Even if your case seems pretty straightforward, go to someone who has handled matrimonial cases before. You don't need an attorney who works solely in that area, whose fees might be very high. But you do want someone who knows which papers have to be filed in which courthouse and who can take your case to trial if need be. Now is not the time to do your third cousin a favor by hiring her son, who was recently admitted to the bar.
Make sure you choose an attorney you can afford. Some lawyers want a large retainer, but their hourly rate is relatively low, or they have a junior attorney who can do some of the work at a lower hourly rate.If you want to hire a lawyer for only certain aspects of your divorce, you might prefer someone who specializes in unbundled services. If you have millions of dollars at stake, a legal powerhouse could be best for you.
Some very competent matrimonial lawyers will tell you from the outset that they do not go to court. They might be very good negotiators, but if your case doesn't settle, they will recommend another attorney, either in their firm or at another, to take over the case. For some people, that's fine. Others prefer to have an attorney who will go the distance. Be sure to ask.
When you call the lawyer, ask whether there is a fee for the initial consultation. Don't be shy. Some lawyers will see you for free; others will charge their usual hourly rate (which might be as much as $400 an hour in major metropolitan areas). The reasoning: they've already done work on your behalf (albeit during the consultation) by collecting the background information they need to begin. Others only bill you if they take your case. Still others bill by the task: so much for a finished separation agreement, so much for help in writing a motion, and so on.
As you go about choosing an attorney, you might want to work other factors into the equation as well. How does the office look? You don't need skyline views, but if the office is dirty, or the magazines are months old, be wary. Will your legal papers be cared for the same way? On the other hand, some attorneys do share space with others, and upkeep of the office is not within their control.
Be sensitive, as well, to the amount of time you're kept in the waiting room. Your attorney's office shouldn't be Grand Central Station, after all. A small wait isn't always a bad sign, but if you are kept waiting more than 15 minutes, you might want to think twice about using that attorney. He or she should want to impress you most before you sign on. If you have to wait a long time before the initial consultation, what will it be like after you're a client?
Once you begin your meeting inside the lawyer's private office, are you constantly interrupted as the attorney takes calls? An emergency call is one thing, but a constant stream of interruptions is another sign that this lawyer might just be too busy—or too disinterested in your case.
Your First Meeting
When you're with an attorney for the first time, he or she will ask you for some background information about your situation. You should be told, briefly, how the laws work in your state and what that will mean for your own case. The lawyer can also tell you which court will handle your case. Is the court in your jurisdiction backlogged? Knowing this could determine your strategy in resolving your case—is it helpful to drag out the divorce or to end it quickly?
A lawyer who knows the judges and their individual biases and personalities will be ahead of the game. Unfortunately, a carefully weighted decision by a judge can be less common in some jurisdictions. Some for instance, may see all mothers as overprotective or all fathers as bill payers. Sometimes a decision can be made simply on the basis of whether the judge had a fight with his or her own spouse that day! A savvy attorney who has been around will be able to maneuver around a judge's personality or bias with more agility than someone who is new to the field or to the area.
Fees and Billing
During this first consultation, the lawyer should also explain his or her fees. Does she take a retainer—a lump-sum payment—up front? That practice is common. As the lawyer works on your case, she subtracts an amount equal to her hourly rate from the sum you have prepaid. For example, if you paid Attorney Greenfield $1,000 and her hourly rate is $100, you would have bought 10 hours of work in advance. Most will quote a flat rate for the retainer.
Other lawyers do not take a retainer and simply bill you every month as the case moves along. Some lawyers require that a cushion remain in the retainer until the case is concluded—for example, a few thousand dollars to cover the closing of a matter or to refund to you at the conclusion of the case. Whatever the arrangement, determine the details now. Remember, never sign on with a lawyer unless you have these financial details in writing. Be sure to read the fine print in your retainer agreement.