Selecting the right attorney to represent you is both daunting and imperative. A family law lawyer can come in any shape, size, and temperament, just like everyone else. You want an attorney who fits well with your personality, understands your goals, and has the experience and expertise to handle your divorce. You also want someone you can afford, and who appreciates the financial sacrifices most clients have to make to afford legal representation. The process of finding that person is a lot like dating, but much more expensive (and the stakes are much higher), so you want to be thoughtful and methodical about making this decision.
Personality and Practice Style
People who are getting divorced often feel vulnerable and lost. The personality of your family law lawyer should reassure you while not giving you unrealistic expectations about the outcome of your case. The right lawyer for you will listen to how you feel and what you want, then build on that information using his or her expertise, skill and experience.
During your first visit with an attorney you will probably see the best he has to offer because the attorney and staff will want to make a good impression on potential clients. Think about how a lawyer makes you feel when you are in his or her office. Does it seem like the employees are interested in your wellbeing? Are they courteous and respectful? What does the physical environment tell you about the lawyer’s priorities and habits? That big pile of documents sitting on the lawyer’s desk could be your personal, private information. Are you OK with that, or do you need to look for someone who is more organized and tuned into her clients’ need for privacy and confidentiality?
The best fit for you will be a lawyer who understands your personal strengths and weaknesses and uses that knowledge to formulate a plan of action for your case. If, for instance, you are conflict avoidant, you might think you want someone who is aggressive and quarrelsome to compensate for your distaste for confrontations. But this is someone you will be spending a lot of time with, so how will you tolerate that personality if it is very different from yours? There is an old Zen saying: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” If your lawyer is going to be in your spouse’s face, how will she treat you? You might be better served by an attorney who focuses on a well-reasoned strategy than one who relies on intimidation and bully tactics.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, put yourself in the shoes of your spouse. Will a particular lawyer intimidate or push your spouse’s buttons? Does the mere mention of this person’s name strike fear into the hearts of all men or all women in your community? Is that what you think will get you more of what you want, or will a more practical, cooperative, businesslike approach be more effective? What will make your spouse want to cooperate more and fight less? How will a “take no prisoners” approach affect your children? What other important relationships might be damaged or preserved depending on the style of your lawyer?
How adept is the lawyer at telling you things you don’t necessarily want to hear? A good family attorney will be able to deliver less-than-pleasing news directly, but with compassion. You don’t want someone who is afraid to upset you, but you also don’t want to be humiliated or shamed for asking for something that you can’t get under the law and the standards in your community.
It is not necessary that you like your family law lawyer enough to go have coffee with him after your case is over, but you do have to like and trust him enough to feel that your money is being well spent.
Experience and Expertise
There is no guarantee that an experienced attorney will be better for you than one who has been practicing for a shorter time, but it is reasonable to start with the idea that the more experienced lawyer will have a better idea about what other local lawyers are like and what might happen if you take your case before a specific judge in your community. Experience in handling divorces is crucial, not just years of general legal experience. Divorce law is complex and complicated, so research who in your community has been representing clients in divorces for a number of years.
In divorce law, more than other areas of the law, your lawyer needs to understand the big picture of your life. He or she should help you prioritize your goals and interests and evaluate the best way to approach the problem from several directions at once. How does what you want and need compare to what you’re entitled to under the law? Are the issues governed by statute the most important ones, or do your efforts need to be focused on “softer” issues like continued relationships? What are the emotional issues at play?
If the spouse with the higher earning capacity is not the person who wants the divorce, how will you and your lawyer convince that person to “do the right thing?” How can you best turn someone’s guilty conscience into a workable financial package? These are skills that are not necessarily taught in law school. They come from experience – and from thoughtful reflection upon experience.
Think about what specific expertise you want in a lawyer. You want the best family law litigator on your side, if you think you will have a big fight. If you want to handle your case using the collaborative divorce model, however, you want a different skill set in your lawyer, so look for someone who had handled a lot of collaborative cases. If you plan to come to an agreement through mediation, ask around for who is a skilled negotiator and who encourages clients to try early-intervention mediation.
It is essential that an attorney and client have a clear understanding about how the client will be charged and how the fees will be paid. Most family law attorneys in Texas will bill the client at an hourly rate (which will differ based on specific communities and the experience and skill of the attorney) and will require a retainer in order to begin work on your case.
While it is almost always difficult to discuss money transactions, it is a discussion that needs to occur. Attorneys usually have written fee agreements or employments contracts. Read these documents carefully. If you have a limited amount of money available to pay for a divorce, tell the lawyer this information at the beginning of the relationship. If the lawyer does not believe he or she can complete the case for that amount of money, it is probably best to look elsewhere for an attorney. Most attorneys have a list of less-expensive lawyers to whom they refer, so ask for names. The worst outcome is to get into the middle of a divorce or other family law matter then have insufficient funds to pay your lawyer or another lawyer to complete the process.
Ask an attorney you are interviewing how he or she will help you find ways to keep the costs of the divorce down. Make sure they know what your financial parameters are, and what expectations you have regarding costs.
It is helpful to ask for referrals from friends who have been through divorces, but remember that the facts of their case, their personalities, their estate, and their children are different from yours. Just because an attorney was a good fit for your neighbor does not mean that same lawyer will be right for you. Ask friends and acquaintances what about their lawyer they liked and did not like. Also ask about their spouse’s lawyer. What did that attorney do to help calm the waters or make matters worse? Information from friends and lawyers, though, is just a piece of information. Use that, along with the other information you gather to decide which lawyer will best meet your needs.
Choosing the right family law lawyer for you can be the factor that decides how easy or difficult your entire divorce process will be. The decision is too important to make lightly. Do not hesitate to interview more than one attorney so you can get a feel about what alternatives are available. At the end of the interview process, you have to assess your overall comfort level with an attorney before you decide if he or she is right for you given your circumstances at the time you begin the divorce process. If you make a mistake you can always change lawyers later, but that can be a costly move, so take your time, do your research, and choose wisely.