What would I ask before hiring an attorney?

As a mediator or collaborative divorce attorney, questions are a huge part of my job. Yet more often than you think, I’m the one being asked the questions. And the one most often asked is “what would I ask before hiring an attorney?”

The answer really depends on the type of lawyer needed—family attorney, mediator or collaborative divorce attorney. In general, no matter what type of attorney you need, you do want to ask three things:

  • What’s your experience with my type of case?
  • What are your fees?
  • What’s your personal style or approach?

Experience:

If you are divorcing via litigation, you want to hire a seasoned family law attorney. There are a number of attorneys who are generalists. While they may be able to handle a routine divorce (if there is such a thing), they may not have experience in areas that are particular to yours (e.g. if one of the spouses owns a business).

Experience also becomes critical as it pertains to the judge assigned to your case. An attorney who has family as his/her specialty will most likely have a better feel for the probate judges in your county. That familiarity with a judge can be critical to your case.

In terms of mediation and collaborative divorce, you want your attorney to have experience with that particular form of dispute resolution.  Expertise in litigation is very different than expertise in alternative dispute resolution.

If there is an unusual fact pattern or situation specific to your case, do not be afraid to ask a prospective mediator/collaborative divorce attorney if they have experience with that kind of case.

Fees:

Whether you are hiring a family law attorney, mediator or collaborative divorce attorney, this question is pretty standard, but extremely important. Any attorney worth their salt will clearly state their fees at the very beginning and are required to prepare a fee agreement that puts it in writing. Be sure to read the agreement very closely so there are no surprises later. Fees can vary widely depending on where your attorney’s office is located.  As a general rule, you will pay a higher hourly rate if your attorney has an office in a major city rather than in the suburbs.  One good rule of thumb is to avoid hiring the most expensive or the least expensive attorney in a particular geographic area.

Personal Style or Approach:

The response to this question requires you to be clear on what you are looking for and what you are comfortable with. Some attorneys are more aggressive than others. Some take a cooperative approach where you might be involved in every step along the way. Some attorneys might develop a strategy with you and then involve you as needed. None of these styles are right or wrong. But you do need to feel comfortable with the attorney you hire and to understand the implications of the choice you make.

How do you know somebody is right for you before you actually begin to work together? Good question. Part of the answer is that you will have to listen to your gut. What do your instincts say about this person?

If you want additional feedback, you can visit Martindale-Hubbell (www.martindale.com). Martindale-Hubbell is a peer review website of attorneys that enables you to see how your prospective attorney is rated by other attorneys who have had cases with him and her.  The rating is twofold:  the quality of their work and their ethical behavior.

Whether it’s for litigation, mediation or collaborative divorce, much of your decision will be based on that initial meeting and how you felt about your prospective attorney. Can you see yourself comfortably working with them? One important thing to note: you should ask any prospective attorney if they have a formal policy as it pertains to communication. For example, do they return messages within one business day? Will you be cc’ed on all correspondence to your spouse’s attorney?

Communications and responsiveness are big issues when it comes to working with any attorney. You want your attorney to be sensitive to the fact that this is probably new ground for you and being responsive is extremely important.

By asking these three questions, you can get a pretty good sense about whether you want to work with a prospective attorney.  As people who ask a lot of questions for a living, attorneys do not mind answering a few if it makes you more comfortable after the initial meeting. So if you have follow-up questions after the initial meeting before you make your decision, feel free to ask.

The decision to get married is one of the biggest decisions most people will make in their lifetime. So, it stands to reason the decision to end a marriage is just as important. Who you retain as an attorney will have an impact on how much or little your divorce affects the rest of your life. So, do not be afraid to ask your questions and choose wisely.

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