Going through any divorce, custody dispute, or post-judgment action is costly—both financially and emotionally. Critical to this process is hiring the right lawyer for your case, then properly working with them to achieve your goals.
Finding the Right Lawyer for You
Few decisions in life are more important than choosing the right lawyer. If you need to hire a family law attorney, it is likely one of the darkest times in your life. Therefore, it is essential that you hire the right lawyer who is uniquely qualified to meet your specific needs.
Do Your Research
Scope out reviews online from conventional sites like Google and Yelp, along with attorney rating websites like Avvo and Super Lawyers. If you have a friend who is an attorney, ask them for recommendations. Even if they don’t practice family law, they probably know a good family lawyer. It is best to hire someone who specializes in family law and to avoid someone with a wide array of practice areas. It is commonly said that a jack of all trades is a master of none—and that is especially true in family law. Accordingly, any attorney who professes to excel in family law, criminal law, personal injury, probate, estate planning, juvenile law, immigration law, and civil litigation is probably a red flag. In reviewing their CVs, look for speaking engagements, published articles, and service in the state and/or local bar association where you reside, as this likely demonstrates an attorney who is experienced and familiar with your court or judge.
Interviewing an Attorney
Consider interviewing multiple attorneys. It is commonly said that in deciding whether or not to get surgery, a patient should consult multiple doctors. The same is true in family law. At the initial consult, ask the attorney candidly about their fee structure and level of experience—and to specifically identify any strengths and weaknesses in your case.
Before the initial consultation, research the issues in your case (while taking it with a grain of salt considering not everything on the internet is wholly accurate). This will make efficient use of your time in the interview and ensures you leave the consult well-informed. Ask them what makes them successful. The attorney will not be offended by this request. Further, there is no such thing as a stupid question, and the lawyer is being compensated to offer their legal advice. Be wary of overly evasive answers to direct questions.
Ensure the attorney you chose is the right “fit” for you. Personality-wise, you should be able to get along and match well. Remember that the attorney is also interviewing you to see if you are the right fit for them. A good consult should provide more peace of mind than you had beforehand.
Effective Communication with Your Lawyer
After choosing your legal team, ensure your attorney is properly equipped to get the results you want. The key to that is proper communication. The bulk of contact with your attorney will come via email. Depending on how your attorney practices, you may also have phone calls and email exchanges with other lawyers in their office and paralegals/legal assistants. If you have important deadlines in your case, you will likely have office or virtual meetings, as well as phone calls where email is insufficient.
When emailing your lawyer, make questions clear and concise. When sending documents, avoid permanently marking on them as that may make them unusable as exhibits (let your attorney do that). Consider using tabs or electronic highlighting that can be easily identified and removed if necessary. If you organize your documents and label them in digital folders, you will not have to pay your attorney’s office to do so.
Give your attorney time to respond. In this day and age, it is common practice to expect immediate responses, day or night, and on weekends or holidays. That is not reasonable. Your attorney has other cases that are just as important as yours, and they are entitled to go home, have a life, and not work after hours or on weekends as well. Additionally, lawyers regularly have events that take them away from their desk, such as trials, hearings, mediations, arbitrations, and meetings. If you have a true emergency, call the office instead of emailing, and if the attorney is unavailable, tell their office staff that you have an urgent situation and perhaps they can have someone else step in and assist.
Listed below are further recommendations for effectively communicating with your lawyer.
Set Goals Up Front
At the outset of your case, you should have a frank conversation with your attorney about your desired outcome. If you do not know, work with your attorney to develop your goals. Essentially, every action your legal team takes should be to help you reach them. Having set and written goals keeps things in perspective and may help you weigh the pros and cons of settling your case or seeking court intervention.
Work with your lawyer to ensure those goals are realistic. Your lawyer may ask, “If you could waive a magic wand and get everything you want out of this case, what would that look like?” Even if you don’t like the answer, your attorney should candidly tell you whether or not your desired outcome is possible. For example, the law may not even provide the remedy you seek. It makes little sense to waste their time and your resources on a fruitless endeavor. If your attorney tells you a certain goal is impractical, heed that advice and rework your expectations. Finally, it is important to prioritize those goals. Tell your lawyer what hills you are willing to die on and what items are negotiable. Having a list of prioritized, sensible goals will increase your chances of getting a satisfactory resolution.
