How to Choose the Right Family Lawyer for Your Divorce

How to choose the right divorce lawyer. Choosing the right family lawyer for your divorce. Tips for choosing a divorce lawyer. What questions to ask a divorce lawyer during a consultation? Answers to frequently asked questions about lawyer selection.

Should I be represented by a lawyer in my divorce?

Tips for choosing a divorce lawyer

Yes. The lawyer selection process is very important.  There is no such thing as a “standard” divorce. Ask around. Odds are that you will find that at least one of your friends or co-workers obtained a divorce without a lawyer and lived to regret it. Seemingly simple estates are often more complex than they seem. Real estate law, debt refinancing, insurance, pension valuation and division, retirement asset division, child custody, child support, taxes, and business ownership division can pose unique problems to any case. In every case, there must be a determination of which assets are marital property and which are separate property. Your lawyer can advise you as to how the court might divide that property in the event of a trial. Additionally, your lawyer can advise you on how much money, if any, you should accept or offer for alimony or child support.  For more, see Why Representing Yourself in a Divorce is a Terrible Idea by 7 Top Family Lawyers.

How can I prepare for meeting with a lawyer?

When you set the first appointment, ask what you can do to prepare for the appointment, then, make a list of questions that most concern you. Much of what you will learn in your initial interview will be things you need to know in addition to what you want to know. Although not required, it will be helpful for you to gather certain documents in preparation for your first meeting with your attorney. Consider locating and copying your important documents, including:

  • financial statements,
  • income tax returns,
  • bank statements (business and personal),
  • canceled checks,
  • real estate records,
  • credit card statements,
  • brokerage or retirement account statements, and
  • employment contracts.

At the end of your first meeting, your attorney will provide you with a complete list of other documents to copy and bring for the next meeting, as well as give you forms to fill out regarding assets, debts, income, and expenses.

How do I find a qualified and experienced divorce lawyer?

If you know any non-divorce lawyers, ask them for a referral. Also speak to friends and family who have been through a divorce. Some local bar associations make referrals. The Memphis Bar Association does not. Do not rely on one person. Interview at least two lawyers. Almost all attorneys will agree to meet with you for a consultation. Normally, you will pay a fee, generally based on an hourly rate, for meeting with the lawyer. Do not expect to feel comfortable with the first lawyer you meet or consult. In fact, be surprised if you do. You will be discussing the most personal aspects of your life with someone you may have never met before. Rarely do any of us buy the first car we test drive or buy the first sofa we see at a furniture store. Certainly, choosing the lawyer who will help you through your divorce is a much more crucial decision.

What factors should be the most important in my decision in selecting a lawyer?

While you should want to feel comfortable with your lawyer, that does not mean you should want to be friends with your lawyer. After determining your personal comfort level, review the lawyer’s experience, accessibility, responsiveness, compatibility, style, negotiating skills, reputation, and fees. Also, learn whether the lawyer practices only family law or practices in other areas of law as well. Family law is very much a specialty. Read the lawyer’s professional biography, which lists his or her publications, leadership, education, speaking, and memberships.

Ask about membership in professional associations such as the local, state, and American bar associations’ family law sections. Family law changes and evolves, often dramatically each year. Membership demonstrates the lawyer’s commitment to continuing education and to following the many changes and developments of family law. Membership alone in professional organizations may not mean a lot, though. Participation in professional organizations such as attending family law specific conferences, teaching seminars to other lawyers, publishing articles on family law, and serving in leadership roles are more valid indicators of dedication to family law.

Are these listed in order of importance?

They are all important. Your personal confidence in the lawyer is definitely the most important. Without confidence in your lawyer, you may face many sleepless nights you might not otherwise face.

How important is experience?

How to Choose the Right Tennessee Family Lawyer for Your Divorce

How to Choose the Right Family Lawyer for Divorce

Very. Inexperienced lawyers may cave in to pressure too easily or take unrealistic positions, insisting on fighting losing wars to the death.  As discussed above, dedication to family law, bar association leadership, membership, and participation, tells the story.

What about online reviews?

Read them. But, never blindly trust them. Reviews are still too easily manufactured.

I understand that I need a lawyer, but what exactly does a divorce lawyer do?

Typical legal services and tasks performed include:

  • Consult with the client, listen to the client, and review material presented by the client.
  • Advise the client about what to expect by discussing how aspects of the case can go well and how aspects of the case can go wrong.
  • Know the law and communicate with the client how it may apply in that situation.
  • Suggest strategy in procedure, investigation, discovery, negotiation, and trial.
  • Explain property division by identifying, classifying, and valuing assets and debts.
  • Determine income in terms of historical earnings and earnings capacity.
  • Evaluate, propose, and negotiate alimony claims.
  • Advise regarding parenting time and child support based on the client’s situation.
  • Know and suggest expert witnesses and appraisers.
  • Direct the investigation by professionals including private investigators and expert witnesses.
  • Prepare, review, and file court pleadings.
  • Lead settlement negotiations and suggest offers and counter-offers.
  • Advise regarding mediator selection and preparation.
  • Attend mediation and direct negotiations and related strategies.
  • Prepare the client and some witnesses prior to testifying.
  • Take and defend depositions.
  • Prepare for and attend court appearances including motions, petitions, and trial.
  • Assist clients with and patiently talk through tough decisions.

