Selecting an Attorney

Selecting the right divorce lawyer for you is very important. Your selection can affect your satisfaction, the outcome, the cost, and the options that are available to you. Not all divorce lawyers work the same or even give similar advice. A lawyer’s experience in the unique dispute resolution process you are considering is one factor to consider. Each divorce lawyer brings his or her own unique personality, intellect, skill set, belief system, and background to that lawyer’s practice and advice. Fortunately, the Seattle area has many good divorce lawyers, so you have the opportunity to choose the best one for you.

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Initial Considerations

Knowledge, Skill and Experience in the Legal Parts of Divorce

Just because someone has a law degree and passed the Bar examination does not mean that he or she knows anything about you, your family, or even the law about your situation. Before hiring a lawyer, you should ask the experience that lawyer has with your situation and the services you desire.

A lawyer’s knowledge and skills are important. An lawyer without sufficient knowledge may not only give you bad advice, but won’t be able to identify questions that need to be addressed. Except perhaps for the simplest of cases, family law is not a matter of checking boxes on forms. The training and experience of a lawyer in an area of law may be one indication of skill. Law can be complex, and an attorney who may be knowledgeable and skilled in one area of the law (for example, criminal defense) may not be knowledgeable and skilled in another area of law (such as family law).

One indication can be the professional organizations in which a lawyer maintains memberships. Ask about them. If a lawyer does not maintain membership in an organization that focuses on family law, that lawyer’s practice is likely not focused on family law. Awards a lawyer may have received, involvement in professional activities, and similar indications may be helpful. Bear in mind that most professional organizations do not have meaningful criteria for joining, other than having a law degree. One exception is the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which requires that its Fellows pass an examination on family law. Not every lawyer can pass that examination.

It is essential that for Collaborative Law, that the lawyer be a member of a Collaborative Law organization, such as King County Collaborative Law and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. King County Collaborative Law has minimum training requirements for its members.

Knowledge and Skill About the Nuts and Bolts of Divorce

Financial and parenting questions lie at the heart of divorce decisions. Most divorce lawyers (and judges) lack any formal education or training in finance, taxation, business, family systems, or the realities of post-divorce parenting. Judges and lawyers joke about how their eyes glaze over when looking at numbers. If you have financial or parenting questions to address, you may wish to inquire whether the divorce lawyer has some of those skills that apply to your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, being careful not to confuse confidence and bravado with skill and understanding. If you know a professional in those topics, ask them for questions to ask a lawyer you are interviewing. Taking the time to select professionals with true subject matter expertise in areas to be addressed can result in better and more cost-effective outcomes.

Just as skills among lawyers vary as to subject matter expertise, they also vary as to process skills. For example, a lawyer who is skilled in litigation might be less skilled in settling cases. Ask lawyers you interview about some typical recent examples of how their cases started, were concluded, and the methods used to conclude them. If you are looking at resolving your case other than through litigation or threats of litigation, it will be helpful to inquire what training and experience he or she has in non-litigation forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation or collaborative law.

The standard law school curriculum for lawyers has not included any negotiation theory or skill building; even today such education is spotty at best. Lawyers seek to gain those skills must seek out time-consuming training on their own; like all advanced skills, they erode unless regularly used. The majority of lawyers have no formal training whatsoever in negotiation or dispute resolution; some have basic-level training; few have advanced training. It is unlikely that a high level of skill in negotiation can be acquired through the on the job experience that most lawyers get.

Collaborative Divorce is a specific process, and uses several unique and advanced skill sets. For that reason, Collaborative Law training and experience is particularly important if you wish to use Collaborative Law, because it requires a significant paradigm shift and different skills for the attorneys. A list of local Collaboratively-trained lawyers is available at King County Collaborative Law.

Diligence

The level of diligence that lawyers apply to their work vary widely. Some lawyers carefully review all documents and consider the situation, while others prefer a less thorough approach. Diligence results in higher attorney’s fees, but may result in savings over the long-term by avoiding expensive mistakes that could be overlooked with a more relaxed approach. Consider a cost-benefit analysis for what is best in your particular situation. If your decisions are about matters where there is some complexity, it may be worth selecting an attorney who applies a higher level of diligence.