Always Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth
Your attorney needs to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is true even for information that may be sensitive or embarrassing. Attorneys are only as good as the information they are provided. Your attorney has probably seen and heard it all. Very few things can shock a family lawyer. Further, your attorney is there to advocate for you, not to pass judgment on you. As such, the most successful clients are the ones who “overshare” out of an abundance of caution. Remember that the information you share with your lawyer is privileged and generally cannot be disclosed to anyone. You may find that what you consider “deep dark secrets” do not have the striking effect you fear. Simply put—do not keep secrets from your attorney. Nothing good can come of it.
Never lie or mislead your lawyer. The only person that ever hurts is the client. Not providing truthful information will not prevent the truth from coming out. Instead, any lack of honesty merely hamstrings your lawyer’s ability to achieve your goals. As part of your case, your lawyer tells a narrative. They will use the information you provide them to persuade the trier of fact to believe your account. If a court pegs you as a “liar” on one issue, you lose credibility on the other issues. For example, if you lie about an affair, the court is less likely to believe your assertion that you are the better parent. Even if there are bad facts in your case, your attorney will want to address them head on and strategize around them. Nothing is more frustrating for a lawyer than to learn in the middle of a hearing or case that their client has lied or withheld information.
Regularly Update Your Lawyer of Important Changes
Life events can change in a big way during divorce. Promptly inform your lawyer about changes that occur in your life, in your spouse’s life, or with regard to your assets, income, and children’s lives. As noted above, lawyers are only as good as the information they are provided, and the actions they take in your case are driven by that information. Omitting important data will only impede their ability to advocate on your behalf.
Obtain Background Knowledge
While you cannot trust everything you read on the internet, it is a good idea to generally familiarize yourself with how the process works. It will also help you produce questions or important information you need to run by your lawyer. Having some idea of what to expect may also help assuage any fears about your case.
Ask What You Can Do to Help
When you hire an attorney, you are all part of the same legal team. A client that is ready, willing, and able to help their lawyer is much more likely to be happy at the end of their case. It is not uncommon for an attorney to give their client “homework” to complete. At the end of a phone call or meeting, consider discussing each person’s “action items.” Ask your lawyer what specifically you can do to assist in resolving your case. This may include speaking with the other party (without lawyers) about settling or obtaining important documents.
Prior to calls or meetings with your lawyer, prepare a list of questions and discussion items. This way, you avoid having to schedule multiple calls or meetings, and you make best use of your time (which you are paying for). If possible, send the list to your lawyer before the call or meeting so they can be best prepared to address those items.
Respond in a Timely Manner
When in litigation, it is generally best to check your emails at least twice during regular business hours. If you are not used to regularly checking emails, then you will need to get accustomed to that practice. Email is the primary way your attorney will communicate with you. If you fail to check and respond to emails regularly, you restrict what your lawyer will be able to accomplish on your behalf. Additionally, your attorney will regularly ask you to provide documentation and evidence. They may also need your input to rebut a claim the other side is making. If you do not know the answers to your lawyer’s questions, be forthright and admit it. From that point, your lawyer can help you discover what you don’t know and how that information impacts your case.
If you do not respond quickly to their requests, ultimately you pay the price. For example, you may have a hearing on the horizon, and each party is making attempts to reach a settlement. If you do not respond quickly to your lawyer, you might incur the expense of preparing for a court appearance that could have easily been avoided.
Finally, if you suffer from a mental illness such as anxiety or depression that impacts your ability to provide your attorney with information or respond, tell them this information and they can make accommodations and consider other options.
Use Your Lawyer to Prevent Problems Before They Occur
It is commonly said that an “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and that is never more true than in family law. It is almost always much more costly (financially and emotionally) to resolve a legal problem after the fact than it is to avoid that same problem. Before making any major moves, consult with your lawyer to avoid any potential pitfalls and the risk of paying more later.
