How to Choose a Divorce Attorney
The best outcomes in family court happen when the client has the right attorney on her team. This article will walk thru how to choose a divorce lawyer and provide step by step instructions for choosing a divorce attorney.
Finding the right attorney for you the very first time can save you thousands of dollars and hours of heartache. Use this guide to help you screen for a divorce attorney and hire the best divorce attorney for you.
Note: Modern Law provides Arizona Divorce Attorneys only. If you are outside of the state of Arizona, please look for an experienced, licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
Do You Even Need an Attorney?
For a thorough explanation of the ways you can work with an attorney, and a quiz that will help you determine whether you are a good candidate for self-representation, click here.
How An Attorney Can Help
Family law is personal and there is nothing more important than protecting your children, your future, and your financial security. Sometimes, people are able to get divorced without attorneys when the issues are simple or both husband and wife agree on what they want. Sometimes all that is needed is an hour or two with an attorney to allow someone to navigate the muddy waters divorce on their own. Other times, attorneys can be necessary for more when dealing with an unreasonable opposing party, a bully of an opposing attorney, or the issues are complicated.
Arizona Community Property Laws can be very complicated when you have large or co-mingled marital estates. A lawyer can help you decide which of your belongings are community (marital) property and which are separate property, and advise you as to how the court will divide that property. A lawyer will also be able to assist you in drafting a separation agreement or Rule 69 agreement in order to document your arrangements with your spouse and lock in any agreements you have reached.
There may be tricky issues that apply to you and your divorce. For example, Social Security claiming strategies could be very important to you if you are approaching retirement. After at least ten years of marriage, you qualify for Social Security spousal benefits. Similarly, if you want to pay off debt, you may be able to use your divorce as a way to avoid penalties for early retirement withdrawals.
A lawyer can also advise you if an unexpected problem comes up, for instance, if your spouse files for bankruptcy before you receive money due to you in a property settlement. Likewise, a lawyer may be able to help you creatively get rid of debt by using the bankruptcy of one spouse to wipe out the community debt of both spouses.
An attorney can help facilitate proper service of court paperwork on your spouse. A lawyer can advise you on how much money, if any, you should pay or receive for child support, or whether you may be entitled to or owe spousal maintenance.
Working with an attorney ensures you are protecting yourself and your children.
To find the best divorce attorney for you, I recommend that you meet with, or consult with, several attorneys.
How to prepare for your initial consultation with an attorney
At Modern Law, we charge $250 for our initial consultation. Understandably, our potential clients would like to know how to make the most out of that time and walk away from the consultation with information, answers to their questions, and a clear strategy for moving forward.
Perhaps even more important is that the firm be a good fit for your needs. Notice here I said “firm” and not just the attorney. The firm is the team that will be working on your case. At Modern Law, this includes your team of attorneys, paralegals, law clerks, and billing department. You want to make sure you are comfortable with the firm by the time you are done with your initial consultation.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Here are some questions you can consider asking during your initial consultation. If you meet with more than one attorney, consider asking the same questions of each attorney so that you can compare their responses when making your decision.
- Who will work on my case?
- What is the educational training and experience of the lawyers who will be working on my case?
- How many cases like mine has your firm handled in the past year?
- What are your average fees in cases like mine?
- What do you think my case is going to cost?
- How often will I receive a bill to let me know what my fee status is and what is going on in my case?
- What does the fee include?
- What are your policies with regard to: payment of fees, returning phone calls, providing copies of all correspondence and other documents, and keeping me informed about the progress of my case?
- How long will I wait to get an appointment when I need to come in again?
- What hours are you available on the telephone and in the office?
- Are my goals realistic?
- What problems can you foresee?
- How will we solve those problems?
- How will you accomplish my goals?
- How long will it all take?
- How often do you go to court?
- Do you prefer litigating a case to settling the case?
Additionally, the lawyer will want to know some preliminary information from you, including:
- Is there an existing case number?
- Are there any pending hearings scheduled with the court?
- If you have a decree or order already in place, please bring a copy with you.
- Is the opposing party represented? If so, by whom, and how have they treated you so far?
