In past blogs, we addressed the Three “Baby Steps” to take when Thinking about a Divorce and Five Questions to Ponder when trying to find the RIGHT Lawyer to Hire for a Family Law Matter. In this blog, we are going to tackle “how do I do it” approaches to selecting, interviewing, and making the decision on who you should hire to handle your divorce, modification, or other family law matter. While this blog is focused on family law, the methods set out are universal to finding the “Right” lawyer for your legal matter.
1. “Making The List and checking it twice” – It’s not Santa Claus and a family law matter is not like Christmas, but putting in the time and effort at the front end to get the information, set out your options, then narrow down the list to what fits your needs and comfort level can save you a lot of emotional and financial costs down the road. Start your search the tried and true American way – ask around. The first place I’d ask – another lawyer in the county where you live that has a practice that is not family law-oriented. Does he or she know this lawyer? What are his/her impressions and opinions? You will get the “legal community insider” opinion from this lawyer friend/neighbor. Then, ask your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your church members – get personal referrals of lawyers they have used, or had a friend use, or have just heard about through conversations. Find out more than a name – ask about what they have heard about this lawyer or law firm, what was their experience with them, what was the outcome, how do they feel they were treated. If the person you are asking knows someone who works daily at the Courthouse, then that information and name should go at the top of the list. If no one can give you a personal referral, then you can go to the internet and get names from searches you do. The best place to start – Texas Board of Legal Specialization (www.tbls.org). With a quick search, you can find a Board Certified Lawyer in seconds that is specialized in Family Law, lives in your county, how long they have been Board Certified and doing this type of legal work. Doing other Google searches more specific to your issues will bring you many names. But Beware – advertising is now an accepted method in the legal industry to attract clients. Be careful to not just pick that first name at the top of the Google return page – chances are somebody paid a pretty penny to get there. How good their search optimization specialist is has nothing to do with how good they are as family attorneys – and more to do with what their advertising budget is for that month. Nevertheless, you can get names that are close to your work or home, that handle family law matters, that show their years of experience, and will give you (from a review of their website) some inkling as to who they are and what they do. Does the Firm specialize in Family Law or are they an all-purpose law firm. Write all the names you are given or find in your internet search down on a piece of paper along with any good, bad, or first impressions you have about that lawyer or law firm.
2. “Vet” the names on the list. You now have names. You have your first impressions about that lawyer from conversations you had with your referrals and any searches you did on the internet. Now, ask around among other people you know or trust about anything they have heard about this lawyer or law firm and ask them to ask their friends, neighbors, and fellow employees. Second, use the internet now to search out more information about your names. Begin by simply putting in his or her name in Google or Bing. What shows up? Next, go to Martindale Hubbell (www.martindale.com ). Martindale Hubbell has the oldest and most trusted rating system of lawyers that exists. It isn’t quite like a Consumer Reports analysis on a new refrigerator, but it is a peer review rating system that gives you the only “objective indicator of a lawyer’s high ethical standards and professional ability, generated from evaluations of lawyers by other members of the bar and judiciary in the United States . . . (www.martindale.com)” It’s the rating given that lawyer by the lawyers and judges that work with him or her every day. It gives a numerical rating for that lawyer and all information you will need on background on the attorney – the firm, peer reviews, client reviews, and location and contact information. A lawyer has to have been practicing for at least 3 years to even get a peer review. There are other lawyer directory websites you can check out. (www.superlawyers.com, www.lawyers.findlaw.com, www.lawyers.com,www.avvo.com ) The point here is to gather more information and evaluate your research findings based on where the information is being harvested. Another great source of independent fact-gathering is the online records website of the county of your residence. Most of the larger counties in Texas have websites that allow you to search by an attorney to see how many cases that lawyer is handling in a filed matter. The results can go back years. How many cases has the lawyer on your list handled in, say, the past 2 years? How many cases is he or she currently handling? Too many? Too few? When’s the last time the attorney on your list filed a case under his or her name? This is all very pertinent information for you in deciding the level of active and current work your prospective attorney is currently doing in your county.
3. Make an appointment for a consultation. This is where the rubber meets the road on your search to get yourself the “right” lawyer for your case. All the work you have put into making your list and gathering anecdotal information about the lawyers on your list has only cost you time so far. Now, you more than likely will be required to pay some money to sit down and meet with the lawyers that remain on your list. The first decision you are going to have to make is whether to get a “free” consult or pay for that consult. Most “free” consults are limited in time by the lawyer or the law firm – normally 30 minutes. There’s obviously a reason for that. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade”. In any family law matter, the average and normal time it takes to get all the information a lawyer needs to evaluate a new case and then give advice to the client as to what the recommended actions should be is about an hour and a half. Any time less than this average is going to result in facts not getting put on the table which will lead to incomplete information which will lead to rushed, knee-jerk conclusions and advice. Consultations are also very important for you to see the big picture of this lawyer’s firm. How did the person you first talked to treat you in that first contact? Were they helpful, cheerful, and informative? Or hassled, hurried, and matter of fact? Remember this – you will be dealing the paralegals, the receptionist, and the clerks of the law firm far more on a day-to-day basis than your lawyer – make sure this interface is a positive one. There are enough negatives that go with a family law matter. You don’t need another one when just trying to call the lawyer’s office.
Set up multiple consultations. Yes, that will cost you more money if you choose a “payment” consult over a free one but most attorneys charged a reduced rate for an initial consultation. Moreover, you have the added benefit that anyone you see before the other side hires an attorney will not be able to see or represent your spouse or former spouse for ethical reasons. You’ll also find out – because they won’t be able to schedule you for a consult – if your spouse or former spouse has been to see that attorney about anything related to you.
Before you go in for the consult, write down all the questions you have – and no question is too small or trivial. You will be paying for this lawyer’s undivided attention to your situation – you are entitled to have your concerns and questions addressed head-on and answered. When you get to the lawyer’s office you will be able to see how the staff treats you upon arrival and the atmosphere within the office. After you meet with the lawyer, evaluate what the lawyer gave you in terms of knowledge about the area of family law that your case relates to – and your specific situation? Did the lawyer give you straightforward answers even if you did not want to hear what he or she was telling you? Did you feel like the attorney was trying to find creative ways to get you the result you desired – or was that attorney just trying to turn your “square peg” case into a “round peg” case so it would neatly fit into a round hole for that lawyer? Did the lawyer go over with you the overall process? Did he or she cover the normal time limits it takes to resolve your situation? Was Information given to you about how the Judge in your particular case views situations like yours based on past cases the lawyer has had in that Court? Were the potential problems that might arise in your case discussed in detail? Was there a discussion of the general overview of the potential costs and attorney fees that might be involved in handling your case – both with a smooth sailing prognosis and with possible trouble spots?
Finally, and by far the most important, how did you feel at the end of the appointment? Did you feel relieved? Less anxious? More confident that your future might be resolvable without all the dread you felt would happen before you came to the consultation? Did you come away feeling you can work with this attorney? Knowing yourself as you do and no one else does – did you come away feeling your “style” and the “style” of your lawyer are compatible so that you have the probability of achieving your goals without sacrificing yourself and who you are in the process. One of the greatest satisfactions I get in practicing law is when a client tells me after initial consultation – “I can’t tell you how much more comfortable I feel about my situation after this meeting”. If this is how you feel after that consultation – hire that lawyer right away because that is the “Right” lawyer for you.