How to Interview and Hire a Family Law Attorney

  1. Introduction.

For many people, the first time they have contact with a lawyer is when they are having an issue with their marriage, or with establishing custody and parenting time, and sometimes property, when there is no marriage. It is difficult to assess who is the right attorney to deal with a specific situation.  This blog post provides information about how to assess your specific needs for a family law lawyer.  It then provides information about the important questions you may consider asking when interviewing an attorney, so that you can hire a lawyer who is well-suited to help you in resolving your issues.

  1. Assessing the Issues in Your Case.

As a first step, write down what issues you need a lawyer to help you resolve.  For example, in a divorce, the issues could include determining who has legal custody of children, child support, spousal support, and property division.  If you are in a common law domestic partnership, the issue will be limited to whether and how any property held by either party, or both parties, will be divided, as well as any issues involving children of the parties.  For unmarried partners who do not have a domestic partnership, but who have children, the main issues will involve legal custody, parenting time, and child support.

The next step will be for you to assess how difficult or complex your case will be.  For example, if you were married for a short time and you and your spouse did not acquire any significant assets, your property division will be simpler than if you were married for many years.  If one party has, or both parties have, interests in businesses, have rental properties, or have significant financial accounts, your case could be complex, which  would require an attorney experienced in how to deal with difficult financial matters.  If there is a significant difference between the income of the parties, spousal support is likely at issue.  If the parties have children and disagree about legal custody and parenting time, that can make a case more difficult and expensive. Sometimes, as well, a spouse or partner may have issues with substance abuse or other conduct that the lawyer will need to address.

  1. Finding the Right Lawyer.

Finding a lawyer who will be the best person to represent you can be a difficult task.  There are subjective and objective criteria for you to consider.  The main subjective criteria are easily summarized:  (1) Does this lawyer listen to me? (2) Will I get along with this lawyer over time? (3)Do I trust this lawyer’s ability to represent me?

Assessing a lawyer’s objective skill set and whether it meets your needs is much more difficult.  The lawyer will obtain pertinent facts about your situation in your initial interview.  Depending on the issues in your case, the attorney can then explain what the process is to deal with the issues and the range of outcomes based on the facts. The attorney should ensure that you have an understanding of the applicable laws well as providing an overview of how your case will proceed.

There are additional issues and questions you may want to consider in your initial client interview, as well.  First, you need to know how long the lawyer has practiced family law.  If you have a very simple case, a lawyer with a few years of experience will likely be able to effectively help you.  However, if your case is more difficult or complex, you will likely need a lawyer who has experience dealing with difficult issues.That being said, a lawyer who has many years of experience does not necessarily mean that he or she has a good skill set.

To help assess the lawyer’s skill set, ask what his or her approach is to resolving a case.  Most good lawyers will let you know that the goal is to settle all issues, either party to party, lawyer to lawyer, or in mediation.  Ask the lawyer if he or she has ever taught other lawyers.  Attorneys have to take continuing legal education classes (CLEs) each year.  If you have a high asset or complex case, you want a lawyer who has a recognized skill set.  Lawyers who get invited to teach other lawyers are more likely than not to have a good skill set.  Ask the lawyer about his or her network of experts that might be needed in a high asset or complex case, as well.

Ask the lawyer if he or she has dealt with issues that are similar to the ones that are present in your case.  It is likely that your case will settle.  If not, your case will go to trial.  Ask the lawyer this question:  “When a case goes to trial, how often is the result close to, better than, or worse than you anticipated?”  Lawyers cannot predict with certainly how a judge will rule at trial. That is why settlement of cases is usually the best outcome.  When cases go to trial, however, if the lawyer assessed the case well, the result of a trial with a capable lawyer is, more often than not, within a range of an anticipated outcome.  There are exceptions, of course, such as when there are disputed valuations of business and property, or when there are conflicting unresolved and difficult issues involving custody and parenting time.

Next, ask the lawyer whether he or she wrote all or part of the firm’s website,or has ever published an article involving the law.  If the answer is “yes,” that will give you at least some comfort that the attorney has adequate writing skills.

Ask the family law attorney if all of his or her reviews on Google or AVVO are from actual clients. There are companies that provide 5-star reviews on Google for a fee. AVVO reviews often include reviews by professional colleagues.  If the lawyer received a negative review, ask about the circumstances. There are, indeed, disgruntled clients and opposing parties who leave review negative reviews that are not warranted.

It is also important to talk about billing.  There is not necessarily a correlation between a lawyer’s hourly rate and how expensive your case will be. An attorney’s experience and efficiency matter.  Ask how many people will work on your case.  Except for solo practitioners and lawyers who work in small firms, it is common for more than one lawyer to work on a case, which can increase costs, because you are billed for all lawyers who are working on your case. That includes meetings when the lawyers meet to talk about your case and confer together about what tasks need to be done.  Ask if you are charged for both lawyers’ time in those circumstances.  The number of staff who bill for working on your case also matters. Ask about what tasks staff will do and what their rates are.

Lawyers have minimum billings, typically in increments of .2 hours.  Attorneys have differing sensibilities about how rigidly they adhere to their minimum billing requirements. For example, consider asking this hypothetical question:  “If I send you a one-line email asking whether the appraisal on the family home is scheduled, and you send a one-line response that you will contact the appraiser next week, do I get charged for your review of my email at your minimum billing and charged for your response at your minimum billing?” The answer to that question will help you assess your comfort level with how you will be billed in your case.

Hiring an attorney for a family law matter can be expensive.  Pay attention to the lawyer’s responses to your questions.  Pay attention to your comfort level with the interview, and the lawyer’s comfort at responding to your questions.

Although it may be expensive, it is a good idea to interview at least two lawyers, particularly if you have potentially difficult issues to resolve.  Expect to pay for the lawyer’s time when you have a comprehensive consultation. Finally, you may want to look up the lawyer at the Oregon State Bar Membership Directory, which will let you know if the attorney has been disciplined by the Bar.

Because hiring a family law lawyer is so important, prepare for your meeting and make sure that you get sufficient information for you to make an informed decision.

Peter Bunch
2023 – Copyright ©

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