for you are competence and personality of your lawyer. However, in some rural jurisdictions a “good old boy” mentality that women should be at home with the kids may still exist, so check this out if your case will be heard in a rural court. By the same token, hiring a woman probably won't give you an edge in a custody case, nor will it make you look better if you are a male and your spouse has accused you of domestic abuse. Good lawyers are good lawyers, regardless of gender.