- Is this a IV-D case (meaning the state has an interest in the child support case)?
- What are your questions? We suggest you write down any questions you have in advance. That way, we can make sure to get to all of your questions and address all of your concerns.
What else does your attorney need to know?
What are the current issues you are facing? Who are the players? For instance, is the new wife a major problem for your children? How old are the children and how do they feel about the situation? We really want to understand the dynamics and background of what has been going on with your family. Tell us your story. We want to understand what keeps you up at night and what your primary objectives are. What is the ideal outcome? How do you picture yourself a year from now? Where do you live? Where do you work? What is the schedule you have with your children?
Do you have special payment terms or parameters that you are looking for? We try to accommodate a variety of needs and budgets. By having an idea in advance of your budget or budget parameters, we can best design a solution that fits your needs. For instance, if your grandmother is giving you the money, but she will give it to you over a three-month period of time, let us know. We can design a system to meet your needs. Do you have deadlines that must be met that have not already been addressed?
Other questions that may be relevant
- Is there any history of abuse or addiction between the parties or children?
- Do the children have any special needs?
- Are there any concerns about extended family members or significant others?
- What are the retirement assets?
- Do you own property together including houses or land? If so, when was it purchased and with what funds?
- Did either of you bring money or property into the marriage?
- Did anyone inherit money during the marriage?
- Has anyone spent money behind the other’s back on things like gambling, affairs, or prostitutes?
- Is there anything significant going on in your sex life? (I know this seems personal, but in one recent case, we found out the marriage had never been consummated due to impotence. We were able to secure an annulment instead of divorce for our client.)
- Is there a history of mental illness with either party?
- Does one party control all of the finances or any other aspect of the relationship?
- Are there religious differences or disagreements between the parties?
- Is one party dependent on financial support from the other?
- How long have you been married or separated?
- Does either party want to move?
- Has everyone lived in Arizona for the last 90 days? Have the children lived in Arizona for six months?
- Do you own any property out of state?
- Do either of you own any interests in any businesses?
- Do you know of all of the accounts and financial institutions? Will you have access to the usernames and passwords? Will you be able to print the statements?
- Does anyone have any life insurance policies or stocks/bonds?
- Has anyone been charged with any crimes?
- Is there a pre-nup or post-nup agreement?
- Is there student loan debt and was it used for living expenses?
- Are there any pending lawsuits? Has anyone suffered an injury in the last two years that could give rise to a lawsuit?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential issues. It should give you an idea of issues that may be relevant to your case. While we certainly won’t get through your entire life story in our initial consultation, we will strive to make it as informative, helpful and productive as possible. We are really looking forward to working with you.
Based on the answers you receive to your questions, your observations about the lawyer’s style, and how you feel after the interview is over, you should be able to tell if the lawyer you’ve met with is the right lawyer for you.
Although initial interviews can be very intense, you should also experience some relief if you’ve met with a lawyer who will be good for you. If you notice that you are not feeling better after the meeting, that is a signal to continue your search. When you find the right mix of energy, dedication, wisdom and insight, you will recognize that is the lawyer for you.
How to Choose an Attorney
Make no mistake about it, using an attorney can make a world of difference in how you feel about your divorce. Having an attorney on your team can protect you from unnecessary contact with your ex. Having a lawyer can make the process much less confusing and intimidating.
An attorney who really understands you, your objectives, and your feelings can reduce your fears and minimize confusion and uncertainty. A lawyer who doesn’t listen to you, who doesn’t know the law, and who botches your case will cost you thousands of dollars unnecessarily and make you feel a whole lot worse. Thankfully this is the exception, not the rule. Most attorneys will alleviate your worry and guide you through the process and obtain a better result.
What kind of a person should you hire as your attorney?
There are many as many personalities as their are attorneys. You you’ll be most happy with an attorney who has qualities you admire. Start by reading attorney biographies online and online reviews that have been written by others who have worked with the attorneys you intend to interview. This should give you some insight into the personality of the attorney you’re meeting with. You want to make this choice very very carefully. Who you hire will effect your future and the lives of your children. Consider using our one-page guide and ask all of the attorneys you meet with the same questions in order to compare their answers.
