You’ve made the often highly emotional choice to file for divorce, or maybe your spouse has made it for you, or perhaps the two of you have made it together. In any case, you find yourself sitting across from a family law attorney at an initial consultation. They ask the inevitable: “Do you have any questions?” What should you say? Here are five questions to ask when selecting your divorce lawyer.
The larger the law firm, the more staff, associates, and attorneys may work together in preparing your case. That’s okay. Paralegals, law clerks, interns, and other staff members can often give you answers to some non-legal questions that arise along the way more quickly and efficiently than speaking to a busy lawyer directly. At Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach Buiteweg & Solomon (NSSSB), we have seven attorneys and a number of support staff who work together to provide clients complete and responsive legal representation.
However, not every attorney will work on every case. You wouldn’t want seven pilots trying to fly a plane. That’s why it is important to ask who specifically will be assigned to your case. Find out what those individuals’ personal experiences are with divorce, family law, and any specific issues related to your case (such as same-sex relationships, paternity issues, or adoption). This goes beyond just the lead attorney. Ask who your contact person will be for simple questions, and who else may help in preparing your case or appearing in court. Ask to meet the attorneys assigned to your case if possible to be sure your personalities blend well.
Some lawyers do a lot of different things. They may appear for a divorce hearing in the morning and take an insurance adjuster’s deposition in the afternoon. This allows them to provide a variety of services to their clients, but limits the depth of their knowledge in any one field. At NSSSB, we only handle divorce, family law, probate, and estate planning matters. That means our lawyers work for families like yours every day. We pride ourselves on our thorough knowledge of divorce and family law issues. We want you to know you can rely on our advice.
The way Michigan family courts work is different if you are in one of the large Metro Detroit counties, like Wayne or Oakland, compared to some smaller communities like Washtenaw (where Ann Arbor is located), Livingston, and Lenawee counties. If your lawyer is familiar with your local court’s practices and procedures it can streamline your case and avoid misunderstandings between you and your judge. This isn’t about “knowing the judge” personally and having sway with him or her. Instead, it’s about knowing what works and what doesn’t in any particular courtroom. The same goes with knowledge and experience working with mediators across different communities. Having an attorney familiar with local mediators and their particular styles of mediation can help insure the appointed mediator is the right fit for your case.
At NSSSB, our Ann Arbor divorce attorneys work extensively with the courts and mediators in Southeast Michigan. Our lawyers are familiar with the judges, court staff, Friend of the Court workers, and mediators that will be handling your case. That means we can give you individualized advice about how your judge or mediator will receive your arguments, and what you can expect in court practices and mediation sessions.
This one is a trick question. Some parents believe that the courts and specifically the Friend of the Court system favors one parent over the other. To combat that bias, you may think you want a lawyer that favors mothers’ rights or fathers’ rights. However, if your lawyer answers in favor of either mothers or fathers, their response doesn’t reflect how the Michigan law works, or what the judges in Southeast Michigan will consider when deciding your case.
Instead, your family law attorney should turn the focus away from “us versus them” and toward the best interests of your child. You should expect any divorce lawyer to be able to explain the best interests factors the court will use to decide child custody, to provide you with reasonable explanations about what “sole custody” and “parental rights” look like, and whether your case is a good candidate.
Possibly the most important question to ask when selecting your divorce lawyer is what they do to help settle cases outside the courtroom. The vast majority of divorce cases are resolved without a trial or evidentiary hearing. Instead, they are resolved in a lawyer’s office through mediation or negotiations and the judgment of divorce is signed consensually based on the mutual agreements of the parties rather than ordered by a judge. A growing number of divorces are also negotiated using a collaborative divorce model that attempts to minimize conflict and resolve a marriage amicably by engaging professionals in the legal, mental health, and financial arenas.
By asking your lawyer how often they use mediation and whether they are certified in collaborative practice, you also can get an indication of whether your lawyer will increase the conflict, and cost, in your divorce, or help you bring tensions down. Not every case is a good candidate for these “alternative dispute resolution” models. However, even a high-conflict divorce can benefit from a lawyer trained to reduce tension and focus on finding solutions rather than problems. At NSSSB, we were pioneers in Michigan’s collaborative divorce practice. Our lawyers use divorce mediation and other dispute resolution tactics to help clients reach settlements amicably, with less cost and emotional upset to all involved.
At NSSSB, we want you to feel comfortable with your selection of a divorce lawyer. Please use our initial consultation as an interview. Ask us questions so you understand our team and our approach before you hire us to handle your divorce. Click here to schedule a consultation with an attorney. We will listen to the details of your situation, answer your questions, and help you decide if we are the right fit for your case.