Selecting Your Attorney
Most people have little or no experience in the process of selecting a family law attorney, and are uncertain how to best select an attorney. The process can feel overwhelming. A divorce or a custody battle is stressful enough! How do you pick the right attorney to ensure that you are well represented? I hope the following advice will help you with the process.
1. Internet. Gather as much information about a potential attorney before making that first call. In this day of social media and individual websites, you can learn a lot about your attorney – his or her years of experience, geographical area of practice, concentration in certain types of law, etc. just by reading a website or looking at a Facebook page. Third party websites, such as AVVO, often have lots of biographical background about local attorneys that are informative.
2. Referrals from friends and relatives. If a friend or relative was successfully represented by a particular attorney, that is always reassuring. The most flattering referrals I have ever received were ones from the party I did not represent!
3. Phone interview. Most attorneys will be happy to spend some time on the phone with you, free of charge, answering general questions. Write down the questions that are important to you, not just about your case, but to help you select the right attorney:
a. What is the attorney’s experience in the area of practice related to your legal problem (e.g., child custody, modifying alimony, divorce, etc.)? Some attorneys have lots of trial experience, and others never want to try a case. Knowing this may make a difference in who you select.
b. Does the attorney participate in and support alternative dispute resolution? Knowing this may make a difference in your case.
c. What is the attorney’s hourly rate?
d. What time frame issues might need addressing? For instance, if you have been served with a notice of a hearing scheduled the following week, be sure to find out right away if the attorney can even clear his/her schedule to appear in court for you.
e. Does the attorney practice in the county where your case is filed?
It is important for a family law client to find an attorney that is a “good fit,” so that there is a spirit of cooperation, understanding and trust between the attorney and the client. There are many different types of attorneys. Some are very aggressive, and excel in litigation (and driving up attorney fees). Some are very laid back and will do anything to settle a case. Some have the ability to be aggressive as necessary and yet remain open and able to facilitate a settlement in the client’s best interests. Different clients have different personalities and needs. It is important to find the right fit for you and your case.
It may be it is necessary to interview several attorneys before choosing; it is time well-invested. However, if you speak with an attorney who feels right to you, and the price is right, don’t hesitate to retain and move your case forward.
Remember, too, that you “get what you pay for,” and the cheapest attorney is not necessarily the best. Better to spend more up front and be well-represented, than to spend less money on your lawyer and end up leaving the marriage feeling that you did not get all you were entitled to receive. That is an expensive mistake!
Meeting with your Family Law Attorney
In order to effectively represent your interests, your family law attorney needs to know as much as possible about you and your spouse, ranging from length of your marriage, assets and debts, employment and income, children, parenting habits and lifestyle, how conflict is resolved, and more.
Domestic Violence – In my experience, clients are reluctant to admit that they have been the victims of domestic violence, perhaps out of a sense of shame. Victims often blame themselves, although victims are never to blame. Remember that your attorney is not there to judge you. S/he is there to protect you, legally, financially, and sometimes even physically.
For instance, your attorney can assist you in obtaining a personal protection order, which can result in you receiving exclusive possession of the marital home for you and the children during the time the divorce is pending and beyond. And, although Michigan is a no-fault divorce state (meaning you don’t have to prove your spouse is at fault to get divorced), fault does matter in property division and alimony – especially if your spouse is violent.
Do not hesitate to disclose violence to your attorney, as it is a critically important piece of information to help your attorney help you. Also, if you have been violent – even if you have hit your spouse – you should share this with your attorney. There is no way an attorney can defend your legal rights if she or he is the last to know that you have engaged in an assault or other illegal conduct that can impact the way the divorce settlement looks.
Again, your attorney is not there to judge you, but to help you. Full disclosure is always the best way to make sure you receive the best representation possible, and that the best interests of your children are met.
Remember, too, that your attorney is bound by the attorney-client privilege and cannot disclose anything you say in private to him/her without your express permission. In other words, you will always be safe sharing more with your lawyer.
Documentation – I always advise my new clients to gather as much documentation as possible about assets, income and debt – including bank statements, investment account information, pay stubs, tax returns, deeds, mortgage and credit card statements, etc. It is not necessary to bring this documentation to an initial interview, before you have made a decision to retain the attorney. But, once you do, your attorney will appreciate receiving as much information from you as possible to help him or her prepare your case.
Keep in mind that the less information you and your attorney have and know about the economics of your marriage, the more work the attorney must do to obtain that information from the other side and from third parties during the divorce proceedings. While it is true that your divorce attorney is trained to know how to get all the information necessary to represent your interests, those services translate into higher fees. So, you can help both yourself and your attorney by taking time to photocopy and gather as much information as possible early in the case.
Availability – It is important for your attorney to be able to reach you as need arises. You should make sure that you make yourself available, whether by phone or email, because often times delays can cause problems in managing your case.