Sometimes even a few meetings with an attorney while you represent yourself may be all you need in order to get through your Arizona divorce.
Having a professional you trust on your team can help you manage the emotional turmoil that comes with any family law case. Even if you intend to manage the details of your case without an attorney having in professional you can turn to periodically understands your needs and your case can provide peace of mind.
Is having an exceptional lawyer is not financially possible it doesn’t mean you have to do it all yourself. You choose the attorney in the firm wisely, music tips and tricks provided in this article you should be able to navigate family court with the knowledge and support you need. Your mental and emotional state will be less disrupted by the process of divorce if you associate with an attorney who has a solid understanding of both the law and human nature. If you pick the wrong lawyer, your life could become sheer hell.
How do you know if you have hired a bad attorney?
- You have no idea what’s going on in your case.
If your calls are not being returned, your emails are unanswered for days, and you never see the documents that are being filed on your behalf, you may have a communication problem.
You need to direct the objectives of your family law case. Your attorney has a duty to communicate with you about what’s being filed, what is going on, and what the opposing party is communicating to your attorney.
Too many attorneys fail to communicate with clients, leaving their clients feeling completely in the dark. It is our belief that the client is part of the legal team. Because we see you as a valued team member, we need you to communicate with us as much as we need to communicate with you. We need to know what’s going on with you and your children and your ex. We need to know if your objectives change and that you agree with everything we are saying within our pleadings on your behalf.
- You are not receiving regular bills or have no idea where your money has gone.
Fee disputes are the number-one reason attorneys and clients break up. We believe that transparency and predictability are essential for a healthy attorney/client relationship. We invoice clients two times every month in order to make sure clients are informed about everything going on in their case. We also utilize a hybrid fee agreement of flat fees and hourly billing in order to increase predictability and uniformity for clients. Additionally, clients have the option of a flat fee case. For a flat fee case, you pay a flat fee no matter how long your case takes. The actual flat fee will need to be determined based on your individual case and will be worked out with you and your attorney.
- Your attorney isn’t listening to you.
Your relationship with your family law attorney is most definitely a relationship. She must understand your objectives. This is the most important part of my job. If you feel like your attorney isn’t listening or doesn’t understand your objectives, you may end up spending more time and money than necessary. Worse, you may end up with a result that you are not looking for. I start all my relationships listening to the client’s concerns, issues and circumstances. Next, we come up with a plan for their personal case. Every plan is different because every client’s situation is unique. Next, we plan to change and adapt as circumstances evolve. Oftentimes, we may think we know how someone will react, only to be pleasantly surprised by a settlement. Other times, what looks like an easy case may become very complicated by a job loss or third-party player. If you feel like your attorney isn’t listening, have a conversation. Tell her how you feel. If things don’t improve after that, it’s probably time to dump your lawyer.
Working for your interests
Using an attorney can also make a difference, of course, not only in how you feel but also in how you fare. Your ignorance, or false assumptions, about the law can hurt you, and hurt you big time. If you never talk to an attorney about your spouse’s settlement proposal or if you never have settlement papers reviewed by someone who can advocate for your interests, you could get the short end of the bargain without even knowing it. The lawyer you choose, of course, has to be smart enough about the law to tell you the things you should know.
Even if you still trust your spouse, this is not a time to be foolhardy. You may be entitled to things you don’t even know about. Just as bad, your spouse may be consulting with an attorney without your knowing about it, so the playing field may not be as even as you believe.
For instance, I recently met with a client whose wife had purchased their marital home in her name only 15 years ago. He mistakenly believed that she was entitled to the more than $100,000 in equity in the home as her separate property. During our initial consultation, he learned he was entitled to half of the equity! A small $250 investment will literally turn into a $50,000 gain for the client!
In other words, don’t assume your spouse has good intentions just because your spouse tells you that his or her offer to you is fair and equitable. You can listen, as much or as little as you care to, to what your spouse has to say, but judge your spouse’s offer yourself, based on all the information you need in order to evaluate that offer. You can get a lot of the legal information you need from this website. In addition, we strongly recommend that you have at least one meeting with an attorney to check out your understandings with an objective, trained person.
