To choose the attorney who is best for you, ask candidates these important questions…
How long have you practiced divorce law? Thirteen is the lucky number. Solo practitioners should have at least 13 years of experience. Since the average age of law school graduates is 27, 13 years of experience brings them to age 40—old enough to gain both legal experience and life experience in how people in divorce and other situations behave. If the attorney is part of a group practice, the attorney handling your case and/or the senior partner should have at least 13 years of divorce-practice experience.
Is divorce your primary practice area? You want someone who does only divorce work. Specialists have useful contacts, extensive experience in all sorts of complicated situations and up-to-date information on court cases and regulations.
Are you a trial lawyer? Many divorce attorneys do not try cases, focusing instead on collaborative divorce, arbitration or mediation. Choose one who does trials, too. Although most divorce cases do not go to trial (90% to 95% of cases are settled out of court), you still want someone who has trial experience and is prepared to go to trial if necessary.
Are you certified in family law? Certification indicates commitment and expertise. The certification process—offered by California, Connecticut and certain other states—may involve a written examination, continuing legal education, favorable references from other attorneys and judges and a given amount of experience in the specialty (divorce law is a subspecialty within family law). Not being certified shouldn’t be a deal killer—but it’s certainly a plus if the lawyer has achieved that level of professionalism.
Will a backup lawyer be involved? The attorney you choose should have a backup attorney or paralegal who becomes familiar with your case and can be contacted when the lead counsel is in court, on vacation or unavailable for some other reason.
How experienced are you with my type of case? Probe the attorney’s knowledge with questions that relate to your particular situation. If it involves complicated tax matters, ask whether he/she is qualified to analyze tax returns, financial statements and/or general financial records maintained by a family or company. If you suspect that assets are being hidden by your spouse, ask about the attorney’s use of forensic accountants. If child custody is likely to be an issue, ask how many contentious custody cases he has shepherded.
What is your overall philosophy about divorce settlements? If children are involved, ask a candidate whether he leans toward sole custody, joint custody or shared custody in most cases—this may point out similarities or differences in attitudes about families that are important to you. If, as some spouses do, you want a scorched-earth settlement in which you get as much as possible and your spouse gets as little as possible, ask the attorney about his attitude toward such settlements. However: Most good attorneys strive for settlements that are satisfactory to both spouses.
What is your hourly rate? Hourly rates depend primarily on experience, location and prominence in the field. The range is $50 to $1,100 (the latter is for a high-profile attorney in a big city). Nationwide most hourly rates are between $150 and $350, with $250 being the most common.
How many hours will I be billed? This varies greatly according to the amount of spousal conflict, the complexity of the assets and other factors. Most divorces take 60 to 75 hours of work on the part of the attorney for each side. The minimum is generally about 35 hours. An attorney who gives you a precise figure before you have even hired him is one you want to avoid. He may simply be tossing out a lowball estimate to get your business.
What other charges should I expect? Ask for an estimate of nonattorney fees, such as real estate appraisals, business evaluations, paralegal fees and court fees. Make sure that you will be informed before any extra charges are incurred.
How long will the process take from start to finish? An attorney may provide a general time frame based on the steps involved in your state and in your case, but many variables will affect the schedule, and there may be unexpected delays. You can use the lawyer’s response to gauge the degree of chemistry between the two of you. Because satisfactory divorce resolutions are largely about preferences, and not only about the law, ultimately, how comfortable you feel when talking with the lawyer—how much he listens, how much he interrupts, how much he seems to understand—should play a big part in your choice of whom you retain.