Buyer Beware: Choosing an Attorney

In today’s changing landscape, many people struggle to find a lawyer they can trust and rely upon.  Facing the breakup of one’s marriage or the thought of a protracted custody battle are two of just a few highly stressful events that many people will face in their lifetimes.  I often ask clients at initial consultations how they are doing as a polite way to break the ice.

However, I’ve started to add to that question a joke that goes something like, “most people aren’t particularly pleased to have to come and see me.”  Lawyers are a bit like doctors, dentists and priests in that way.  While we are useful, most people would rather they never need us. Regardless many people, if you believe statistics, more than 50% in the United States will need a divorce attorney sometime in their lives.  The purpose of this article is not to explain who to pick, but rather to provide some questions to ask a prospective attorney before you sign that Fee Agreement.

Obviously most clients want someone they feel they can trust and confide in during this difficult time.  However, I find most clients never ask me some important questions which would give them a better understanding of why they should hire me or my firm and how they can expect their case to function. For instance, how many cases do you handle at any one time?  This should give you some inclination as to whether the attorney has the time to devote to your case.  Or, have you practiced in the county my case will take place in?  (Variations of this include do you know my judge or the judges in that circuit? And have you heard of the attorney on the other side?)  Most counties have divorce lawyers who practice either exclusively in that area or almost exclusively in that area.

Generally speaking, I would want a lawyer who knows who my Judge and opposing counsel are.  This would tell me this person practices family law enough to know what I am facing from both the bench and my opponent. Another question I rarely hear is have you handled cases like mine?  For instance, some cases have a unique component.  In cases that involve abuse of a child your attorney should be versed in how juvenile court works.  If your case is going to involve that system, you should invest in an attorney that has worked within that system and understands its unique idiosyncrasies.  Even seasoned attorneys can get caught up in a situation where they simply do not know the procedures or commonly practiced habits of a different sort of court like juvenile or criminal court.

Something that is always difficult to broach, but should be discussed in detail is what kind of billing system do you use and what can I expect regarding billing statements and attorney fees?  While most attorneys cannot accurately predict what they will spend on a case from the very outset, the attorney should be willing to explain how their services are billed, how often they send out statements and what they expect regarding payment of their fees.Lastly one of the most frustrating parts of litigation for clients is the delays and the time it takes to accomplish anything within the court system.  Here again, the astute client can inquire of his or her attorney about the speed in which he or she moves cases forward.  I would probably ask what could cause delays and is there anything I, as the client, could do to prevent delays.

One of the most difficult parts of surviving a court case is the time it can sometimes take.  But, if you and your attorney are working together well, you can shorten the amount of total time it takes to get through court on a case.  While many parts of the process are out of your attorney’s hands (jammed court dockets, an unreasonable opponent, etc.), there are steps that can be taken to expedite a case.  The choice of an attorney is an important decision, and asking questions is the quickest way, as a consumer and potential client, that you can understand whether the attorney you are speaking with is the right attorney for you.

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