Why you shouldn’t procrastinate
Many people burry their head in the sand and avoid going to see an attorney. Delaying your meeting with an attorney is NOT in your best interest. It is understandable that you may want to avoid dealing with a messy and uncomfortable situation, but these problems do not get better with time. Inevitably, the hole grows bigger if we don’t start filling it soon.
Dealing with family court paperwork can be overwhelming. Disclosure and discovery requirements are enormous and confusing. All of our employees undergo substantial and frequent training and we do this all day long! Denial is a very real coping mechanism for many people facing family court. Lawyers can be very scary, intimidating, and difficult to trust. Many people assume they cannot afford an attorney for that the training will not be able to help them. (“I can’t afford the fees lawyers charge,” or “Even though I have the money and know I need a lawyer, the lawyer is going to bleed me dry and I don’t know how to keep that from happening”).
Some people are understandably embarrassed about sharing the intimate details of their marriage and break-up. In fact this may be an excellent reason for seeking attorney who may be able to protect your privacy and keep private information out of public court documents.
Understanding how an attorney can help
Sometimes people mistakenly believe they have all of the knowledge and tools they need to represent themselves. Others, are not sure when the right time is to consult with an attorney. Most people recognize that lawyers have training, knowledge, skills and connections, but may not recognize that family law and divorce is filled with highly technical rules and traps for the unwary and THE PRO PER LITIGANT IS HELD TO THE SAME STANDARDS AS AN ATTORNEY. Delay or honest mistakes can end up causing a judge to sanction you or worse.
People may believe that they only need a lawyer for actual court representation and nothing before then. However, properly timed information and advice can prevent the need to ever get to court, or greatly reduce the number of issues that need to be litigated. By using an attorney preventively you can save time, money and emotional resources. Seeing an attorney as soon as possible to make a plan is never a bad decision.
Simplifying the process of finding the right lawyer
As a mother, some of the most difficult choices I have had to make is where my children will go to school or who will be their babysitter. In a place as large as the Phoenix area, the number of choices can be daunting. It was much easier when I lived in a smaller place and was only choosing between two or three schools , instead of hundreds. The same is true when choosing an attorney. Phoenix is home to thousands of lawyers, many of whom practice family law or claim to practice family law.
When choosing a school or childcare, first I asked my friends and neighbors. Then, I went online to search websites like great schools or care.com. There, I could look at nanny profiles and read reviews. I could look at their experience and make harsh judgments based on what they looked like and wore- just kidding- sort of. I could sort by how far away they were and what they charged.
Consider approaching hiring an attorney the same way. Ask family, friends, your church or mental health professionals. Then, check out their online presence.
Google them, or, even better, go to a site like Avvo.com. They have attorney profiles and reviews. Sort by experience, location and price. Look at photos to see who you would feel comfortable representing you. If possible, find videos of your prospective attorneys. Do you like what they have to say and the way they speak? See what former clients had to say. Then call the offices of those you are interested in. Do they answer your call promptly and efficiently? Will they use technology or are they conveniently located? When you have all the attorneys in your area and budget lined up against one another you can compare and decide who you would like to meet with. The online review website Avvo.com reviews all lawyers for areas of law. You can check out an attorney’s reviews from clients, endorsements from other attorneys, and even their disciplinary track record.
Another source of information is the courthouse personnel or social service agencies who regularly interact with local attorneys and the clients they serve. These first-hand observers of attorneys in action may be far more valuable to your decision-making process than lawyer advertisements or the listings in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory.
The specialized training and knowledge of a lawyer you are considering is also something to inquire about. A lawyer who stays current with changes in the law of property division, custody/legal decision-making and parenting time, child support and spousal maintenance will most probably give you more expert advice.
Before you make a final decision . . .
The most important aspect of choosing an attorney is that you meet with them before you decide if the lawyer is right for you. Your first contact with the firm may be by telephone. Sometimes the phone conversation alone tells you enough about the firm to let you know whether you want to move on to the next step and actually schedule an office appointment.
If you do decide to attend an initial meeting, plan to conduct your own interview of the lawyer to learn whether you feel your needs will be understood and adequately addressed by this particular lawyer.
