The old saying “it’s not what you know but who you know” couldn’t be less accurate when it comes to choosing the family lawyer who will represent you in one of the most significant life experience you will pass through. No, in this case it is exactly “what you know” that makes the difference. True, you may know a great divorce lawyer, but that’s not the kind of knowledge most people need when they embark on a search for someone to guide them through the minefield of divorce.
Here are several tips to help you choose your partner for this journey:
It’s a Job Interview. In real-estate it’s always location, location, location but in hiring divorce counsel it’s interview, interview, interview. Would you buy a car after only looking at one model on one dealer’s lot? Probably not. Would you buy a house without deciding beforehand how many rooms you need, bathrooms, what kind of kitchen you want, etc.? I don’t think so. The same is true with a lawyer. Remember, this is a relationship in every sense of the word. This person will share your sorrow, your dreams, know your finances, and perhaps even spend time with you in court. You have to like this person, trust their abilities, rely on their judgment for monumental decisions.
How many attorneys should you interview? As many as it takes to find someone that you like, trust, and can afford. That might mean 5 interviews, or 20, you just never know. But something you can rely on is your gut. Your gut will tell you if you’re likely to get along with this person. Look for other signals: Are they genuine? Do they look you in the eyes? Do they answer your questions directly or do they avoid honest answers?
As I mentioned, it’s important to trust your gut, but facts are important too. Was the attorney (or their staff) responsive to you when you called to set up an appointment. How were you treated when you arrived? Are you paying for an initial consult or is the attorney offering a few minutes for free to review your case. What does their office look like? Is it clean and organized or a cluttered mess? I’ve known brilliant attorneys who are a complete disaster when it comes to organization, but chances are you’d rather be with an lawyer who is organized and efficient rather than the opposite.
The Ol’ Switcheroo. Always be direct with the attorney you’re interviewing. It’s a time-honored trick to interview a senior partner when in reality a junior partner or associate will be doing all your work. This isn’t necessarily dishonest, it’s the way law firms are organized and how young attorneys gain experience, the same is true of how doctors are trained. But it’s important for you to know who will actually be doing the negotiating and heavy lifting on the tough parts of your divorce. Ask about double-billing (if a senior partner and the associate are in the same room with you or if you are in court together, are you billed for BOTH of their time)? Meet the entire team that might be involved in your matter, including secretaries and paralegals. Often these professionals will interact with you frequently and if there is a personality conflict it could make your experience less than ideal.
The Bill. This is often the place where client’s become extremely frustrated. Not so much because they don’t think a lawyers services are valuable, but because the bill is confusing. While it might seem odd, or counter intuitive, you may want the more junior attorneys working on your matter instead of the partner. The less senior attorneys still have years of experience and can be excellent advocates, intelligent strategists, and very cunning in their legal arguments. Why pay for a senior partner when you can get equally good work from a less expensive member of the firms. Discuss these ideas and preferences with your lawyer and consider asking what work will be billed by whom and express a preference for them to use the least expensive staff possible for the type of work being done. It’s true you may want the senior partner in court with you, but a paralegal may be the right person to work on a simple pleading.
Like any relationship, it’s about clear communication, setting expectations, and vocalizing what you want and what you need. If you follow these rules your experience with your divorce lawyer will be more product, less expensive, and hopefully produce a result that you appreciate and can live with.