Finding--and dealing with--a lawyer
Divorce can be an intimidating process for the uninitiated. In law, there is no area that generates as much paper work or requires the filing of more forms. As a result, the process can be confusing, time consuming, and often, very costly financially and emotionally. As a result, choosing a lawyer may be the most important decision you make.
Not every lawyer will be right for every person. You must be sure that your philosophy of the proceedings matches with your lawyers philosophy. As a result, you must ask questions that reflect your specific concerns.
A good lawyer will:
- help you to understand and focus on the issues of your divorce without losing sight of the emotional nature of the proceedings;
- help you to prepare for court proceedings in advance
- provide prompt and courteous responses to your questions;
- provide information and methods to help you reduce your legal fees.
To choose an attorney you should find a number of candidates to interview. The best way to find a good lawyer is to ask for a recommendation from someone you know and trust. However, don't just get names form you friends. Instead, ask them detailed questions regarding the specific strengths and weaknesses of the attorneys they recommend. If you still need more prospects, you may locate a lawyer through your local bar association's attorney referral service or through an internet listing service.
WHAT IF I CANNOT AFFORD A LAWYER?
Most states have non-profit organizations that will represent low income divorce litigants. Often these organizations are called "Legal Aid" or "Legal Aid Services." You may also find student lawyers ready to assist you through practicum courses at local law schools. To find legal aid services in your area, you may wish to start with your local bar association or law schools in your area.
Remember that finding lawyers is only the first step. A referral service simply compiles a listing of attorneys in your geographic without screening the attorneys listed for reputation or experience. You must still interview your attorney to determine whether he or she is qualified and whether his or her philosophy fits with your own.
It is important to remember that not every lawyer is appropriate for every client. It is important that your philosophy matches that of your attorney. Nothing is worse than feeling like your interests are not being represented or that you are being bullied into a settlement. The lawyer is there to provide you with advice on the legal issues and to plan strategies regarding the presentation of the case. However, the ultimate decisions regarding the legal issues are yours alone.
Remember, it is your case!
Most lawyers will offer a free initial consultation. You should speak with the lawyers that you intend to interview in advance regarding any costs associated with your first meeting. Meeting with a lawyer may seem intimidating. To ensure that you are prepared, you may wish to make out a list of questions or points that you would like to raise in the interview. Additionally, If you have already been served legal papers, bring them to the interview along with any correspondence or other relevant documents. This will allow the lawyer to assess the potential issues in your case.
Some questions you may wish to ask include the following:
- How long have you been a lawyer;
- What is your primary area of practice;
- Do you have any other practice areas;
- What percentage of your caseload is dedicated to divorce;
- Have you handled cases with issues similar to mine;
- Do you have a heavy caseload and do you have time for my case;
- Have you handled many divorce cases in my county;
- What is the divorce process in my county;
- What are the likely obstacles and issues in my case;
- What are my alternatives in resolving the issues;
- Is there any process you would recommend and why;
- Approximately how long will the process take;
- What are your rates and how often will you bill me;
- What are the costs I can expect in this case;
- What are the legal fees I can expect in this case;
- Will the lawyer accept payments on any outstanding balance;
- How will you keep me informed of the progress in my case;
- What kind of approach do think is appropriate and why -aggressive and unyielding, or cooperative.
- Who else in the office will be working on my case and what is their rate;
- Is there anything I can do to keep my legal fees down?
SELECTING YOUR LAWYER
When interviewing lawyers, you should listen carefully to the answers provided. However, equally important to assess the lawyer's personality. How does he or she make you feel? Confident? Frightened? Is the lawyer willing to spend time with you and provide answers at the initial meeting in a friendly manner? How you feel about your lawyer may affect your ability to communicate effectively with that person over emotional and highly personal matters. After each interview, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. Did the lawyer listen to you? Did the lawyer provide enough information to make you feel comfortable that he or she knew the law and procedure in your state and county? Did you feel confident?
ESTABLISHING A WORKING RELATIONSHIP
After you choose your lawyer, it is important to establish ground rules and philosophies to ensure that your are on the same wave length as your lawyer. What do you expect from your lawyer? What dies your lawyer expect from you?
It is important to discuss your specific objectives and the issues that are important to you. Together you may then plot a course to resolve those issues. You should also discuss avenues of communication. One complaint that is heard most often is that "my attorney did not return my call." Discuss the possible ways for you to communicate with your lawyer, including telephone, fax and/or e-mail.
If you have difficulty reaching your attorney, it is because the attorney is not available or has a court conflict. In such instances you should contact his secretary or legal assistant to schedule a telephone conference on the attorney's calendar. By scheduling the conference, you are assured of reaching your attorney at the designated time.
Be honest with your lawyer. Do not hold back relevant information even if it seems embarrassing. Your lawyer cannot protect your interests with only half of the facts. There is nothing worse than being surprised at trial by unexpected information.
Finally, if you have any questions about billing, raise them as soon as you receive a copy of your bill.
It is very important that you understand your legal fees and your lawyer's billing procedure. You should talk specifically about those costs during your initial conference.
Maury D. Beaulier, J.D. practices law in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He specializes in divorce, custody and child support issues. See website.