Pick a Divorce Lawyer As You Would Pick a Spouse, But More Carefully
Choosing a divorce lawyer may be the most important decision you have made since, well, marrying that person from whom you now want to legally sever ties. Who represents you in this personal, often frustrating and immensely important process is crucial. Yes, I understand the notion of comparing the process of picking a divorce lawyer to picking a spouse may seem as absurd as it does ironic, but there are actually many relevant similarities. Let’s start from the beginning.
STEP ONE: Determine What You Want
We may not always articulate it, but when looking for a partner it helps to have a sense of what you are seeking. What is your “type?” Are you looking for someone ready for a long-term commitment? Are there specific interests you want to share? Do you care how much money she or he makes? Do you want artsy? Funny? Good looking? Tall? Well educated? Someone who loves the outdoors and sports?
I know, most of the above! Once you figure out your priorities, it makes finding the right partner a lot easier. Same thing applies to finding a divorce lawyer.
There are myriad issues that can, and will, arise in a divorce. You want your lawyer to understand divorce law and, even more importantly, to understand you.
For example, is alimony the key issue or is it custody? Or both? Do you and your ex live in the same area or is one of you living, or moving, far away? How tight is your budget?
Do you want someone from a small firm who will give you more personal attention or a lawyer who works for a bigger firm? Will you need to talk to your lawyer often even if he or she has no real news to report? Are you angry and vindictive and looking for the meanest, toughest lawyer around? (Incidentally, that’s usually a bad strategy for those seeking to get the most and pay the least in the divorce.)
Remember it’s just as important for you to be honest about your goals as it is for the lawyer to be honest with you.
STEP TWO: Meeting Through Friends
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The best way to meet a potential partner is almost certainly through friends, right? That way you know something about the person’s past and have someone you trust to vouch for him or her. It allows you to immediately weed out the psycho killers, pedophiles, gold diggers and Internet Casanovas.
The same applies for a divorce lawyer. Ask friends, relatives and other lawyers for recommendations of divorce attorneys he or she knows well or has worked with. (And, no, that doesn’t mean an introduction to your spouse should have come from someone who dated him or her.)
Just as you probably wouldn’t date someone simply because he or she is your friend’s cousin, don’t hire your friend’s cousin just because of the relation. You want to know specifically why he or she likes and trust this attorney, and whether those particular qualities fit your needs. The most valuable place to start is with your circle of acquaintances and relatives.
Many people find spouses and lawyers online, which can certainly work. But would you try to date someone based on a Google search for “single, available men?” I hope not. Same applies for a divorce lawyer. Google search results can be manipulated or paid for, so typing in “divorce lawyer” is a pretty bad way to begin your search. There are organizations like the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the American Bar Association Family Law Section which can offer a good start online, but as is the case with Internet dating, to avoid certain perils and pitfalls a recommendation from someone you know is always helpful.
STEP THREE: The First Date
After you have been introduced, that first date becomes a make-or-break moment. Do you hit it off? Are you impressed with his or her intellect, humor, charm and looks? First impressions can be determinative.
While the criteria for finding the right lawyer are certainly different than for a date, the first meeting with a prospective divorce attorney is an equally crucial moment. Like you would on a first date, you need to ask the right questions and, just as important, listen to the answers. On a first date you might ask about interests, previous relationships, family and work. During your “first date” with a prospective lawyer, take your needs (as determined in Step One) and use those as a guide in deciding if it’s the right fit.
How much experience does the lawyer have with your type of case? What does she or he think of your situation? Does the prospective lawyer seem like she or he would be a good negotiator? Does the attorney seem like the type of person who could represent your position well?
Do you feel comfortable talking to the attorney? Does the lawyer seem to be overpromising in an effort to get your business? How much does the lawyer charge? Is it hourly? Is there a retainer? How much does the attorney think the entire divorce will cost you? Is he or she willing to cap the costs?
Don’t be afraid to ask the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions, because this is the time to do it.
STEP FOUR: Think About Your Date
After an interesting first date, you probably call your friends to discuss it. You also might review the things he or she said and assess how you felt about it, positively or negatively.
The same thing applies when hiring a divorce attorney. There is absolutely no need to commit at the end of the first meeting. That way if you want a second meeting, you can ask direct and targeted follow-up questions.
While you probably have to hire the attorney before getting specific legal advice pertaining to your case, when it comes to broad questions, if a lawyer is too busy to answer your questions now, it could be a sign that the attorney may also be unavailable to respond when you really need it.
As with dating, it’s a good idea to meet with more than one attorney before making your decision. There are plenty of good lawyer-fish in the sea, so you don’t need to get hung up on one, particularly if you have concerns.
STEP FIVE: Taking the Plunge
Once you have made your choice, remind your lawyer what you are hoping to get from the process. Re-emphasize your priorities to ensure you are on the same page. Then, it can’t hurt to tell your attorney why you chose him or her over others.
The same way a prospective partner likes to hear what makes him or her special, lawyers are people, too. (I know some dispute this.) Letting the attorney know what you liked about him or her can only engender goodwill as you embark on a difficult journey together.
STEP SIX: Breaking Up?
Like in dating and marriage, you hope to never break up with your lawyer. But in some cases people must, and do. If that happens, don’t feel as if you failed. There are plenty of reasons it may not work out, many of which have nothing to do with you. But it is also why it is so important to choose carefully in relationships, and divorce lawyers.
Editor’s note: You can search for a divorce attorney on Lawyers.com.