Family Legal Aid & Pro Bono Services
What to Consider When Hiring a Family Law Lawyer
If you are going through a divorce, a child custody dispute, or any other family law matter, you should strongly consider hiring an attorney to help you protect your interests. This is especially true if the matter is contested, but professional representation still can make a difference if your relationship with a spouse, ex-spouse, or co-parent is amicable. You should not risk going it alone when your financial security and your relationships with your children may be at stake.
One question that often arises in family law matters is whether divorcing spouses can share an attorney to make the process more affordable. The answer is no. You cannot share an attorney with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, even if you get along reasonably well and even if you agree on all the major issues in your case. Since the spouses are considered opposing parties, this would create an impermissible conflict of interest under the ethical rules governing the legal profession. If the spouses are using mediation to resolve their divorce, they can work together with an attorney who serves as a mediator. However, each spouse may want to hire an attorney to assist them during mediation.
Deciding who is the right lawyer for you can be challenging. A basic Google search can be a good place to start, but this should be only a first step. Google searches will lead to a wide range of results, including many paid listings that do not necessarily reflect the skill of a lawyer or their aptitude for your case. Similarly, you might gain useful insights from talking to friends or family members who have hired a family law attorney, but the right fit for them may not be the right fit for you. Each case is unique. Here are certain guidelines that can help you knowledgeably research and compare lawyers.
Background and Experience
You should hire a lawyer who has substantial experience handling the issues that will be decided in your case. For example, if you expect a battle over the custody of your children, and their other parent lives in a different state or country, you should hire an attorney who is experienced in cases involving interstate or international child custody. A father or mother may want to hire an attorney who is sympathetic to father’s rights or mother’s rights, respectively. If you are interested in using mediation or collaborative law to resolve a family law matter, you should hire an attorney who is familiar with those approaches. Some attorneys may have relevant board certifications or memberships in professional organizations. They may have received awards or other formal recognition of their legal prowess.
In general, you should aim to hire an attorney without a history of serious disciplinary issues. Information about an attorney’s professional record can be found by searching for them on the state bar website for their jurisdiction. You may want to review the details of any disciplinary action to get a sense of the events leading to it. Some violations are less significant than others. You may not want to automatically remove an attorney from your consideration based on a very minor infraction if they are currently in good standing.
On the other hand, a record of serious violations should be a red flag, even if the attorney has achieved some good results. You do not want egregious mistakes by your attorney to result in the loss of rights or interests that you could have protected otherwise.
Reviews and Testimonials
Reviews by previous clients can give you a sense of what it would be like to work with an attorney. You may find insights into their personality, level of professionalism, and communication skills. Client reviews can be helpful even if the details of your case are different from a previous client’s case. However, beware of very brief reviews that are harshly negative or effusively positive without providing details. These reviews may not be trustworthy.
If an attorney has received favorable reviews from other attorneys, this may indicate that they have a strong reputation in the legal community. They may be more likely to be respected by judges and opposing counsel, which can help resolve your case more favorably and efficiently.
Often, a family law lawyer will discuss their most notable successes on their website or blog. Each case is decided on its own facts, so you should not assume that you will receive the same outcome as a previous client. However, a history of positive results for people in roughly similar situations to yours can be a promising sign. You may also gain insight into the cases in which an attorney performs most impressively if many of their strongest results involve the same type of issue.
Most family law lawyers offer consultations to prospective clients at minimal or no cost, and with no obligation to retain them. You can set up a consultation by phone or online after providing some initial details about your case. The consultation helps the client and the attorney decide whether they are the right fit for each other. Even if you are impressed by an attorney’s credentials and achievements, you should not choose them on that basis alone. Instead, you should make sure to work with a lawyer whom you can trust and who relates well to you. You should feel that your lawyer is personally invested in your case, rather than treating you as just another case number. Ideally, you should set up consultations with several attorneys before deciding whom to hire.
Bringing a list of questions to the consultation can help you decide whether an attorney is the right fit. For example, you may want to describe your goals and ask how likely you are to attain them, based on what the attorney sees as the strengths and weaknesses of your position. You should not expect a precise answer, but a general impression can help set your expectations. An optimistic answer may be encouraging, but you should think twice if an attorney makes guarantees or seems much more confident than their competitors. They may be overpromising. Also, you should listen to how the attorney explains their evaluation. They should be able to articulate their reasoning in a way that is coherent and accessible to a non-lawyer.
Fees and Costs
Fees are another important issue to address at the consultation. Some family law lawyers charge hourly fees, while others may charge a fixed fee for the entire case. If you are facing financial constraints, you may be able to negotiate a flexible payment plan. In many cases, an attorney will ask a client to pay a retainer fee, which is an upfront payment. If the costs of the case fall short of the retainer amount, the rest of the retainer fee may be refunded to the client. Any fee arrangement should be clearly set out in the representation agreement so that you understand your obligations.
In addition to attorney fees, a family law case may involve court costs and other litigation costs. These may include expenses such as service fees, expert witness fees, court reporter fees, and document copying fees. In some family law cases, a party can ask the court to order the opposing party to pay their attorney fees and other costs. However, state rules on fee shifting vary, and this may be available only in narrow circumstances.
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