One of the most important decisions you will make in your divorce process is choosing the right lawyer. Being represented by a skilled lawyer can mean the difference between a smooth divorce and one marked by frustration, delay and wrong turns. So beyond typing "divorce lawyer [insert city]" into Google, how do you find your personal Atticus Finch -- a smart, skilled and empathetic lawyer?
1. Gather the Names of Several Lawyers to Interview
Just as you would not buy a house without attending a lot of open houses or purchase a new pair of shoes before trying on several pairs, you should not choose a divorce lawyer -- the expert who will counsel you through one of your biggest life changes -- before researching, meeting and interviewing several candidates. Here are a few ways to get the names of lawyers to interview:
- Personal Recommendations. If a close friend recently went through a divorce, ask her about her experiences with her lawyer. Even if your friend was not satisfied with her lawyer, maybe she would recommend her husband's lawyer? If none of your friends have been through a divorce, speak with friends of friends.
- Professional Referrals. Ask other lawyers for the names of divorce lawyers they trust and have had good experiences with. Trust and estate lawyers often have close relationships with divorce lawyers, so contact the lawyer who wrote your will. Another good referral source are private wealth managers, who often watch their clients go through divorces and are in a good position to recommend a lawyer.
- Websites. If you don't know anyone to give you a personal or professional recommendation or, more likely, are not ready to tell people you know that you are contemplating divorce, try professional websites. The website of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a prestigious organization of family law lawyers, lets you find members by state. Similarly, Super Lawyers, a website and magazine that selects top lawyers in each city based on peer reviews, evaluations and third party research, allows you to search for a lawyer by state and practice area. Finally, visit the websites for your local or state bar associations (e.g. the Association of the Bar of the City of New York) as these groups often have referral services.
2. Cyberstalk the Lawyers You Plan to Interview
Once you have the contact information for several divorce lawyers in your BlackBerry, do some research to narrow your list. Google the lawyer, check out his or her website, Facebook or LinkedIn page if available, and read about the lawyer's firm. If you have access to Westlaw or Lexis, plug the lawyer's name into a search to read some of the cases he or she has tried.
Some things to look for in your research:
- Is the lawyer part of a firm that has other matrimonial lawyers?
- Does your lawyer practice only matrimonial or other types of law as well?
- Does the lawyer represent a certain mix of clients (e.g. celebrities, wealthy individuals or people from a certain industry) and where do you fit in?
While there are no "right" answers to these questions, a lawyer who represents you in your divorce while simultaneously handling your bankruptcy, criminal case or real estate closing is probably not the most expert matrimonial lawyer. Although solo practitioners can be quite skilled, lawyers who practice at a big firm or with other matrimonial lawyers benefit from having other lawyers to bounce ideas off of or cover your case when they are in trial or on vacation. While it might impress your friends that you hired the same lawyer who handles Lady Gaga's legal affairs, consider whether the lawyer will have time to represent both you and the attention-seeking pop star.
3. Interview, Interview, Interview
A brief phone conversation can help determine if it is worthwhile to set up a personal meeting, saving you (and the lawyer) time. Perhaps you call the lawyer and it takes three days for him or her to return the call. Unless the lawyer is on vacation, in trial or recovering from major surgery, this is not a good sign.
The initial phone call is also a good time to ask about fees. Most divorce lawyers charge by the hour but require a retainer, a fee charged in advance. Retainers vary widely by location, but can range from $1,000 in a small town to $35,000 in New York City. If the amount of the retainer makes you cringe, you can not afford that lawyer. If the lawyer is beyond your price range, ask him or her to recommend a more affordable lawyer at another firm, something the lawyer should be willing to do.
If you get past the initial phone call, set up a face-to-face meeting. The main purpose of the in-person interview is to tell the lawyer the basic facts of your case, hear the lawyer's thoughts and get an idea of his or her legal approach. Ask who will be handling the day-to- day issues of your case, and if it is not the lawyer you interviewed (as is often the case), ask to meet the associate or colleague who will be helping.
Some red flags that the person you are interviewing is not the lawyer for you:
- The lawyer makes promises or guarantees about the outcome of your divorce after hearing only your side of the story. A good divorce lawyer knows that there are no "sure things" in the divorce world and will be very careful to give you a realistic and honest appraisal of your case.
- The divorce lawyer drops the names of important or famous clients he or she has represented, also spilling confidential details.
- When you tell the lawyer the names of the other lawyers you are interviewing, he or she trashes them.
- The lawyer gets distracted by phone calls, emails or people coming into his or her office. If you don't get the lawyer's full attention during the initial interview, what do you think is going to happen when you are knee-deep in the less-exciting details of your case?
4. Make Your Choice
When it comes down to choosing a lawyer out of the several you have interviewed, be more intuitive than scientific. Even if the lawyers you interviewed are all acceptable on paper, there is no guarantee each one will be a good fit. Go with your gut and choose the lawyer you click with. Remember that divorce is a highly personal and emotionally charged process, so choose a lawyer with whom you will feel comfortable sharing some of the more intimate details of your life. While you might not find Atticus Finch incarnate, if you have received strong recommendations, done your research and interviewed several candidates, you should find a lawyer who will advocate for you, patiently answer your questions and guide you through a difficult process.