Hiring an attorney means putting your trust in someone to advocate for you, your family, and your future on the unfamiliar path of divorce and custody. It is a stressful journey, arising from a difficult and challenging family situation. When you may feel like your future and your family are at risk. Finding the right attorney is the first step to navigate that journey.
There are lots of ways to find an attorney – asking those you know who have been through this, asking a trusted professional (accountant, therapist, doctor, etc.), online searches, advertisements, and more. Followed by information gathering – usually by word of mouth and online – to narrow the options. Then, contacting the offices of a select few to decide if you will make an appointment, probably depending on cost, availability, and your initial impressions from that contact. Culminating with the initial consultation. All with the goal of deciding whether to place your trust in this attorney with what’s most important – you, your family, and your future.
As overwhelming as it can be, deciding to hire an attorney is a choice which you control. When deciding whether to hire a particular attorney, it is worth considering:
1. Communication. This is key. Ask yourself: Does the attorney listen to me? Understand me and my concerns? Answer my questions? Do I understand the answers and what is said? Do responses reflect an understanding of my concerns and goals? We all communicate and receive communications differently. Communication is a cornerstone of the attorney-client relationship. Don’t discount this. If you feel any uncertainty or “red flags”, this is tough to improve over time because the journey often gets harder before getting easier.
2. Trust your instincts. What are your first and ongoing impressions from each contact with the attorney and his/her office? Consider which impressions matter to you and which do not. It might be demeanor, office, timeliness…anything and everything. If the negatives outweigh the positives, trust yourself and reach out to other attorneys. Your life and your family are too important for you to be uneasy about the attorney you select.
3. Experience. Does the attorney practice family law? How much? What types of cases? For how long? At the least, ask if you don’t know and then decide if this matters to you. But remember, you probably would not ask a chef to fill a cavity. And, if the attorney is not forthcoming about his/her experience, wonder why.
4. Availability. Is the attorney accepting cases? Will she/he alone, or with others, work on your case? Who will be the primary point of contact? The lead attorney? If your case needs immediate attention, raise this when scheduling your appointment, to know if the attorney can meet your deadlines – or not. Ask about involvement of staff and other attorneys, to understand how the firm works, what and how they charge, and how this might benefit you cost-wise. If two people bill time for the same task will you be charged for both and, if not, how is this handed? Make it known if you are hiring this attorney to work only with him/her, so expectations are clear. You can always readjust as the case goes along.
5. Accessibility. How can and will you and the attorney communicate, especially if distance or your schedule are limiting factors? How easy is it to get to the attorney’s office and will this pose a problem when you need to go there in person? What are the attorney’s work hours and how can the attorney accommodate your work schedule if it only allows contact after hours? Ask, don’t assume.
6. Cost. Can you afford the attorney? Is the attorney open to exploring cost-saving steps? How does the attorney charge for her/his time? When will you receive bills? What will the payment arrangement be? You should understand this before hiring any attorney. What document will you be provided that describes this? (Usually, a retainer or engagement agreement.) Expect to need to advance funds before starting representation. Be realistic about what you can afford, as this impacts who you hire and what process to choose. If you cannot afford the attorney, ask for recommendations.
7. Scope. What are you hiring the attorney to do? Are there any limitations? What are the cost-saving options, if cost is a concern? Ask. There are options to narrow the scope and contain costs. The attorney can and should educate you. Every case is different, so explore your options for the right approach.
8. Preparation. Make a list of questions to ask the attorney at the first meeting to maximize the initial consultation. And, to give you more information to reflect upon.
9. Reflect. You need not hire the attorney at the very first meeting. If you are pressured to do so, ask yourself why. Ask follow up questions, if needed. Interview another attorney for comparison, if in doubt. In fact, it is my preference that potential clients take the time to reflect on our meeting, away from the office and after the stress of the initial meeting, before hiring me so theirs is an educated, thoughtful decision.
Divorce is a journey. With many uncertainties and challenges to navigate. You and your family are worth the time and effort of finding and hiring the right-fitting attorney to guide you.