|HOUSTON—With the national divorce rate estimated at about 50 percent, it’s likely that every American will, either directly or indirectly, experience the dissolution of a marriage at some point in their lives. Dealing with divorce is a difficult process, both emotionally and financially, and decisions made during the process can have long-term effects on many areas of your life. For this reason, selecting the right lawyer may be the most important decision that you make.
Choosing a lawyer to represent you in your divorce is an intricate process. It means establishing a close and sensitive relationship with someone that will continue for months and perhaps even years. It is important to find and hire someone whose philosophy of the proceedings aligns with yours, and as such, you must be prepared to ask questions that reflect your specific concerns.
The first step in selecting a divorce lawyer is to gather names of potential counsel in your area:
- From other professionals: Lawyers, accountants, members of the clergy and other professionals meet and work with divorce lawyers in the course of their work and are often good sources of referrals. Ask them for the names of family law specialists with good credentials and reputations and whose qualifications are most appropriate to your case.
- From organizations: Your state bar may be able to provide a recommendation for certified family law specialists in your area. To be certified in the field of family law usually requires a certain proven level of experience, study and interest, and specialists must pass an examination in this area of the law.
- From your employer: The Employee Assistance (EAP) program provided by your employer may be able to provide confidential referrals to attorneys, and often affords a discount on the services performed. Your employer may also offer access to sponsored legal services, either by subsidizing all or a portion of your legal fees if you use specified legal providers, or by providing the opportunity to join a legal services program in which you pay a set premium in order to receive a certain level of legal services throughout the year.
- From friends or relatives: You may know someone personally who has gone through a divorce. They can be a good source of information about lawyers, with two qualifications: First, every client and every case is different, so it is difficult to evaluate the performance of a lawyer in someone else’s case. And second, the lawyer-client relationship is highly personal. So while the impressions of a former client about a lawyer are useful, you should meet the lawyer and make your own judgment.
The second step in the selection process is to interview potential candidates. Most lawyers will offer an initial consultation, and you should use this opportunity to outline your case and ask relevant questions. Listen carefully to the answers given and write them down. This will help you compare your options and determine which lawyer will best be able to represent you.
Some questions you may wish to ask include the following:
- How long have you been a lawyer?
- What is your primary area of practice?
- Do you practice in any other areas?
- What percentage of your caseload is dedicated to divorce?
- Have you handled cases in the past with issues similar to mine?
- What kind of approach do you think is appropriate (aggressive, cooperative, etc.) and why?
- What obstacles or issues are likely in a case like mine?
- What are my options for resolving these issues?
- How long will it take to settle my case?
- What costs can I expect?
- What are your rates and how often will I be billed?
- What other legal fees might I incur?
- How will you keep me informed on the progress in my case?
- Who else in the office will be assigned to my case and what is their rate?
- Are there any steps I can take to reduce my legal fees?
After you have chosen an attorney, it is important to establish ground rules and make sure that you are both on the same page. Take time to discuss your specific objectives and highlight the issues that are important to you. Together you may then outline a plan to resolve those issues.
You should also discuss avenues of communication and determine how best to stay in touch. A common complaint about lawyers is that they are often unavailable and fail to return calls in a timely manner. Perhaps your attorney will suggest contacting his secretary or legal assistant to schedule a telephone conference at a time that is convenient for you both. By setting an appointment, you will be assured of reaching your lawyer at a designated time.
Lastly, be honest with your attorney. Do not withhold pertinent information, even if it seems embarrassing. Your lawyer cannot properly represent you with only a portion of the facts. Nothing has the potential to harm your case more than being surprised at trial by unexpected revelations.
Divorce is an extremely difficult process, and while you may not want the added stress of choosing the right lawyer, in the end it could be the most important decision you make. Above all, you need to find an attorney with experience, for they will not only be able to handle the intricacies of the divorce proceedings, but will also be able to explain the law as it pertains to your case and help you explore your options.