Choosing a Divorce Attorney
Choosing a divorce lawyer can be overwhelming. After all, your divorce attorney is the expert you'll rely on to help you make the best decisions about your divorce. An attorney can be involved in your divorce from start to finish, or work with you on a very limited basis. (Generally, if you and your spouse both feel confident about your ability to draft your own divorce agreement, you may be able to limit your use of an attorney to initial advice and information and final evaluation and feedback.)
When you do hire a divorce attorney, it's more than a matter of running your fingers through the lawyer ads in the yellow pages until you spot the word "divorce" or simply hiring the lawyer who helped you negotiate your office lease or draw up your will.
- You need to hire an attorney experienced in family law.
In some states, attorneys can be board-certified in family law. These lawyers specialize in divorce cases and other kinds of family law issues. To be certified, they must have significant trial experience and pass a rigorous test. To maintain their certification, they must receive substantial continuing education in family law each year, generally twice the amount of required continuing education of non-board certified family law attorneys. This type of family law attorney tends to charge more and demand higher retainers to begin a family law case than those who are not board-certified, but they are usually more experienced.
- The attorney you hire should talk to you in plain English, not legalese.
- The attorney should be someone you trust and feel comfortable with, because you may have to reveal highly personal information about yourself and your marriage.
- If you have young children, look for an attorney who makes it clear that during your divorce you must put your children's needs first and that he or she will not pursue unreasonable demands for child support or help you pursue vindictive child custody and visitation arrangements.
- And last, but certainly not least, your lawyer should be affordable.
Appropriate skills and experience
An old adage states, "There are horses for courses." This saying is as true for an attorney as for any other professional. In other words, when you select a family law attorney, you want one with the legal skills and knowledge needed to get the job done for you:
- If you need help negotiating your divorce agreement, the ideal attorney is a problem solver, works well with people, is adept at compromise,and is comfortable in court. Although you and your spouse may have no intention of going to court, an attorney's trial record and history of success in court can have some bearing on his or her ability to negotiate a settlement with your spouse's attorney.
- If you know from the start that you're headed for a divorce trial, you want an attorney who has considerable courtroom experience. Not all lawyers do.
- It is also helpful if the attorney you choose is familiar with the family law judges in your jurisdiction. Knowing the courtroom style of the judge who's likely to hear your case and how the judge has ruled on previous cases similar to yours helps your attorney adapt his or her legal strategy and style to that particular judge.
Don't base your hiring decision on which attorney has the nicest office. A fancy office in an expensive building says nothing about the adequacy of a lawyer's legal skills. At the same time, don't assume that just because you pay a lot of money to an attorney that his or her legal representation is appropriate to your needs or is of high quality.Also, don't let a lawyer's physical appearance influence your hiring decision.
If your financial situation is complex, the lawyer you hire should either have a solid understanding of the issues and laws that pertain to your divorce or work closely with other lawyers or financial experts who have that knowledge, such as a CPA or appraiser. Remember, negotiating your divorce agreement is as much about financial matters as it is about ending your marriage.
If you are relying on an attorney to do more than simply review your divorce paperwork, you must be prepared to share details about your personal life, marriage, and finances. Therefore, you must feel comfortable with whoever represents you.
In addition, your attorney should share and support your basic philosophy or attitude toward your divorce. For example, if you want to keep things as calm, cooperative, and nonadversarial as possible, then avoid attorneys who like to "go for the jugular."
Do not confuse your attorney with your therapist or religious advisor. Your attorney's clock is usually running regardless of whether you call with a legal question or to complain about your spouse.
If you don't have much money to spend on legal help, you may have to hire a relatively inexperienced lawyer instead of a seasoned professional. New attorneys tend to cost less than lawyers who have been practicing law for years and already have solid reputations. However, working with an up-and-coming or novice attorney has a potential advantage. In order to build up a good reputation, the attorney may be willing to work a little harder for you than a seasoned lawyer would.
Most family law attorneys bill for their services on an hourly basis. Few agree to take a flat fee based on the total amount of time and labor they think your divorce requires. Estimating up-front just how much time is necessary to finalize your divorce is difficult, because no lawyer knows exactly how any divorce is going to play out.
You're more apt to find an attorney who'll take your case for a flat fee if your divorce is 100 percent amicable and if the tasks the attorney will perform are very well defined. You may be able to find an attorney willing to accept a flat fee if your legal needs are very specific and very limited — for example, you just need some paperwork filled out and filed.
Among other things, an attorney's hourly rate depends on your region of the country and whether your community is rural or urban. Those of you living on the East and West Coasts can expect to pay the most.
Depending on where you live, on average the services of a divorce attorney will cost you anywhere from $100 an hour to more than $600 an hour, plus expenses.