How to Hire a Divorce Attorney
By: Justin M. Jackson*
The most important step in the divorce process is hiring the right divorce lawyer. For most people beginning the divorce process, this is the first time they have ever had to hire an attorney. Given the importance of this first step, I put together a list of things that I felt were most important in the selection process. I created this list based upon my experience in handling hundreds of Texas divorces.
Before I dive into the list, I think it is important to define what services and traits a good divorce attorney offers, from a high level perspective. I find that many clients enter the process with preconceived notions from television, friends, and family. They typically do not know what defines a good divorce lawyer and their preconceived notions can pave the way towards disappointment or frustration from the start. That said, a good divorce attorney provides the following:
- Integrity—a good divorce attorney never makes guarantees, promises or case assessments that he or she knows are unrealistic or premature. The best any attorney can do in an initial consultation is to lay out an array of possible outcomes and give you a rough sense of the most likely outcome of your case.
- Compassion—a good divorce attorney recognizes that this is possibly the most difficult time of your life. In that sense, a good divorce attorney should be sensitive to you as the case progresses.
- Communication skills—a good divorce attorney is an effective communicator, both as a listener and as a speaker. Good communication skills overlap with negotiation skills and advocacy, below.
- Investigative resources—a good divorce attorney has a thorough understanding of investigative resources available, as well as when and how to use such resources.
- Negotiation skills—a good divorce attorney is an effective negotiator. Statistics, as well as my experience, show that the vast majority of divorce cases settle before trial. Effective negotiation skills often dictate successful case outcomes.
- Advocacy—when settlement fails, you need a divorce attorney who can advocate for you effectively in front of a judge or jury. Your attorney must have the skills to get your evidence admitted and argue your case with appropriate tone and word selection. In my experience, the close cases are often swayed by effective advocacy.
So, now that you have a sense of what services and traits a good divorce attorney provides, the difficult part is determining whether a divorce attorney possesses those qualities. How is it possible to evaluate these traits during an initial consultation? Difficult as it may be, I believe you can leave an initial consultation with an idea of whether that divorce attorney is a good fit by looking for the following:
- Attorney’s focus—The most effective divorce attorneys focus their practice on divorce and family law cases. Before setting up any consultation, check the attorney’s website and see if they offer more than 2-3 non-family law practice areas. If they do, it is likely that the attorney does not specialize in divorce. This characteristic is important because an attorney who specializes in divorce should have a thorough knowledge of the applicable law and should know what to expect of the judges in your area.
- Attorney’s experience—An effective divorce attorney typically possesses at least 3 years’ experience handling family law cases. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, so much about divorce law just comes with experience. You can find out how much experience an attorney has by reviewing their website and state bar profile online.
- Size of firm—Common sense dictates that the larger the law firm, the more successful and effective the attorney. While in some law practice areas, this may be true, it is often far from the truth of divorce law firms. I have noticed a few divorce law firms in my area attempt to add numerous associate attorneys to their staff. Usually, the one or two name-partners (the face of the firm) hand over divorce cases to young and inexperienced associates. I am not saying that larger divorce law firms should never handle your divorce case; I am just giving you a word of caution. Find out who will actually handle your case and evaluate that attorney apart from the law firm’s reputation as a whole.
- Client testimonials—Read what former clients have to say about the attorney. If you do not know someone who has been a client of that particular divorce attorney, you should consider asking the attorney for a list of clients that you can contact who can describe their experience with the attorney. Some attorneys post testimonials on their website. If an attorney has a lengthy list of favorable client testimonials, it may serve as a partial indicator that the attorney knows how to successfully navigate divorce cases.
- Being comfortable with the attorney—While all the above are important, there is one final question you should ask yourself before hiring a divorce attorney. Are you comfortable with that attorney and are you confident in his or her abilities? If the answer is anything other than a resounding yes, you should keep looking. Your case is too important to entrust to someone who does not inspire your confidence. Come prepared to the initial consultation with your questions and concerns (see some good sample questions below) and don’t conclude the consultation until you know one way or the other whether the fit is good.
- Focus on hourly rate or size of retainer. The hourly rate or retainer size is often a meaningless indicator of how much your divorce will cost. For example, when you buy a car, your car payment may have no relation to how much the car will actually cost unless you know other things such as your interest rate, the number of payments, and the total cost of the vehicle. In other words, just because an attorney charges less per hour or requires a lower retainer doesn’t necessarily mean that your divorce will cost less. No divorce attorney, and I mean no divorce attorney can definitively predict what an hourly fee divorce will end up costing you. However, a good divorce attorney can give you a reasonable estimate, based upon certain assumptions. Ask the attorney to give you an idea of what the divorce will end up costing based upon certain assumptions. That way, you can determine if this attorney will fit in your overall budget. Also, it helps to find out what the attorney bills for and what the attorney does not bill for. Usually, the attorney-client contract will outline these things. As a final thought on this subject, while a budget is always a practical concern of clients, I would never recommend hiring an attorney on the basis of cost. In divorce, especially when children are involved, hiring an ineffective attorney on the basis of cost will ‘cost’ infinitely more down the road.
- Seek an attorney to get revenge. Revenge is expensive when it comes to legal action. It takes time and money and may result in you getting nothing substantive in return. Thus, it is contrary to your interest. Getting divorced is about dissolving your marriage in a manner that is equitable under the circumstances.
- Hire an attorney who recommends immediately setting court hearings when you and your spouse are presently amicable. I have seen cases come in to my office where the prospective client is panicked because his/her spouse hired an attorney and suddenly set a court hearing. Usually, that panicked prospective client has no idea why his/her spouse set that hearing as, until that point in time, they had been communicating and working together. A good and ethical divorce attorney should never push a case into the courtroom unless it is necessary and beneficial to the client. The courtroom is and should always be a last resort when settlement negotiations fail. That approach will save you time, money, and emotional expense.
Sample Questions for a Divorce Attorney:
- How long have you been practicing divorce law and how many cases have you handled?
- How much trial experience do you have?
- Do you have any jury trial experience?
- If I hire you, will you or someone else with your firm handle my case?
- What are the possible outcomes to my case and what is the most likely outcome, based upon what I have told you?
- Have you ever had a case like mine? How did you handle it?
- What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of my divorce case?
- Knowing what you know about my situation, how would you proceed if I were to hire you?
- If I call you, how quickly can I expect to have my calls returned?
- What is your hourly rate and initial retainer?
- What tasks do you bill for? What tasks do you not bill for?
- Can you give me an estimate of how much my divorce will cost?
- Do you have flat fee options?
- Are you married?
- Do you have children?
- What do you know about the judges in this area?
*Justin M. Jackson is an attorney in Cedar Park, Texas who focuses primarily on divorce and family law cases. Mr. Jackson received his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University and his law degree from. St. Mary’s University School of Law, magna cum laude. In 2012, 2014 and 2015, Mr. Jackson was recognized as a Rising Star by Texas Monthly Superlawyers, limited to less than the top 2.5% of young lawyers.