There are some important questions to ask before you hire a divorce attorney. Practical wisdom is that you should ask questions about a lawyer’s background or education when interviewing a potential attorney. However, having been to law school, I can assure you that not everyone who was there at the same time as me was there at the same time as me.
What I mean is, some people don’t get it. They can have a Harvard education and still be…well? Kind of a jerk. They can have 20 years of experience and be so jaded that they are not as good an attorney as someone three years out of law school. So here are the five crucial questions I think you should ask your potential attorney:
- What would you do if you gave me advice and I just couldn’t follow it? Fact: you will do this. All clients do this. Sometimes I know when it is happening and sometimes I do not. I am not entirely sure which is worse. It is not as though everything I say as an attorney is a golden egg dropped from the goose of wisdom, but if you are paying for advice you should at least understand it, and you should weigh it out carefully before ignoring it. If someone hears me out and then makes a different decision, I will assume it is because they have information I do not have, such as how the decision emotionally impacts them or their children, how much space the consequences of the decision will take up in their head, or that they have other goals that will be better served by a different solution. You don’t want to have a potential lawyer tell you that your decisions will be wrong and that they will think that you are stupid if you don’t obey them (yes, I have had clients say other lawyers have said things like this to them). Carefully weigh out the response and decide if it’s one you can live with.
- What is your philosophy regarding negotiation? The trend these days is mediation. People think that mediation will make their divorce cheaper. Well, not really…at least not usually. Mediation has wonderful potential to create positive co-parenting relationships in situations where the parties are not already so full of hate and spite that they want to hurl burning hot curling irons at each other’s faces every time they see each other. However, it is not for everyone and it also is not necessarily MORE effective than a good negotiation between lawyers, or between you and your soon-to-be ex. Negotiation, when it is possible, gets a divorce done more quickly and less expensively. It cannot always work, because both sides have to have the goal of getting it done and the goal of giving a little while holding on to their core goals. For me, negotiation early and often means that every possibility that my client has to control the outcome of the litigation occurs. If your lawyer replies, “I don’t negotiate, I annihilate!” you may think, “AWESOME!” but you may not think it’s that awesome when you see the bill or when you are not divorced a year later and you are still being advised to refuse even the most reasonable of accommodations, to the detriment of your children, your wallet and your sanity.
- What is your idea of a successful divorce? The answer to this might be highly subjective. I might say, “I think it’s successful if my client’s main goals are met, their children are safe, and they can go on with their lives.” The answers would definitely vary, but if the answer is very different than what you are considering success, you may want to move on to the next attorney.
- What is the worst thing a client would say about you? That’s an easy one for me: that I didn’t get them everything they wanted. This is because sometimes people do not come with a reasonable expectation of what they can get in a divorce, OR they are on the wrong side of the law or a particular judge’s personal prejudices. No family lawyer gets everything they want for clients 100% of the time. If they say that, they are lying. A good lawyer can significantly increase your chances of success in front of a judge or in negotiation, but they cannot make the law change, nor can they overcome deeply ingrained prejudices of a particular member of the judiciary. For example, if I hear I am in front of Judge A, I know that he favors longer alimony awards. However, the same set of facts in front of Judge B will get someone no alimony at all. Clients will ask me if we can switch judges. The answer is no. The court sets the judge and unless there is a conflict, such as the judge is your ex’s mother, you are stuck with them. Good lawyers know the prejudices of the judges they practice in front of, and will be able to advise you whether settling at a slightly higher number than you were planning is a good idea because what you will get in front of that judge is way worse. So, because of all these factors sometimes clients don’t get all they want, and some may say that about me (though nowhere near all, as I have worked the occasional miracle in the worst of circumstances…those are good days!). Now, your potential lawyer may have the same answer as I do to what’s the worst thing clients would say about them, or something very different. But whatever their answer, make sure it is one you can live with and that seems reasonable.
- Are you available by email, cell, or phone on a regular basis? I do not give my cell phone out to clients. Some people do, and get regular texts and calls on their cell from clients. I sometimes think that I should make that leap, and someday I might. But, because I do a lot of work with domestic violence clients, and their data is also available oftentimes to their abuser, I have always been a little concerned about sharing that information. However, I check email obsessively – usually on the phone if I am not in front of my computer. I have been known to send emails to clients at all hours of day and night. I try not to let emails stack up and am pretty good about returning them. If not, clients can easily get in touch with my staff even when I am not in the office, and someone will answer their question, even if it can’t be me, within one business day. The biggest complaint that people make about their lawyers is that they didn’t get responses from them for weeks or months at a time. Knowing how easy it is to get in touch with your lawyer is crucial, because even though you should not be relying upon them as though they are your therapist, you ought to be able to get your questions answered promptly.
–Excerpted Lynda Hinkle’s book, Breaking Up: Finding and Working with a New Jersey Divorce Attorney, available now on Amazon.com.
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The above is not specific legal advice nor does it create a lawyer-client relationship. Do not rely upon it without consulting an attorney to see how the information presented fits your unique circumstances.