Get to Know Your Legal Team
Depending on how your lawyer’s office is structured and the temperature of your case, you may have multiple lawyers and/or staff working on your legal matter. There are times when tasks get delegated to another lawyer or staff member—usually as a cost-saving measure to the client. They also may be more available to respond to you if you have questions. Your lawyer’s staff can answer questions and relay information (although nonlawyers cannot give legal advice). Ask your lawyer which staff member or other attorney you should turn to if they are unavailable.
Sometimes lawyers forget their audience. They spend their day surrounded by other lawyers. Therefore, they may inadvertently speak to you like a colleague—forgetting you don’t understand their legal jargon. Your lawyer is there to help you. If you do not understand what they are talking about, simply ask. It is important that you have a sufficient understanding of what is occurring in your case.
Understand Your Attorney Is Simply Doing Their Job
It is not uncommon for litigants to use their lawyers as weapons to attack their spouse. However, that is not their purpose. Your attorney will use various tools at their disposal to help effectuate your goals. Your spouse may disparage your attorney if they notice their deposition, serve subpoenas, or issue written discovery. Do not buy into this. Remember, your attorney is simply doing their job, and the steps they take are commonplace—even if the other side takes offense. The opposite extreme is when people put their lawyers on a pedestal and feel they can do no wrong. Remember your attorney, at the end of the day, is a human being, just like you, who may also have a family of their own, who is attempting to do the best job they can.
Do Not Hamstring Your Attorney
When the attorney-client relationship works best, the client sets the goals and the attorney, in tandem with the client, achieves them. However, there are times when the client can unnecessarily inhibit what the attorney needs to do to get the job done. For example, if written discovery is served in your case, it is unwise to ask your attorney to not respond, or not send discovery of their own. In that scenario, the attorney has an ethical duty to respond, and you may be put at a severe disadvantage if you fail to heed their advice. Perhaps the other side sets a hearing. Do not instruct your lawyer not to prepare for that hearing simply because you do not want to incur the expense, or you think it may settle. Remember that you and your lawyer are on the same team, and there may be times in your case when certain actions are necessary.
Avoid Letting Outsiders Influence Your Case
It is not uncommon to speak with others about your case. However, no two cases are the same. There are few things more frustrating to an attorney than hearing “you handled my friend’s case and she said XYZ” or “I talked with my sister and in her divorce, this happened. . . .” Nonlawyers cannot give legal advice. In some cases, clients seek information from other lawyers who are friends of family members. If you want a second opinion, or are having doubts about your case, simply ask your lawyer for a referral, or, at the very least, tell them you are seeking a second opinion. If you truly feel your case needs new leadership, then you are better off discharging your lawyer and finding a new one rather than having outsiders calling the shots.
Confront Problems Head-On
If you are having problems communicating with your lawyer, schedule a time to sit down and speak about it together. You may be surprised to learn your attorney has the same frustrations. Together you can work to find more effective means of communicating. Addressing these concerns early and openly will resolve the issues faster and avoid recurring problems.
If You Must Fire Your Attorney, Act Fast
Professional relationships, like personal relationships, sometimes fail. If your relationship with your attorney is not working out, you have the right to discharge your attorney. After all, they work for you. However, do not make this decision impulsively. It should be made only after careful consideration, ideally with a new attorney ready to take over. It is a best practice to make a switch earlier on the case. Firing an attorney on the eve of an important deadline may leave you in a precarious position. In that scenario, your new lawyer may be forced to charge a higher fee to get up to speed and work against that deadline—something that could have been avoided with an earlier switch. Further, you may experience problems finding a replacement, as many lawyers may not be available on such short notice. If a change must be made, do so well in advance of any hearings or deadlines.
In most relationships, communication is key. Your professional relationship with your attorney is no different. By choosing the right lawyer, and effectively communicating with them, you are more likely to receive an outcome consistent with your goals.