Finding a Really Good Lawyer

Many people have expressed a wish to have a certified "really good lawyer" list published in each community. However, not everyone will agree on who is a really good lawyer for you.

To help you in your search, let's define what qualities you are looking for.

1. Knowledge of divorce law. Find out their level of skill by asking what percentage of their cases are divorce cases. How many divorce cases did the lawyer handle in the last year.

In many smaller communities, it may not be possible to find someone who limits her practice to divorce law. However, being represented by someone who has enough cases in a year to stay current on the law is a plus for your case.

2. Knowledge of local procedure. Divorce law is controlled by state statutes. Many people expect the procedures would be the same throughout the state. However, practices and procedures can vary considerably between counties. A successful divorce lawyer in one county may not have enough knowledge of the procedure in a neighboring county to be effective.

You want someone who knows local practice and court staff. Don't pay an out-county lawyer to learn new procedures. Ask whether the lawyer is familiar with the practices of the county where your divorce will be handled.

3. Staff in the law firm. Does your lawyer use legal assistants or paralegals to assist her? Generally these people can help with telephone calls, interviews and drafting documents. They make the attorney more efficient by doing some of the work. Their response time is better. The plus for you is they are usually in the office when you call and can answer some of your questions or get back to you after conferring with your attorney. In addition, they charge less for their services.

4. Reputation. Check with several people and ask them for referrals to lawyers. Include friends or relatives whose judgment you trust who have been through divorce. Your therapist is often a good referral source. People who work in the court system will often know who is highly respected. If a certain attorney keeps coming up on these lists, then you have a strong indication that that person has earned the respect of a number of people.

5. Organizational ability of your lawyer. Look at your lawyer's office. Are there files everywhere? Does it appear organized and neat? If your lawyer's office looks like she may have trouble finding a file, someday, that file could be yours. Do you want to risk that?

6. Physical appearance of your lawyer. Your case may take 60 days to resolve, if it is truly an "easy case." Or it may take years to resolve. Does your lawyer present the physical appearance of being able to physically handle a case that takes longer? Attorneys who have a very good reputation can age. Some will develop drug or alcohol dependency problems. Some will become burned out. Assess whether this person, who will be your representative, has the physical and mental stamina to remember the details of your case and effectively present them to others.

7. Political agenda. Increasingly there are law firms who advertise that they represent certain groups. For example, there are the fathers for equal right or divorce associations for women. Attorneys who have certain agendas may be working so hard to promote that agenda that the court staff gives less credibility to their arguments. Rather than being seen as representing a parent who truly deserves to spend approximately half time with his children, they may be seen as pushing their social beliefs. The effect can be the opposite of what you wish. Generally lawyers who believe in their client's position and argue it forcefully, whether they represent a man or a woman, are more credible to the court.

8. Fees. Lawyer fees are always high. Does the lawyer you are
considering charge within a range consistent with other attorneys who represent divorcing clients? Look beyond the hourly fee.

  • Does that attorney charge one fee regardless of whether hee works in the office, prepares for court or appears in court? Lawyers who charge a higher hourly rate for court preparation or appearance have an incentive to take your case to court as often as possible. Many lawyers charge the same rate for all work.
  • Is the retainer refundable? Though many states have ethical requirements against keeping retainers if the client changes his mind and dismisses the case, or the case finishes before the retainer is used up, many lawyers write around this in their agreements. Confirm that the unused retainer will be refunded. Some lawyers argue that the retainer is earned when received. You will have to decide whether you wish to work with a lawyer who takes that position or whether there is competent counsel available who uses a different theory.
  • If the lawyer charges a flat rate, does that change if the other side files papers showing that he is contesting the divorce? Find out what the rate will be if that happens.

9. What is the lawyer's preferred manner of handling cases? Does the lawyer prefer going to court and letting the judge decide? Does the lawyer prefer mediating the case? Has your lawyer been trained as a collaborative professional? How does the lawyer feel about you and your spouse talking together and trying to settle some of the issues yourself? Compare the answers to your preferred way of handling charged situations. If you prefer having your lawyer deal with your spouse, you may prefer the "do not talk to your spouse approach." However, if you feel you and your spouse can work through a number of issues and save time and money, you will want to avoid that approach.

10. Does the firm provide just the basic services, or do they take time to answer your personal, non-legal questions? Will they teach you the legal system? Do they take a personal interest in their clients? Are you willing to pay for the additional level of service?

11. Does the lawyer keep you waiting for more than 20 minutes after you are announced? If yes, perhaps he is too busy to accept your case. It is appropriate to inquire whether he has time for a case that presents the challenges of your case, given his caseload. Some delay is acceptable, since lawyers seldom sit in their offices waiting for work. It's not uncommon for them to be wrapped up in another matter when your arrival is announced. However, they should balance this with a courteous understanding that your time is precious too.

