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How to Choose a Lawyer

25 May 2011

Passive Guy is dealing with a couple of deadlines, so he’s going to take a shortcut on this topic. The shortcut is purely deadline-driven, not because choosing a good lawyer is a trivial matter.

So, where’s the shortcut?

PG is going to tell you how to choose a good divorce lawyer because he’s already written all about that under a pen name.

Since everybody should get divorced as often as possible, this will be useful advice. If you don’t need a divorce lawyer today, maybe you will tomorrow. Almost certainly, you’ll need a good divorce lawyer by this weekend.

For those interested in hiring a lawyer who knows about publishing and agent contracts and copyright issues, you’ll need to extrapolate a little.

PG would get in big trouble with his publisher for giving part of his book away free, but . . . he doesn’t have a publisher, so it’s all just fine.

On a more serious note, for those of you who flunked extrapolation, in the future PG will talk about hiring a good lawyer for when you’re writing books between divorces.

However, PG will bet you discover something you didn’t know about hiring any kind of lawyer if you learn how to hire a splitsville attorney.

How Do I Choose a Lawyer?

Not all divorce lawyers are the same. The large majority I have known are competent, but they don’t approach contested custody in identical ways. I would love to tell you this isn’t so, but the outcome of your custody litigation can vary depending upon which attorney you hire.

The best way to locate a good divorce lawyer is to talk with other divorce lawyers. When I was practicing, I could rattle off a short list of attorneys who always did a good job whenever I saw them in court. This was one reason I was flattered whenever another attorney asked me to handle his divorce.

The problems with using this strategy when you’re in the market for a divorce lawyer are obvious. When you’re talking to one lawyer, assuming you don’t sound like a psychopath, that attorney may very likely be interested in representing you. Asking for recommendations for a good divorce lawyer might not be very productive.

If you know any attorneys who represent real people (as opposed to corporations or government bureaucracies), ask them for recommendations for divorce lawyers. Ideally, you would ask more than one attorney. If you are able to do so, you’ll collect names. If you talk to five lawyers, it’s likely that you’ll hear the names of two or three divorce attorneys more frequently than others. You would want to go speak with those attorneys.

If you don’t know any attorneys, but do know some people who have gone through contested divorces, ask them how they feel about the attorneys who represented them and the attorneys who represented their spouses. This is not as reliable as asking lawyers because someone who is a lay person doesn’t always recognize whether an attorney is doing a good job or not. At attorney may be the nicest person in the world to his client, but be ineffective in court. Few lawyers will admit they lost an important motion because they didn’t do a very good job. On the other hand, a person may think their attorney or the opposing attorney must be really good because she was an attack dog, constantly objecting, arguing, etc. As discussed further below, an attack dog attorney may not be a very effective attorney.

However, just like with speaking with attorneys, if you talk to twenty people who have been through contested divorces, the combination of their experiences may point you in the direction of one or two attorneys you might want to speak with.

Where do you not want to look? Lawyer referral services, whether private or operated by a state or local bar association, are not a good choice. Why? If it’s a private referral service, it will send you to lawyers who have paid money to be listed. If it’s a bar referral service, it will send you the names of lawyers who have checked a box on a form that says they handle divorces. Neither a private or bar referral service will screen for competence.

You see a book entitled, “America’s Best Divorce Lawyers” and decide to use it to find an attorney. While I have not investigated all possible books like this, the ones with which I am familiar usually list attorneys who pay to be listed. It’s probably like a private referral service.

Most state bar associations have programs whereby an attorney can be certified as a specialist in a particular field of law. Family and/or Matrimonial Law are popular specialties. Usually, the bar association website can provide you a list of certified family/matrimonial law specialists. A list of certified specialists will filter out attorneys who are totally incompetent to handle a divorce trial. However, some very good divorce attorneys don’t choose to be certified for one reason or another and some mediocre attorneys are certified.

One of the most ineffective trial attorneys I ever faced in a custody dispute was certified by all sorts of family law organizations. He knew a great deal about divorce law, but was not skilled at examining or cross-examining witnesses and unable to present a persuasive case to the judge. At the end of an extended trial, my client not only won custody of the children, but the judge also ordered the opposing spouse to pay me the single largest attorney fee award I ever received in a divorce matter.

