Besides fighting a traffic ticket, divorce gives most people their first and perhaps only exposure to their state’s legal system and the need to hire an attorney. This article explains how best to approach the selection process given your particular situation, needs, and goals, and is guidance from the noted Philadelphia divorce lawyers at the Schwartz Law Firm.
Start your search by taking the following four steps to find the right divorce lawyer for you.
Know What Your Goals Are in Retaining a Divorce Lawyer
This is likely an emotional time for you, so approach choosing an attorney methodically. The first step is to write down what your goals are in retaining a divorce attorney. They might look something like this:
- Negotiate the property settlement agreement.
- Deal with your ex and your ex’s attorney.
- Be by your side in court.
- Negotiate the child custody agreement (if applicable).
- Negotiate the child support agreement (if applicable).
- Negotiate spousal support or alimony (if applicable).
Having made a shortlist of your goals, think about how you would like your jointly-owned property to be divided and write that down. Think also about whether you require child or spousal support. Be prepared with your financial information so that when you meet with attorneys, they can give you an idea of what you may be entitled to in terms of support.
Do Not Expect an Attorney to Listen to You Rant About Your Ex
You are not hiring an attorney for emotional support. As much as you will come to rely on your attorney, expect your relationship to be purely professional. You should not expect them to indulge you in complaining about your ex or the underlying issues leading to the divorce. Save that talk for a sympathetic friend, or, if you are having trouble functioning because of your anger or grief over the end of your marriage, consider seeing a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist for help coping.
You may become fond of your attorney after they help you through the divorce, but it is best to consider your relationship merely transactional. Time IS money when your attorney bills you by the hour, so don’t waste either by forcing them to listen to you complain.
Interview at Least Three Divorce Lawyers
Just as with hiring a contractor to renovate your kitchen, you need to interview more than one divorce lawyer to compare and contrast different candidates.
Identify Potential Family Law Attorneys
First, ask any local friends or family members who have divorced if they were satisfied with their divorce attorney, and if so, why, and if not, why not? Their answers may surprise you, and they probably will introduce you to issues that may not have occurred to you.
Only ask people about their divorce lawyers who live near you because family law is jurisdictional. You’ll want an attorney who has experience appearing before the family law judges in your jurisdiction.
If your poll of friends and family does not give you at least three potential lawyers, google “divorce lawyer in [your area]” and see who comes up.
Google the Candidates You Have Identified
Once you have identified at least three potential candidates, google them. Often there will be client testimonials you can review, and their websites will give you an idea of how long they’ve been practicing divorce law, what other areas of law they practice, and how big their firm is. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to these issues. It will come down to how comfortable you feel with how these divorce attorneys are portraying themselves publicly.
Visit the State Bar Association and State Court Website
You should be able to inquire with the state attorney ethics committee online about each candidate and find out whether they have faced any ethics complaints or disciplinary actions.
Also, visit the state court’s website. There you should be able to search for the candidates’ names as a party defendant to any malpractice lawsuits.
Be very wary of an attorney who has a history of ethics violations or has been a defendant in a malpractice suit. This is not to say that a candidate should be eliminated on this basis, but you should be prepared to ask the candidate about that part of their professional history if you find anything.
Be Prepared with Questions
Obviously, ask about any ethics complaints or sanctions or malpractice suits you may have found. If a candidate has a blemish on their record, be sure to bring it up in your initial consultation and ask what happened. Whether or not you are satisfied with their explanation is up to you.
Other than that, you should ask questions about how they expect the attorney-client relationship to work. This way, you will get to know the candidate a bit better and find out what to expect from them and from the process of getting divorced.
Ask about the time they will take to answer communication from you, and how best to contact them, either by phone, email, or text?
Timeline and Cost Estimate
Ask them about the timeline of a divorce, given your situation, how the process usually unfolds, and how long the process will take. Also, ask how much they expect your divorce to cost. They should be able to give you a ballpark figure, barring any unforeseeable complications.
Be on the Lookout for Red Flags
In addition to unsatisfactory explanations for malpractice lawsuits or sanctions for ethics violations, look out for the following red flags:
- Being late to your initial consultation;
- Refusing to give or avoiding giving you answers to your questions;
- A feeling that you are being told what you want to hear;
- An artificially-low cost estimate;
- A sense that you are being treated as a commodity, not as a person;
- A feeling that the attorney is not taking you seriously or is condescending.
Besides getting competent representation, you want someone you think you can work with comfortably. It is okay not to retain someone you just don’t care for. Respect your instincts.
About the Author
Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant and blogger living and working in the great city of Philadelphia. She frequently works with Lee A. Schwartz, Esq., a busy Philadelphia divorce lawyer.