Selecting Your Divorce Lawyer

02/17/2011 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Divorce is a game played by lawyers."
 -- Cary Grant

In any divorce, deciding on an attorney to represent your interests is the single most important divorce decision you will make. Your lawyer will be making choices and providing advice for you that is in many situations irrevocable and life changing. Your lawyer is the person who will guide you and develop the plan and course for the rest of your life. If you are involved in a custody battle and have the wrong lawyer, you can lose your children -- very quickly; faster than you would ever have believed possible. However, if you have the right lawyer, the other side may not even be willing to make the opening salvo of seeking full custody. The mere presence of the right attorney is enough to warn the other side not to try something stupid.

Remarkably, the process of selecting an attorney to represent you has many of the same qualities that you would probably seek in a love partner: Can you trust them? Can you feel comfortable confiding in them? Are they gentle or rude and abrupt? Are they responsive to your concerns? Will they return your calls? Do they listen and actually hear what you are saying? Are they intelligent? Do they have the ability to calm and re-assure you in stressful situations? Do they have a sense of humor? Are you confident that you are not just wasting time with them?

As you select a lawyer, you must remember the high degree of finality to divorce judgments. Certainly, one can appeal a court's decision, but the rules vary based upon where you live. You may reside in an area with an absolute right of appeal or one with limited rights of appeal. You may live in an area where you have to petition the state Supreme Court, and say: This is what my gripe is, will you review it? If the court says no, you are finished. Accordingly, the selection of your lawyer is extremely important. Don't believe that you will fix his or her errors on appeal. Like marriage, if you do it, you need to try to get it right, the first time.

So how do you select the best lawyer possible? This is one of the few areas where advice from friends is actually helpful. If your marriage is ending, you will inevitably receive recommendations from your friends and relatives, who will have had either a positive or a negative experience with their attorney. Someone that has been through a divorce usually has rather pointed criticism or praise regarding the lawyers that they have encountered during the divorce odyssey. More bluntly, people usually love or hate their divorce lawyers. Only the truly mediocre lawyer engenders the apathetic reply from a client, "they were okay." If the lawyer did a good job, and the process has been satisfactorily completed, it will generally be a good recommendation. Again, though, I must caution that every marriage and divorce is unique, and what worked in one case may not necessarily work in another. You might really dislike the lawyer your best friend thought did such a great job.

The most important component of your relationship with your lawyer is that you have the ability to communicate with him or her. That the two of you have a good rapport; that you aren't afraid of them or intimidated by them; and, most importantly, that you trust them and feel comfortable that what he or she is telling you is correct. Any competent lawyer is going to appreciate the fact that at the time of your "first date" or "initial consultation" you are under extraordinarily stressful circumstances. You do not have to attempt to present yourself as Mr. or Mrs. Congeniality. However, in a way, it is still a first date. You also need to be aware that sometimes the real "gold digger" is sitting across the desk from you.

Beyond these general inquiries, there are a number of important qualities to consider. First, experience. What is the actual trial experience of the lawyer you might hire? What is the practitioner's expertise in the handling of various issues, i.e., custody matters versus the valuation of business interests? Does the lawyer have the respect of his or her peers through a rating from Martindale-Hubbell? Yes, lawyers actually rate other lawyers and the information is available to all members of the public at no charge at A, which is preeminent, B, which is very good, or C, good. There is another part where their peers also rate the lawyer's ethics. All lawyers value and covet their ratings and all aspire to reach the pinnacle rating as an AV lawyer.

In judging the experience of a lawyer, you can also visit the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court website of any state. Just punch in your lawyer's name, search for a case, and you can easily determine if your potential lawyer has been involved in many domestic relations appeals. More importantly, how has he or she done?

I also suggest that you take your lawyer for a "test drive." How? Most jurisdictions in larger municipalities have regular days of the week when matters on the domestic relations docket are heard by the court. Trust me, it is worth your time to watch the parade of attorneys and litigants to observe first hand how "justice" is actually meted out. You will see lawyers, parties and Judges at their best and worst. If you are interested in seeing a particular lawyer, you can consult the court docket or the clerk's office to ascertain in which courtroom that lawyer may be found. If you are just interested in walking around the lot so to speak, you can certainly do so.
There are many good lawyers, but I remain concerned and disturbed that there are more bad ones than good. Selecting a lawyer or buying advice is like buying fish at the local market. When you go to the market, you never buy fish that smells "fishy". If the prospective lawyer or their advice smells fishy, don't buy it. There are plenty of fish in the sea and it is probably an indication that you should try a different market. Bad fish can make you very sick...