Find and Maintain Your Lawyer
Many people entering a divorce are under the false assumption that their lawyer is the leader in dissolving their marriage. In reality, you must be the head manager of your divorce and your lawyer is a key member of your support team. It is very important that you use knowledge, research and a good dose of common sense in choosing and managing your legal representation. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Yes, You Need to Speak to a Lawyer:
Sometimes a divorce doesn’t ever require a trip to the courtroom. Mediation and arbitration are sometimes easier and less expensive ways to end your marriage. With no-fault divorce laws, there are also do-it-yourself divorce kits and online resources that can be alternatives if you and your partner agree on issues like custody and division of property. Even if you and your partner agree to settle your divorce outside of a courtroom, it is still important that you at least have a consultation with an attorney, one who is not affiliated with your partner, to discuss your intended method of divorce and the terms to which you and your spouse have agreed upon. Too often, individuals assume that they are doing the “right thing” and that their best interests are being represented and then find out differently. Spending a little time and money to consult with an attorney can help make sure you are being smart in ending your marriage.
Know What You Need.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a lawyer to represent you in your divorce. Do you simply need someone to guide you through the process and support you during an uncontested divorce or mediation? Do you need someone to help you with complicated financial matters in the division of assets? Is custody a primary concern? You want to find an attorney who is seasoned in the areas most important to you. It will be easier to find the best lawyer for your case if you have a clear understanding of how they will be supporting you. Use online resources or books to understand the divorce process in your state and what your specific needs might be.
The Selection Process.
Referrals from friends, family or colleagues can be a good way to start generating a list of potential attorneys. You can also contact your local Bar Association of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers (www.aaml.org) to research possibilities. Do not use an attorney with any connections to your spouse. Even if your divorce is amicable, it is best to have your own, unbiased representation. If options in your immediate area are limited, feel free to expand your search – just make sure that the attorney in question has experience with divorce in YOUR state as laws can differ from state to state. Once you have a list of potential lawyers in place, it is time to start asking some important questions.
- Determine upfront how much the divorce will cost and how often you will be billed.
- Find out if you can pay a set amount a month if you cannot pay the whole bill.
- Ask what will happen if you get behind in payments.
- Ask if you will also be charged for other services like phone calls and messages left on an answering machine.
- Find out what work your attorney will do and what work may be farmed out to others in or outside the firm and at what cost to you.
- Ask about any other fees you should expect to pay.
- If you must pay a retainer (a deposit), ask how much it will be, exactly what it will cover, what happens when it is used up and whether any unused portion will be returned if you decide not to go ahead with the divorce.
- Keep a copy of your written retainer agreement along with all correspondence and court papers in your case.
- See if your attorney is willing to ask the court to order your spouse to pay your attorney fees.
- Ask if the attorney will wait until the divorce is over for payment.
For those of you who are low income to no income, many State and or Local Car Associations offer the following:
- Legal hotline: A volunteer lawyer is available to answer general divorce questions
- Seminars and Self-Help Clinics: Seminars are usually offered once a month. Volunteer lawyers help to answer general divorce questions and assist in filling out papers.
- Legal Aid and Pro-bono Services: Often there are specific financial requirements. Your income as well as your assets are considered before you receive assistance. The American Bar Association has a listing of Legal Aid services by state and county.
It is critical to be prepared when you start interviewing lawyers. You want to be able to accurately and clearly state your needs and the details of your situation. Many lawyers offer a free initial consultation, but make sure you clarify this up front as some attorneys do bill for this first meeting. Here are some of the questions you’ll want to ask potential lawyers:
- Ask about their experience, how long they have been practicing and if they specialize in divorce.
- Ask who will be doing the bulk of the work. Will it be a specific attorney or delegated to team or group?
- After sharing your situation with the attorney, ask their initial reaction as to how they would recommend proceeding – negotiating a settlement, mediation, going to trial, etc.
- If you think your divorce might end up in a courtroom, be sure to ask how much actual trial experience the attorney has accumulated.
- Ask about their payment structure and retainer. If necessary, ask about possible payment plans.
- Utilize this initial meeting to clarify any questions you have about the divorce process or your particular situation. To be a good manager of your divorce, it will be important that you understand what is going on every step of the way.
Remember, you want to choose a lawyer who is qualified, will give you the attention you need, fits into your budget and with whom you feel a good level of understanding and trust.
Even after you have selected your lawyer, don’t forget they are a member of your support team and you have the right to manage them by expecting deadlines to be met, updates to be given and your feedback incorporated into all decisions. If you don’t feel like your representation is meeting their obligation, deal with this immediately and don’t ever assume that it will all work out in the end.