Written By: Stephen L. Cawelti APC
Stephen Cawelti is a board certified divorce attorney who has specialized in complex family law matters since 2006 in California. He has acted as the lead attorney on hundreds of divorce cases and argued before the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura County Superior Courts. He was voted by Pasadena Magazine as one of the “Top Family Law Attorneys” in the area for 7 years and named a “Rising Star” by SuperLawyers. He currently serves as the vice-chair of the Family Law Executive Committee of the LA County Bar Association.
Not all divorce lawyers are created equal. So how do you find a competent and skilled divorce attorney?
The answer is simple: before you hire them, ask lots of questions. Think of your consultation as an interview, and your potential divorce attorney as the applicant.
But what questions should you ask? And what answers should you look for?
I’ve compiled an insider’s guide to the top 7 questions you should ask your divorce lawyer and detailed what to watch for in their response before you retain them.
1. Do You Exclusively Practice Family Law?
There are a lot of attorneys out there who attempt to be a “jack/jill of all trades”. They dabble in a little bit of bankruptcy, a little bit of personal injury, a little criminal defense, and a little bit of family law.
The fact of the matter is, the jack of all trades is going to get lapped by the specialist in court and negotiation. Find an attorney who specializes in family law and family law alone.
In California, lawyers must pass rigorous testing and standards in order to label themselves as a “family law specialist”. If you live in California, check to make sure they are currently certified as a family law specialist in your state.
2. Talk to me about your experience in my jurisdiction. Are you familiar with the judges in my area?
Your divorce attorney should NOT ONLY have extensive experience in family law (I recommend at least 5+ years), but also have experience practicing in your area. It is important to check if they have experience in your jurisdiction (county), your courthouse and with your potential judge.
Judges often have different approaches when handling certain case types and each will vary on how they interpret the law. An experienced local divorce attorney will know the judges in your area and how to best present your case to them. You want to find an attorney who has built credibility in the family law community and in the local courts.
If you want to hire someone who practices outside your specific jurisdiction, it is important to ask them if they have connections in your jurisdiction. If the attorney has good enough connections, they may feel confident enough to take on your case. If not, they should refer you to someone who is experienced in your area.
3. What divorce options do you specialize in?
If you only have a hammer in your tool belt, every problem will look like a nail. If you go to a divorce attorney who specializes primarily in litigation, they will be more likely to want to take your case to court.
Find an attorney who has experience in all of the divorce options. This includes litigation, mediation, uncontested divorce, and collaborative divorce. It is important for you to know basic information about each one of these options in order to ask informative questions during your consultation.
Litigation (or going to court) should be the last option that your divorce lawyer initially recommends. It is expensive, your dirty laundry gets aired out in public, and you give up an element of control because the judge ultimately decides the nuances of your case.
A good divorce lawyer (if at all possible) will try to keep your case out of court. It is important however, to find a lawyer that has experience in the courtroom in the event that your case does have to go to court. Sometimes, a trip or two to court is what’s needed to get the case to settlement.
When both parties decide to mediate, they hire a third party mediator (often a divorce lawyer) to mediate the nuances of their divorce. The third party helps the couple to reach an agreement outside of court and allows the individuals to remain in control of their divorce and the decisions surrounding it.
For the right people, mediation is a major time saver, and also can save a significant amount of money and stress. Mediation can be used in conjunction with other divorce options.
In collaborative divorce, each individual hires a divorce lawyer who assists them in negotiating the terms of the divorce. Each individual meets and counsels separately with their own lawyer and often a team of other experts in the areas of finance, mental health and child custody. The group then comes together and meets several times to work out the terms of the agreement.
In a collaborative divorce, the parties do not need to agree on everything. They do however, need to have a commitment to cooperation and collaboration. It is important to note that if the parties are not able to reach an agreement, they will usually be required to start their divorce process over with different attorneys and experts.
An uncontested divorce is a situation when two parties are in general agreement about most aspects of their case. One of the individuals then hires an attorney to draw up the agreement, help to work out any small disagreements, and submit the paperwork.
This type of divorce is extremely cost effective. Some divorce lawyers will push for other divorce options (as that makes them more money), but an honest and good divorce lawyer will be upfront about ALL of your options. An uncontested divorce is not the right fit for everyone, but it is a great option for some.
It is vital to make sure that the divorce lawyer you hire has experience in all of the divorce options mentioned above. They will help you to determine which type of divorce is the right fit for your case (it might even be a combination of the options).
4. How do you structure your billing?
Before you hire an attorney, find out if they differentiate how they bill for different levels of legal work. The attorney should charge lower paralegal rates for legal work that does not require the attention of the lead attorney. Tasks that do not require legal know-how or skill (administrative tasks) are often not even billed by many divorce law firms.
It is also important to make sure that the costs (messenger fees, court copies, subpoenaed records) are not marked up. There should be no profit to the law firm for costs unrelated to hourly billing.
Many attorneys will not charge you for billing questions that you want to ask. Check with your potential divorce attorney if this is the case and after you hire them, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification regarding your monthly invoice.
5. Do you have enough staff to support my case?
Some lawyers have an incredible grasp on the law, but are terrible case managers. Pay attention from the moment you call the office. Are they organized? Who answers the phone? How many staff members do they have?
Some attorneys attempt to be their own secretary, paralegal and operations manager all while managing your case. Why is this problematic? Because you don’t want to be paying an attorney’s hourly rate for office work and simple legal questions. Make sure that your divorce attorney has an adequate support staff in place in order to be able to effectively take on your case.
6. Will You be Exclusively Over My Case?
Often large law firms will have you meet with a senior attorney at the office, but will then pass off your case to a junior attorney and the senior attorney will have limited involvement.
Small law firms aren’t immune from this issue either. Some small law firms will take on your case and then pass it off to an attorney they hire part time as a subcontractor. A lot of attorneys do it in order to reduce client wait time during a particular busy season.
It is important that your attorney is up front about who will run point on your case and who they will pull on to assist. It is not a bad thing to have more than one mind on your case (in fact it is often beneficial to your case), but it is important to know who the key players will be in your case management.
7. If I Hire You, How Will You Keep Me Informed?
The divorce process is littered with important check-points and due dates. It is important to know your divorce lawyer’s protocol for keeping you informed. Will they reach out personally by phone? Will they have their paralegals email you a weekly update? Set communication expectations early.
It is also important to understand how you can get a hold of your divorce lawyer if you have questions or concerns. Does he/she accept questions via email? Will you need to make an appointment? What is the average response time?
Remember, not all divorce attorneys are created equal. Follow your gut and make sure that you take the time to find the right fit for you.