Communication

Does your lawyer listen to you? Listening is an important skill. No lawyer can know what is best for your situation, or even advise you, without gaining an understanding about your situation and what is important to you. This means that a good lawyer will listen to you to gain understanding.

And, do you understand what your divorce lawyer is saying? There is very little in the law (or elsewhere) that cannot be explained so you can make good decisions for yourself. If you have troubles truly understanding what the lawyer is saying or if it does not make sense to you, ask for clarification. If the lawyer is unable to do so, it could mean that the lawyer is unable to effectively communicate with you, or even that the lawyer does not understand the topic sufficiently to be able to explain it. (It happens!) Since communication is so essential to providing legal services, you should consider hiring another lawyer if you can’t understand what your divorce lawyer is trying to communicate.

Availability

Will your lawyer be available to meet or talk with you on reasonable request? Or will you always be unable to speak with your lawyer except through secretaries or paralegals? (Remember that many good lawyers can have full schedules, so some communications through secretaries and paralegals in setting up meetings will probably be inevitable.)

Who will be doing the actual work on your case? Will it be the lawyer with whom you meet? Will it be a secretary or paralegal? Will it be another lawyer altogether? If your lawyer will not be doing the work, how will that impact the quality? You may wish to ask.

Writing

Good lawyering requires good writing skills, if only to prepare a clear agreement that you can follow. A good lawyer is a good writer. Read the writing of your lawyer. While legal writing is not literature, it should be accurate, clear, grammatically correct, and well-organized. Good writing takes time and results in some costs. Poor writing can cause confusion and, if serious, can cost you money in the long-run. 

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 Fees

The hourly rates that a lawyer charges are not an indication of a lawyer’s skill and experience. A lower hourly rate, or a low initial deposit, do not necessarily mean that the costs in the end will be lower. More experienced attorneys usually have higher hourly rates; experience can result in lower fees overall as work is performed more efficiently.

Consider also that a more skilled attorneys who charges a higher rate may cost less in the long-term, if that lawyer’s skills result in better outcomes. Examples include by properly addressing financial and tax issues, making sure that questions are appropriately raised, and in thinking through possible options to make sure that the documents are complete and can be implemented. A more skilled attorney will also be more likely to be able to craft a successful agreement that is “out of the box” if that is more suitable to your needs.

Here are some questions you may wish to ask about lawyer fees:

  • What advanced fee/cost deposit, if any, is required, and is that likely to cover the entire cost? Is any part non-refundable? Is it required to be replenished?
  • What is the basis for calculating the attorney’s fee (flat, hourly, etc.), including the specific rate and the measurement? For instance, is the hourly fee calculated in increments of one-quarter hour or one-tenth hour? Does the attorney charge a minimum for short phone calls and emails?
  • What are the costs and expenses that you will be likely to pay, and are they marked up?
  • What is the billing frequency (monthly, quarterly, etc.)?
  • How many clients has the attorney had to stop working with because they can’t pay the fees charged?

Most attorneys will not commence work without receiving a deposit.

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Finding Lawyers to Interview

There are directories of lawyers, but remember that all directories and rating services are imperfect at best. Many are are geared to generate revenue from lawyer advertising … meaning you are the product sold to the lawyers who advertise on them. Be skeptical with ratings and reviews—rating systems are necessarily subjective and there is no scale that can measure what makes a “good” attorney. Nor are ratings systems necessarily even internally reliable; at least one well-known legal rating directory has become known for having its sales representatives work with attorney-advertisers to influence the ratings. Similarly, treat an occasional bad review skeptically. Family law attorneys, by virtue of their work, don’t always get flattering reviews.

Two directories where you might want to start your search (subject to the cautions above) are SuperLawyers.com and Avvo.com, perhaps together with some searches with your favorite search engine. If you are seeking representation by an attorney with special skills, such as an attorney trained in Collaborative Divorce, most are listed on the websites of member organizations, such as websites for King County Collaborative Law and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

A more traditional resource for finding a lawyer is word of mouth. Ask family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances if they can recommend an attorney. The majority of new clients for most attorneys come from recommendations from former clients and other lawyers. Take such recommendations as a starting point — a lawyer or approach who was right for someone else may not be right for you. Different people have different experiences.