Choosing a lawyer for divorce is a significant undertaking. The practice of medicine and the practice of law are two of the three original professions dating back to medieval times (along with divinity). The professional ideals include a high degree of public trust, integrity and learning. It only makes sense that those hallmarks that should be sought in choosing an attorney, but how does one go about finding a lawyer who demonstrates those attributes?
Most people picture the zealous “trial attorney” who is slick in word and deed and who is as formidable as he is unsettling, both to the opposing party and to you. That picture is a caricature and does not describe 95% of the attorneys in this world. The attorney who seems to fit that mold is also probably not the guy or gal you want. Lawyers who are contentious, aggressive and litigious may give you the sense that are “protecting your rights”; but the dollars and cents you will spend on that over zealous advocacy may take you back. On the other hand, no one wants milk toast for an advocate.
A better barometer for a good attorney are the hallmarks of a professional: trust, integrity and knowledge. You might add experience and good communication as well, but they are not as important as the first three. Good communication is noteworthy, however, since the number one complaint of people about their lawyers is lack of communication. It does not matter how eloquent an attorney is in court if he or she does not communicate well with you.
As for trust and integrity, they cannot be overstated. If you talk to a lawyer who is willing to fudge the facts to make you look good, run the other way! She cannot be trusted. If she is willing to be less than honest for you, she is also going to be less than honest with you. No one has been well served by a doctor who is not honest or candid about a serious condition. In the same way, attorneys who are not honest and candid with their clients are not being helpful.
Beyond that, judges know which attorneys are credible and which are not. Nothing impedes an attorney’s effectiveness in court like a reputation for dishonesty or questionable integrity. It may be tempting to want the attorney to cover up and lie for you, but that is as unethical for the attorney as it is unwise for you. Truth has a way of being exposed in the litigation process. Nothing will hurt your position like a lack of credibility. That is not to say that people have never lied and gotten away with it; but no attorney worth his salt sacrifices the trust and integrity that must be developed with the judges to advance a single case.
In choosing an attorney, seek someone who someone who is knowledgeable and experienced. Attorneys must always be learning, always staying on top of the latest developments and changes in the law. Good attorneys are dedicated to effort of keeping up with the law, and are always striving to hone their legal skills. that knowledge and those skills may be difficult for a non-attorney to assess, but evidence can be found, for example, in various places. Are they publishing written materials, speaking at CLE (continuing legal education) seminars for other attorneys or non-attorneys? Are they involved in their local bar associations? What do other people say about them?
Getting to the meat of choosing a lawyer, ask friends and family for a referral. Get some feedback. Listen to why people recommend (or do not recommend) particular attorneys. Reputation is probably the best measure of the value of an attorney, though be careful of attorneys who are living off of past accolades. Sometimes attorneys, like doctors, get jaded. They lose the sense of imminent importance that each matter has to each client. You want an attorney who will take the time to listen to you and give your matter the attention it requires, no matter how busy they may be.
Be aware that sometimes a single point of reference may not be a good measure, however. Go online and see what others are saying about the lawyers you know about or who have been recommended to you. Read through their bios and see how they answer questions online at sites like AVVO. There are many resources for finding attorneys online. Use them and compare. Not all online rating systems are the same. Only one rating system has stood the test of time and provides an unsolicited rating of attorneys by other attorneys and clients – Martindale-Hubbel. Most licensed attorneys are listed and can be found on the Martindale-Hubbel website. Other rating and ranking systems tend to be more based on the completeness of the lawyer’s profile on the website than a neutral, third party assessment. Still looking at what clients and other attorneys say on LinkedIn and other places where testimonials can be found may be helpful.
Many attorneys give a “free consultation.” Do not expect to walk away with free legal advice, but use the time to determine whether the attorney is a good fit. You should feel comfortable with the attorney you choose. If you see red flags or have a bad feeling, listen to your gut. There is probably a good reason you feel that way. I am hear to say that no attorney is a good fit 100% of the time for all people.
You need to have good communication and good interaction with your attorney, especially if your need for an attorney is a matter of significance. Is the attorney personable? Does the attorney listen carefully? Is she attentive you? Is he candid and forthright? All of these things matter. You want an attorney who communicates well, is diligent and thoughtful, is conscientious and responsive to your desires and goals, who can educate you on the law in plain English, advise you on options that are available to and who will keep you updated on your matter as time goes on.
You should understand the basis for the fees that will be charged. You should know whether the attorney will charge a flat fee, by the hour or on a contingency. You should know what the hourly rate is and whether a retainer is required. There are different conventions that apply to different types of legal work. If the attorney does not tell you, do not be too shy to ask. You should know these things up front
Finally, do not let the cost, alone, sway your decision. The adage that “you get what you pay for” applies to attorneys as it does to other things. Find out what kind of service you can expect. Many attorneys who charge lower fees than other attorneys push more of the work on to their legal staff and will pay less attention to your matter. They may also have less experience or not have a good reputation. Maybe they are new to the area and are not yet well known. There are reasons why they are charging less, and you will want to assess the reason why. Maybe the lower fee will be a real bargain, but more likely it will not.
There is no substitute for “doing you due diligence” as we attorneys like to say. Do your homework. Know who you are hiring as best as you can before you commit. There is no blueprint on how to hire an attorney, but there are many things you can do to help you make a good decision. In the end, you need an attorney who you can trust, who will be diligent on your behalf and do a good job for you, and most of the attorneys who do that are known by their reputations.