One more potential pitfall before I stop depressing you about hiring an attorney: Where possible, hire an attorney who regularly practices before the judge who will be hearing your divorce case. You might read a flattering magazine profile or newspaper article about a divorce attorney from a city 300 miles away who has handled a divorce for a millionaire. Are there any problems with choosing this attorney?

First, any attorney is mindful of the benefits of good publicity, but a magazine profile appears because the lawyer has hired a PR firm or has invested in the magazine, not because everyone agrees she is the best.

Second, the out-of-town big-shot is not familiar with the personal pet peeves of the local judges. Every attorney has appeared before an unfamiliar judge on many occasions, but a local attorney who understands how to persuade a particular judge has an advantage over a high-profile outsider, particularly one who manifests the slightest hint of arrogance. I have watched more than one judge embarrass an out-of-town attorney by reminding her that she has failed to abide by the local court rules and denying all her motions on that basis.

Third, most attorneys charge for both travel time and travel expenses, so every ten-minute hearing involves paying for airfare and mileage to and from the airport plus however much time the driving and flying consume.

I am not laying out problems to discourage you from searching for and hiring a good attorney. As I do everywhere else in this book, I’m being completely truthful about the challenges. Some advice books on divorce make the process of hiring a good attorney seem like a simple and straightforward matter. It’s not. It requires a thoughtful approach with your eyes wide open.

My bottom-line recommendations for locating a good attorney are:

  1. Ask as many reliable people as possible who the good divorce attorneys are. Other attorneys are more reliable sources for recommendations than former clients. I would omit asking court bailiffs or police officers for suggestions.
  2. By all means, check the list of local attorneys who are bar-certified family law specialists, but don’t automatically eliminate attorneys who aren’t specialists from your list of possibilities.
  3. Plan to meet face-to-face with two or three different attorneys before you make your final decision. If an attorney doesn’t have time to talk with you face-to-face before you agree to hire her, take her off your list.
  4. During these preliminary meetings, you’re checking to see if you feel comfortable talking to the attorney and are confident she will work well with you.
    1. Do you feel the attorney is giving you complete and balanced answers to your questions, not just telling you what you want to hear?
    2. Beware of an attorney who comes across as an attack dog, who talks about different sorts of aggressive trial tactics. Sometimes an attack dog can succeed, but when she doesn’t, she tends to fail spectacularly.
    3. Ask how many contested divorces the attorney has handled in the last year.
    4. Ask how the local judges differ in their handling of a contested divorce.
    5. Ask what some of the biggest mistakes a person involved in divorce litigation can make.
    6. If you have a question about child custody, ask it, but don’t be upset if the attorney responds that she will need to know more about the facts of your case before she can provide you a good answer.
    7. Don’t be afraid to ask about attorney fees.
    8. Make an evaluation of how helpful the office staff is because you may be dealing with them quite a lot and you’ll probably have to go through them before you can speak with the attorney. If you have a wait in the lobby before you see the attorney, pay attention to how the staff handles phone calls and deals with any clients who may come into the office.
  5. Watch for warning signs of alcohol or drug abuse. Attorneys as a group have a higher-than-average incidence of alcoholism and abuse of prescription or illegal drugs. These problems contribute to a large percentage of bar association disciplinary complaints and malpractice suits. If you see any hint of these problems, do not hire the attorney. A few states will allow the general public to search bar association complaints about an attorney online.
  6. What about a young attorney? Everyone was once a young attorney, even me. I made mistakes as a young attorney that I didn’t make as a not-so-young attorney. Someone fresh out of law school needs more education, practical education, before he is ready to handle a contested custody case. If the young attorney you meet with is in a firm with other attorneys, ask if a more experienced attorney will be providing supervision and support during your case. If the answer is yes, ask if you can briefly meet with the older attorney before you hire the young one. You want to confirm the qualifications of the older attorney, ask if she will be in court when the young attorney has major hearings and for the divorce trial and make sure you’re comfortable that the supervision is real.



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2 Comments to “How to Choose a Lawyer”

  1. I practiced family law for about twenty years and find this to be well balanced, good advice. I also advise people to beware of ‘attack dog’ attorneys, although I sometimes recommend one depending on the client’s needs.

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