Divorce is challenging to say the least. It typically represents one of life’s most significant legal, emotional and spiritual events. Choosing an appropriate advocate to help navigate these difficult waters is of utmost importance.
Here are six questions you should ask yourself about a lawyer you would consider hiring as a trusted advisor. You might ask, don’t I really just need to know if the person is highly competent? The answer is yes, and these questions will help in that determination.
1. Does the attorney specialize in family law? For genuine competence in handling the multiplicity of issues involved in divorce, it is critical that a lawyer’s practice be primarily focused on family law. Criminal and business lawyers are useful in their specialties, but that particular experience and model of thinking does not work well in divorce and dispute resolution. In fact, it is typically overly adversarial and therefore counterproductive.
There are many attorneys with a general practice who will not only accept family law cases, but advertise for them even though they have limited experience in the area. A primary reason that divorce cases don’t get amicably settled–and parties suffer the resulting pain and increased expense of litigation–is that inexperienced lawyers simply don’t know how to skillfully advise their clients on how to reach a mutually acceptable settlement agreement. Clients tend to just want what they want. A skillful advocate helps them find a middle ground that is acceptable to them and is still reasonable for the other side. (In my practice 98% of cases get settled by mutual agreement of the parties rather than going to court.)
2. Are the fees appropriate? Legal fees should be neither too high nor too low. Low hourly rates can signify that a lawyer is inexperienced, untrained in the field, or running a legal clinic type operation in which clients get little individual attention. Excessively high fees often mean that the lawyer is a “gunslinger” type, i.e. an over-aggressive, highly adversarial attorney that ruthlessly attacks the other side with the often disastrous result of bitter litigation that leads to sky-high expense, protracted timelines, and all-around poor results.
One should also be cautious of attorneys who offer free initial consultations, enticing as it may seem. At the beginning of your case, a thorough and insightful understanding and assessment of the situation is critical. Lawyers who say they give free initial consultations typically are trying to lure you in rather than putting in the time, effort and skill needed to clearly analyze your unique situation. There is a risk that they will simply tell you what you want to hear in order to get your case. A client needs a candid, unhurried, and accurate analysis of their situation. Then they can consider the attorney’s initial advice, sensibilities, and philosophy and see how it resonates with their intuition.
3. Will the lawyer be easily accessible? How difficult was it to reach them initially? How quickly do they return calls? Are there layers of bureaucracy to get to them (secretaries, assistants, etc.)? Unexpected situations will arise in your case and it is essential to have easy, straight-forward access to your attorney.
4. Does the attorney take a holistic approach? Divorce does not happen in a vacuum and will involve a multiplicity of life issues beyond the legal. Do your kids need a referral for psychological counseling? Does a will need to be changed? How do you best approach adjusting your budget? What are creative ways to deal with your house in a difficult real estate market? Are there lifestyle changes necessary to better endure the stress of the situation? What can one do about a partner with an addiction or mental illness? How can I deal with my partner having an affair?
A lawyer with a diverse background and a holistic, multi-faceted approach recognizes and understands that real-life issues underlie critical decisions concerning legal matters. Specific issues considered in a broader life perspective invariably produce better outcomes.
5. Can I easily and comfortably communicate with this person? Does the lawyer listen carefully to me? Am I seen as a unique person or just another case? Is my individual situation being carefully considered or is there a focus on filling out paperwork and putting me into a one-size-fits-all box? To figure out difficult legal issues, it is imperative for lawyer and client to have an authentic connection with genuine and clear communication from start to finish.
6. Do I trust and like this person? This relates to both connection as well as honesty and integrity. Will this person be absolutely candid with me? One of the cruelest things a lawyer can do is to tell someone what they think they want to hear as opposed to the truth about their situation.
The quality of the attorney/client working relationship is of utmost importance. “Liking” your lawyer might seem like a luxury, but this is not this case. Certainly competency is of the utmost importance, but while you don’t necessarily need to like your surgeon, you will be well served to have good feelings about a professional charged with protecting your children’s welfare and/or skillfully preserving your assets.
Listen to your intuition in choosing counsel in this significant life experience. Listen carefully to your quiet inner voice of strength and wisdom as opposed to voices of unsettled fear as you make this vital decision.