This point cannot be made strongly enough. No matter how strongly a particular lawyer has been recommended to you, selecting an attorney is a highly personal matter. No one else should make this decision for you. This is, after all, the person you are possibly going to retain to safeguard your rights during a time of great emotional upheaval for you, to structure a settlement that is as favorable as possible to you, and to advise you on such highly technical matters as the potential tax consequences of a proposed settlement. Your sense of who the lawyer is as a person will be extremely important in predicting how much and what kind of attention the lawyer will give to your case.
The first meeting
Here are some signals you should watch for in the first meeting. If the lawyer you meet with does not strike you as a person in whom you can rest your confidence, as a person who will zealously act in your best interests, or as a person who can reach a resolution of your case efficiently and sensitively, keep looking.
If your meeting did not result in a feeling of personal rapport or if you felt the lawyer was not very attentive to your questions and concerns, look elsewhere. Don’t engage the lawyer if he or she appears to be disorganized, or if you can’t follow most of what the lawyer is telling you, or if you suspect the lawyer doesn’t know the field very well.
Trust your first impression
First impressions are often lasting impressions. If you are uncomfortable with a lawyer’s practice philosophy or style during an initial meeting, it is not likely you will grow to like the attorney a great deal more as time goes on. In one sense, picking a lawyer is a matter of personal taste. You are probably not going to feel very good anyway as you go through separation and divorce, given the huge emotional and financial issues you may be dealing with. There is absolutely no reason, then, to make yourself feel even worse by selecting a lawyer you just plain don’t like.
Policies and fees
Pay attention as well to your responses to the information you pick up during an office interview regarding the lawyer’s policies, including attorney fees. At the outset you should be given a clear explanation of the attorney’s billing and collection policies.
Will you be billed at an hourly rate? If so, what is that rate; does it vary among personnel in the law firm; are there different hourly rates for office and courtroom work?
How will you be charged for other expenses such as photocopying, secretarial time, postage, and like items?
Are you expected to pay in advance of receiving services?
If there is a “retainer” (initial advance deposit), is it refundable or non-refundable if the work is terminated or completed before the entire deposit has been used?
Is a flat fee (a fixed price for a defined legal job) available from this law practice?
Will your billing statements be sufficiently detailed for you to determine exactly what work has been performed?
Will there be a written fee agreement between you and your attorney?
Especially in domestic relations law, where the issues are so emotionally charged and clients are understandably under very great stress, the issue of fees can poison the relationship between client and lawyer if misunderstandings aren’t cleared up early on.
You are entitled to know how you will be charged for the work done for you, what other fees might be assessed to your case, and how you are expected to pay your bill. Don’t settle for vague answers to questions about fees. No lawyer is likely to know exactly how much it will cost to handle your case; but every lawyer should be willing to tell you as much as he or she can about fees.
If the fee quoted to you is so low that it is almost too good to be true, that may be a very bad sign. Low fees usually mean one of two things: either the attorney is hungry for business (which may mean the lawyer is inexperienced or that other people have found out this lawyer is not very good), or he or she doesn’t really expect to finish your case for the quoted fee (which means the retainer amount is no indication of how much you will eventually spend). Do some sleuthing to determine if the attorney is a novice or if the quoted fee is unrealistic in light of the work that will need to be done.
If the quoted fee is unrealistic, that can also be a sure sign that the lawyer has lots of clients signing up at those bargain-basement prices. All those clients are poorly served because the lawyer has too little time to spend on each individual’s case. Waits (for appointments, for returned phone calls, for work to be drafted, for court dates) will be long in such offices; and you may wind up seeing you have just gotten lost in the crowd.
You may also wind up paying the “cheaper” lawyer more money in the long run, based on such a lawyer’s lack of specialized knowledge and inefficiencies in the lawyer’s office. In sum, large caseloads do not translate into quality legal services. Stay away from the lawyer who appears to offer large discounts.
Please visit our “Meeting with an Attorney” page for information that will be very helpful in preparing yourself for your meeting with an attorney. Our page on “Attorney Fees” will give you an idea of how much it will cost to hire an attorney.