HOW TO CHOOSE A DIVORCE ATTORNEY
Lawyers come in different packages: good, bad, cheap, and expensive. Hiring an attorney may be the single most important decision you make in your divorce. Having a skilled divorce lawyer in your corner can significantly increase your chances of walking away from your marriage with a great arrangement and financial stability.
In choosing an attorney, it’s important to focus on the overall value you’re getting. Although cost is a factor, quality is most important: the attorney’s reputation, experience, past results, philosophy, and accessibility to clients are all factors to consider.
First, the difference between shopping for an attorney today versus twenty years ago is that the internet has revolutionized the process by making reliable information readily accessible to consumers. Take advantage of it, and do your research. What do other professionals or previous clients think of the attorney? Look up reviews posted about the attorney by prior clients, colleagues, and others that have been in a working relationship with the attorney. You should also ask trustworthy friends or professionals for recommendations.
Choose an attorney that focuses on divorce and family law practice. Especially when there’s a lot on the line - i.e. money, children - hiring a general practitioner is risky. If you have a serious heart condition, would you trust your primary care physician to treat it? Of course not, you want a cardiologist. Similarly, the stakes are high in a divorce, so you want an attorney that’s well-versed in that area of practice.
You should also take the time to meet with the attorney so you can determine whether the attorney is a good match for you. Your first meeting will usually be a consultation. Although saving money is important, you may want to consider avoiding free consultations. What? Are you crazy? Why would I pass on a free consultation? If it’s for free, it’s for me, right? Not in family law. This is why: do you prefer a sales pitch and possibly unreliable information or would you rather have a reliable analysis of your case with some advice on how to begin preparing and have your questions answered? If it’s the latter, you’ll have difficulty getting that level of quality for free.
On the topic of legal fees, generally, you should hire an attorney that bills by the hour. You may be thinking: but if I can get an attorney to offer me a flat fee that’s on the lower end, why shouldn’t I do that? You shouldn’t do that because of the risk that the arrangement will backfire on either you or the attorney. It’s very difficult for an attorney to accurately predict at the beginning of a case how much time and work will be required to resolve it. That’s because there are several issues to address in a divorce and inevitably more issues that pop up during the process. Also, an attorney cannot predict how reasonably or unreasonable your spouse and/or his or her attorney will be, which is a significant factor.
If you’re charged a flat fee and more work than anticipated is required, the attorney won’t have financial incentive to do extra work for you. And conversely, if all goes smoothly and less work is required, you may potentially be overpaying. The exception to this rule is an uncontested divorce in which everything is agreed upon in advance, and the attorney is advising you and preparing the documents.
What are the red flags you should look out for when searching for an attorney?
First, beware of attorneys that make promises. It’s difficult to predict at the beginning of a case exactly how it will play out. So an attorney that’s giving you a lot of guarantees may be desperate to sign you up and take your money.
Beware of attorneys that incite dissension or encourage clients to make decisions based on emotion rather than reason. Your attorney should fight efficiently to get you the best result. The attorney should not create unnecessary conflict solely for profit. This doesn’t mean that you should go with the “cheaper” lawyer - we frequently get what we pay for. However, it does mean making smart investments in your case and not wasting your money: divorce is an ongoing cost-benefit analysis, not an opportunity for an attorney to play on your emotions to make extra money at your expense.
Look for an attorney with whom you feel comfortable, and who strives to get clients the best result possible while also prioritizing the client to make the process as smooth as possible.