Here are the top five questions to ask a divorce lawyer at a consultation and before you hire one, to determine if he or she is a good fit for you. We know this entire selection process can be stressful, which is why we wrote this article to help you get started.
These questions are only intended for California divorce attorneys. If you have a matter out-of-state, please consult with an attorney in your state.
These are obviously not the only questions you should ask. We give you these as a starting point. Once you have answers to these questions, start asking specific ones about your situation and take it from there.
Ready? Let’s start.
First question to ask a divorce lawyer at the consultation – Do you only handle divorce and family law cases?
Number one on our list of questions to ask a divorce lawyer is about the areas of law the attorney practices. Such questions are important because the more and different areas of law that are part of the lawyer’s practice, the less dedicated the lawyer and his staff may be to divorce cases.
Divorce lawyers are not that different from other professionals. If you need a brain surgeon, would you use a general medical practitioner for the procedure? If you need an electrician, do you hire a plumber?
Attorneys who exclusively practice divorce and family law are often more focused. They typically have more experience both in and out of the court room in family law and their knowledge of both family law and procedure is higher.
That is not to say that an attorney who handles both divorce cases and, as one example, criminal law matters will not be a good family law lawyer for you. However, when given the choice, consider whether it makes more sense to bring in someone who represents clients like you all day and every day than someone whose attention is divided with other areas of law.
Second question to ask a divorce lawyer before hiring one – How many years have you been practicing family law?
How many years an attorney has practiced law is a common question but it is not complete. What you want to know is how many years the attorney has been a litigator or a divorce lawyer.
For example, let’s say that the attorney with whom you’re consulting has been an attorney for 30 years. Sounds like good experience right? Now assume that 25 of those thirty years were handling corporate and business matters and the attorney rarely saw the inside of a court room or had specific litigation experience. You see how the level of experience is not always the determining factor?
It is better to ask the specific question then the general one – how many years of family law experience do you have? And for those who did something other than family law before, how much of your non-family law experience was litigation driven?
The reason we bring up the litigation driven experience is because family law and divorce cases can end up in court. When they do, it is important that you have a lawyer who is comfortable and experienced with matters such as discovery (formal requests for information), law and motion (preparing paperwork to the court to file and set for hearing), courtroom and trial experience.
The last two are especially important if you expect your divorce case to be contested or complex. That is because conducting direct and cross-examination of parties (the husband and wife, or the father and mother) or witnesses as well as properly making objections to evidence, introducing evidence and making proper legal arguments are a big part of effective representation in family law cases that will likely end up in a courtroom.
Third question to ask a divorce lawyer – Who will handle my case and how will tasks be delegated?
While this is two questions, it really is one common theme. You want to know how your case will be handled.
If you are considering hiring a solo practitioner, that may come with advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the attorney with whom you consult will likely be the only one who represents you in court. That can be a good thing. The bad thing may be that you may rarely talk to that attorney before court appearances because he or she may be spread pretty thin and dealing with a lot of cases in different court rooms.
Some of this comes back to whether or not the attorney handles different areas of law. Some of it comes down to whether or not the attorney takes on too many cases and relies too heavily on non-attorney support staff to handle the day-to-day of the case.
What are the advantages of bringing in a family law firm who handles your divorce, similar to our law firm, is you have quality family law lawyers who do the great majority of the work. It will be senior attorneys who generally make the court appearances and other experienced attorneys who will help with the paperwork. This team approach works well if you have the kind of case that needs time, care and attention.
Fourth question to ask a divorce lawyer – How specifically will I be charged?
If the attorney cannot answer this question for you, you may want to look the other way and leave. In California, when fees are expected to exceed $1,000.00, a written retainer agreement is required that lays out exactly what the hourly rate will be and how the fees will be billed.
You should know the hourly rate tha will be charged to you, how costs will be expected to be paid and what the initial deposit will be. You also need to know how often you will receive your bill, by what date you are expected to pay your bill and whether or not a replenishment of the retainer deposit or part of it will be required. These are just some of the starting questions that need to be asked about attorneys fees.
Be very careful of lawyers who charge flat fees. While this may seem initially attractive, it could actually be against your best interest. Flat fee cases often involve very limited work and if you have any kind of matter that will require more than one court appearance or is expected to be contested, the flat fee you pay may not cover the services you need and may become a waste of your money. Flat fees however are effective in summary dissolution matters.
You saw earlier that we referred to “costs.” What does that mean? Costs break down into two categories, internal and external. Internal costs generally include copy costs, fax charges and so forth. Think of it as cost incurred within the Law office that are sometimes passed on to you. These should be laid out to you in writing and in the retainer agreement.
External costs are costs incurred outside of the office. These include filing fees paid to the court, court reporters for depositions and sometimes trials and, as sometimes necessary in family law cases, appointment of independent and court-appointed experts such as private child custody evaluators or forensic accountants. Costs can also include your own retained experts, often a privately retained and not court appointed forensic accountant or appraiser.
Fifth question to ask a divorce lawyer – How will we communicate about the case?
The things you want to know are how often you can expect to hear from your lawyer, how will your lawyer generally contact you and what is the typical expectation for a return call or communication by email from you.
Let’s use our Orange County family law firm as an example. Our attorneys are always available during business hours to speak with clients in the office unless we are in meetings or in court. We are also available after hours for calls and especially for emergencies. If for any reason we are not available, you leave a voicemail and the attorney will generally get back to the same day or within 24 hours. If the attorney is unable to get back to you immediately because he or she is in a lengthy hearing or expected to be out of the office for a while, our office staff member will set an appointment for you and the attorney to talk to avoid playing phone tag.
This is how divorce lawyers effectively handle client communication.
When it comes to written communication, most of it is by email and rather than kill trees and use snail mail, we use email to send by PDF or other means documents and information to our clients. In addition, we are very accessible to our clients by email if they prefer to contact us in this way.
We handle in-person meetings on an as needed basis when a client needs to come into the office to meet with us. This often happens when paperwork requires review and discussion.
Got more questions to ask a divorce lawyer before you hire one?
Good news – we are only a phone call or email away. If you are serious about retaining an attorney for your California divorce case, please contact us to discuss your specific situation. Our experienced divorce and family law attorneys are ready to help you.
For some related reading, check out the following informative articles:
Got questions about California child custody laws? We have written a comprehensive page on exactly this topic. It is a one-stop shop to most answers fathers and mothers have about legal and physical custody, visitation and parenting time and how California courts handle child custody cases.
Want to know how to find a good divorce lawyer in California? Check out this article. It’s a helpful guide that will walk you through the selection process.
Is your divorce dragging on? That sucks, right? Good news. There is a way to bring it to closure. We have written a cool article about that subject.