I have heard horror stories about lawyers not returning calls and not filing pleadings in a timely manner. How can I protect myself?

Accessibility and responsiveness are crucial. More complaints are lodged with disciplinary boards for not returning phone calls than any other reason. Don’t be shy about this important issue. Ask how phone calls are handled. Better lawyers will have policies for returning phone calls, sometimes even in writing.

How does a lawyer determine his or her hourly rate and retainer?

The most important factor in setting an hourly rate is popularity. As you can imagine, there is no shortage of family law cases and most of the better lawyers have enough work. Retainers vary greatly. Ask ten lawyers how they set their retainer and you will receive ten different answers. Generally, the amount asked for a retainer will reflect that lawyer’s idea of a material investment in the case sufficient for that lawyer to make a corresponding professional commitment.

Do you mean that a retainer is not determined based on what a lawyer thinks the entire fee might be?

Correct. Rarely is there a correlation between the expected total fee and the retainer amount. Lawyers do not know how much time and effort will be needed to complete any particular matter.

Do I receive a corresponding benefit if I hire a more expensive lawyer?

The better known and more established lawyers charge more per hour. The actual quality of that representation may not always be worth the higher charge.  Dedication to the profession matters a great deal.  See discussion above.

I know all this is important, but I just don’t feel comfortable with the so-called “perfect” lawyer.

There is no “perfect” lawyer. Trust your intuition. If a situation does not feel right, it may be wrong. Run, don’t walk, away from any lawyer who acts like you are lucky to be his or her client.

What questions to ask a divorce lawyer during a consultation?

What questions to ask a divorce lawyer during a consultation?

I do not know what to ask a prospective lawyer. What questions do you suggest I ask?

  • Does the lawyer have a written fee agreement? May a potential client review it before deciding whether or not to hire the lawyer?
  • How does the attorney decide who works on a case? What tasks are performed by that lawyer and which are by staff?
  • Can the client choose to deal directly with the attorney?
  • How often can the client reach the attorney by phone?
  • What happens when the client calls and cannot speak to the attorney right then?
  • What happens if the client calls, leaves a message, and the call is not returned in 24 hours?
  • How much does the attorney charge for travel time, expenses, computer research, cell phone calls, long distance charges, expert witness fees and other expenses?
  • What does the retainer pay for? Under what circumstances may the client receive a refund for the retainer?
  • How do retainers work for that lawyer?
  • How often is the lawyer usually out of the office for any reason?
  • Who handles the case when the lawyer is out of the office?
  • What does the attorney think about the judge handling the case?
  • What should be the primary and secondary goals in obtaining a favorable settlement?
  • In very general terms, what is a realistic but favorable settlement for this situation?
  • Can either party receive more than 50% of our marital property in a settlement?
  • If there is a trial, will the court award either party more than 50% of the marital property?
  • At best and at worst, how much child support can be owed?
  • At best and worst, how much alimony can be owed if the case is tried/settled?
  • What type of alimony, if any, can be owed if the case is tried/settled?
  • For how long can alimony be owed if the case is tried/settled?
  • Does anyone have a choice of judges?
  • Will the choice of judge make a difference in my case?
  • Does the attorney want to represent me?
  • What does the lawyer foresee as challenges to obtaining a favorable settlement/result at trial?
  • Does the lawyer ever work during non-business hours to meet with clients? Does the lawyer charge extra for those times?

For additional questions and thoughts, see Top 5 Things to Ask Your (Potential) Divorce Lawyer, a guest blog by Randy Kessler.

Will lawyers wait until the end of the case to be paid?

Generally, no. Lawyers must pay rent, staff, and the rest of the operating costs of the office. Some lawyers may defer payment, but generally only in circumstances where there is security, such as a house to be sold. In other instances, lawyers may require that a client provide a guarantor who is equally responsible for payment of attorney’s fees.

Once I hire a lawyer, are there any particular limits upon that lawyer I should know about?

Yes. Generally, your family law attorney will only represent you in your family law dispute and not any other legal matter, not even a traffic ticket. A lawyer should not guarantee results. Lawyers may not act illegally or unethically. Additionally, most lawyers will not act against the best interests of children. Although not set in stone, some lawyers and judges believe that divorce lawyers have a legally enforceable duty to act only in the best interests of the children.

Any final words of wisdom?

Yes. Do not hire a particular lawyer simply because that lawyer predicts a better outcome or promises a certain result. While it is human nature to gravitate towards a more positive person, the most important part of being a lawyer is advising a client about realities of a situation. While optimism has its place, before exercising good judgment in decision-making, a client must understand what can go wrong as well as what can go right.

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