Melissa Brown, an attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and one of the preeminent family lawyers in South Carolina. I had the occasion, last week, to read her excellent article on her blog entitled "How to Find the Right Divorce Attorney for You." Melissa has graciously allowed us to re-post her post. Her article is as follows:
When your marriage is falling apart and a divorce is imminent, it is critical to find a skilled, experienced, competent family law attorney to represent your interests. With a little bit of legwork and some patience, you can find a highly experienced divorce attorney who is the “right fit” for you. The following three simple steps outline a basic approach to put your case in the hands of the right attorney.
Step 1: Ask Your Friends for Attorney Referrals
Begin by asking your divorced friends, family members, and trusted coworkers for their thoughts about the attorneys who represented them – and the attorney who represented their ex-spouse.
Do not simply ask “Did you like your attorney?” Dig a little deeper. Be specific. Ask questions such as:
• After your experience what is the most important quality to have in a divorce attorney?
• What did you like the most/least about your attorney?
• Did you feel the attorney listened to you?
• Did you feel your attorney advocated for you?
• What was your opinion about the opposing attorney? (Surprisingly, it is not uncommon for one to have high regard for the opposing side’s attorney. Asking detailed questions about the opposing counsel’s performance can be enlightening.)
• Did your legal fees reflect the value and quality of the legal services that you received?
Pay attention to others’ responses. Take note of which attorneys’ work was valued and appreciated by their clients and which attorneys were a disappointment. Make a list of the attorneys whose work was appreciated and respected because these are the attorneys with whom you need to meet, interview and consider retaining.
Step 2: Interview Several Divorce Attorneys
There is more to a good attorney than simply knowing the law. A good attorney listens to your concerns, strategizes the best plan of action for you, keeps your goals a priority and knows how to make you feel comfortable during this difficult time in your life. The only way to find the right attorney for you is to interview several. Only you can judge whether an attorney’s style and temperament is right for you.
When your case involves significant assets, debts, or contested custody issues, finding the right attorney is particularly important. In these situations, it is imperative to hire an attorney whose practice is primarily focused on handling family law matters and an attorney who also has a consistent record of obtaining positive outcomes in large, complex cases. When complicated issues arise in a divorce, you cannot risk leaving your children’s welfare and your own financial future in the wrong attorney’s hands.
Additionally, you will want to ensure your attorney of choice is familiar with modern technology, particularly social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Evidence gathered from these sources and others, such as text messages, are appearing more frequently in marital litigation. Your divorce attorney must understand how social sharing sites and modern technology work so the attorney can protect the client when the issues arise in court or when the attorney needs to gather information from these sites to use as evidence for client’s benefit.
Another issue that is beginning to occur with increasing frequency is the existence and ownership over frozen embryos and/or sperm donations. Divorcing parties frequently disagree about the best way to deal with these complicated matters. If the ownership or control over frozen embryos or stored sperm may become an issue in your case, you should ensure the attorney you choose is equipped to handle the issue appropriately.
After interviewing potential attorney candidates, ask yourself these questions:
• Did the attorney hear my fears and concerns?
• Did the attorney believe in my case?
• Am I convinced the attorney will advocate for me and protect my children?
• Did the attorney communicate with me in an understandable way?
• Did the meeting give me confidence in the attorney’s abilities?
• Did the attorney raise issues that never occurred to me but might significantly impact my case?
• Did the attorney’s knowledge about complicated matters further increase my confidence in the attorney’s legal skills?
• Did the attorney raise questions about my financial situation, such as taxes and investments that indicated the attorney knew how to handle these issues?
• Did the attorney explain that I might need to hire additional experts, such as a forensic CPA, mental health professional or a forensic computer specialist?
• Did the attorney prepare me for the cost of hiring these experts and explain the benefit such experts might bring that would help achieve my goals?
• Did the attorney explain other avenues to resolve my case to help save me money such as mediation and arbitration?
• Did the attorney explain the differences between litigation, mediation and arbitration?
• Did the attorney explain collaborative law and whether this method is the right or wrong avenue for me to pursue?
• Did the attorney demonstrate an understanding of social media and modern technology, including social sharing websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and how issues related to those sites might occur in my divorce case?
• Did the attorney ask about the existence of frozen embryos or stored sperm donations that might create issues in my case?
Pay attention to the attorney’s answers and the way in which the attorney delivered the answers to you. Then ask yourself these questions:
• Did the attorney and members of the attorney’s team listen to me?
• Did everyone in the office treat me with respect?
• Did they make me feel comfortable and safe?
• Did they ease my fears when having to divulge highly personal details?
• Did the attorney comprehend large amounts of information and quickly grasp the big picture?
• When grasping the big picture, did the attorney articulate my situation in a manner that helped me understand my situation better than before?
• Did meeting the attorney remove much of my angst or create more stress and worry?
• Was the attorney forthcoming about the costs of representation, and understanding of my financial worries?
NOTE: This PDF file is a checklist that you can print off and take with you to each consultation, to help you collect and analyze your impressions of each attorney you interview.
Do not forgo meeting with an attorney merely because the attorney charges for the initial consultation. In most cases, you get what you pay for. Many attorneys who charge for the initial consultation typically provide the potential client with great value, insight and advice at the very first meeting.
By the same token, higher hourly rates do not necessarily translate into higher legal bills. An attorney’s hourly rate is usually comparable with his or her experience. Thus, an experienced attorney should require less time to accomplish many tasks saving the client money as opposed to a novice attorney who might take much more time to complete the same task as he learns the ropes.
Step 3: Do Your Homework—Search the Internet
Use the Internet later in your search. First, rely upon the steps discussed above. Then, use the Internet to learn more about the attorney’s credentials, training, publications, speaking engagements, teaching engagements and bar organization involvement. The Internet should be used as a tool to narrow your list to assist when making your final choice.
Further, it is important to find out how the attorney’s peers view his or her skills by researching other well-known legal websites. Some of the following respected legal websites grade and rate attorneys according to their skills and experience:
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
The International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
Conclusion: Be Proactive in Your Divorce Attorney Search
You may have to interview a few attorneys before finding the best fit for you. Investing the time to find the right attorney to handle your divorce should pay big dividends later on. Thus, do your homework to protect yourself, your children and your future.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric practices in Fox Rothschild's Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or email@example.com.