12. Conversely, does the lawyer seem busy enough? In other words, does it look like a thriving practice or is the lawyer overly anxious to start your case? Don't allow anyone to pressure you. Lawyers who don't have enough work to do, may be in that situation for a reason. Keep looking.

13. Does the lawyer permit interruptions during your interview? Does she discuss other cases in front of you? If yes, your case may be topic of conversation in front of others in the future.

14. Closely associated with the previous point, does the lawyer and her staff protect other clients' privacy? Are other clients' case files in full view? Can you make out work that is being performed for others? Is the lawyer considerate enough to have his desk or interviewing table clear of other case files? If other people's files are displayed, your file may be available for others to see in the future, if you hire this lawyer.

15. Do you click with the lawyer? In other words, do you feel comfortable with this person? Do you feel that this person has your best interests at heart? Do you like this lawyer? If you feel uncomfortable or sense that you are not communicating well, keep looking. There is someone out there for you, unless you keep hearing that the court will not accept your position. Then you need to reconsider your position.

16. There are no "success (win) rates." Be leery of lawyers who
guarantee a result or who claim they have a certain percentage win rate. Family law cases are not about winning and losing. They are about reconfiguring families. "Wins" are usually fleeting, since the one who "lost" will find a way to get even. Find a lawyer who is looking for "win-win" solutions to your situation, not "win-lose". Lawyers who calculate their rates of success are similar to people who mark their conquests by notches on their bedposts.

17. Does your lawyer have modern communicate systems, such as email, forms on internet? Does the lawyer have support staff or is all the work left for the lawyer to perform herself? Is there someone available to cover for the lawyer if she is out of the office?

18. Does this lawyer appear secure in his ability? Does the lawyer dwell on how important he is? Does this person have to prove his ability to you? Chances are your case will become another challenge for him to prove his worth.

19. Does the lawyer bring out the best in you or the worst? Are you encouraged to dwell on the past and blame your spouse for your problems or does the lawyer encourage you to look forward and actively problem solve? Lawyers who encourage you to focus on the negatives actually create more work for themselves and charge you the fee for getting you out of your troubles. Lawyers who encourage you to figure out solutions to your problems actually save you money in the long run and help you adjust to your new life.

20. Work with a lawyer who uses a written contract for legal services.This is advantageous for both of you. It allows each of you to be clear about the expectations the lawyer has of you and the expectations that you have of the lawyer. When the agreement is presented to you, take it home, study it, understand it, and ask questions about any sections that you don't understand, before you sign it. Get a copy of the agreement after it has been accepted.

21. Take the time to check the appearance of the office. Some people want a highly decorated, up to the minute appearance. Some are turned off by the prosperous look, feeling that their fees are paying for the decorating. On the other hand, an office that has not been redecorated since the 1980's may put you off. Does the feel of the office convey an appropriate level of success that is consistent with your sense of appropriate ability?

22. Papering. Does the attorney, as a matter of practice, provide you with copies of all the documents that are generated for your file? This is called "papering." Attorneys who provide this service will permit you to have a parallel file to the one kept in the attorney's office. It also permits you to assess what work is being done on your behalf.

23. Is the attorney clear about fees? Does the attorney bill you at regular intervals, such as every month? Are the bills itemized so you can tell who performed the work and how much time was spent on a given task? Some attorneys will withdraw from your case if you do not keep current on your fees. Others will make arrangements to defer payment until you receive assets from the marital estate. Find out the attorney's preference. A good point to remember is that if you stay current on your fees, you are paying the lawyer from your marital estate. That means your spouse is paying half your fees. If you wait until after you receive your share of the estate to pay, you are paying 100% from your share. If your spouse has been keeping her attorney current from marital assets, you have been paying 50% of your spouse's fees. This can result in a considerable reduction of your estate. Try to keep current and be consistent with your spouse's payment practices.

Different clients expect different skill levels, service delivery and tactics from their lawyers. In order to have a good fit with your expectations, take the time to consider what you want from your lawyer. During the interview, ask questions that will provide you with such information. As you can see, there truly is not one size fits all.

The really good lawyer is one who works hard on your behalf, understands your priorities and works to implement them. He also will tell you when you are being penny wise and pound-foolish and when you are being shortsighted. Most importantly, when you are being given the bad news, it is in a manner that you can hear it that shows respect for you as a person. A really good lawyer will help you get around the impasses whether you create them, your spouse creates them or the system has shortcomings. In the end, a really good lawyer is one you believe did the very best for you and helped you through a very difficult time.

Finding a Really Good Lawyer

Monika Holzer Sacks
Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach & Buiteweg, P.C.