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Seattle, WA 98119
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Selecting a Good Divorce Lawyer



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Selecting the right divorce lawyer is very important. It can affect your satisfaction, the outcome, the cost, and even the process options that are offered to you. The practice of law is a melding of many disciplines and can be viewed as being closer to a learned art than to a science. 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, and background to the practice. There are profound differences between lawyers. Fortunately, the Seattle area has many good divorce lawyers, so you have the opportunity to choose the best one for you.

Initial Considerations

A. Knowledge, Skill and Experience

Most people realize that the more that they know, the more they recognize they do not know. 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 your type of case. Before hiring a lawyer, you should ask the experience that lawyer has with your type of case.

A lawyer's knowledge and skills are important. An unknowledgeable lawyer will not be able to identify questions to be addressed, and an unskillful one will be unable to effectively address the questions. 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).

Look at the organizations in which a lawyer maintains memberships. Some have criteria for qualification which may be an indicator of knowledge. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, for example, requires that its members pass an examination on family law. Not every lawyer can pass that examination. Similarly, King County Collaborative Law has minimum Collaborative Law training requirements for its members.

Similarly, a lawyer’s involvement in professional activities (such as being on committees or boards regarding certain areas of law) can be a sign that the lawyer has a deeper commitment to understanding that area of law. If the lawyer cares, he or she may be better informed and may have better skills in that area.

Financial and parenting questions lie at the heart of divorce decisions. Given that, many are surprised to learn that most divorce lawyers (and judges) lack any formal training in finance, taxation, business, family systems, or even post-divorce parenting. If you have financial or parenting issues to resolve, you may wish to ask about which of those skills applicable to your situation have been developed by any divorce lawyer you are considering hiring. When doing so, don't be afraid to ask questions, being careful not to confuse confidence with understanding. 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 were concluded, and what was required 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. Ask about the number of cases they have successfully handled.

The standard law school curriculum for lawyers has historically not included any negotiation theory or skill building; even nowadays, that type of education is spotty at best. Individual lawyers who are interested in gaining those skills need to seek out that training. A majority of lawyers have no formal training in negotiation or dispute resolution. It is unlikely that a high level of skill in negotiation can be acquired solely through the on the job training that most lawyers receive.

Collaborative Divorce is a specific process, and uses several skill sets that require training to understand and experience to develop. For that reason, Collaborative Divorce 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.

B. Style

Like other persons, lawyers' focuses and styles vary greatly. There is no one “right” way to practice law. Is the style of the lawyer you are considering hiring to minimize the use of the courts? Is the lawyer more of a thinker or more of a do-er? These are only a few of the many focus differences between lawyers.

Similarly, the level of diligence that lawyers apply to their cases vary widely. Some lawyers carefully review all documents and consider all options, others prefer a less thorough approach. Diligence results in higher attorney's fees, but may result in savings over the long-term by avoiding mistakes that could be costly. Consider a cost-benefit analysis for what is best in your situation. If your decisions are likely to make big difference in your future life, it may be worth selecting an attorney who applies some additional diligence to make sure.

Ethical Complaints

All Washington lawyers must abide by ethical rules of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and are regulated by the Washington Supreme Court through the Washington State Bar Association (“WSBA”). The WSBA investigates grievances against lawyers and can discipline lawyers.

You may wish to ask whether the WSBA has disciplined a lawyer. Lawyer discipline (once final) is a matter of public record and you can search on the WSBA website to check. If a lawyer has been disciplined, consider the reason, and whether you are still comfortable having that lawyer represent you.

D. 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.

E. 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 better lawyers are usually very busy, so some communications through secretaries and paralegals and some delay 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? And, if your lawyer steps in at the last minute after delegating all prior work, how do they ensure that they understand your particular circumstances? You may wish to ask.

F. Honesty

A good lawyer will insist in honesty in all his or her dealings. In order to make good decisions, you need good and honest guidance. A good lawyer will not avoid the difficult questions or try to minimize difficult information you need to hear. Instead, a good lawyer will give you an accurate and honest assessment of the issues and questions in your case. However, recognize that in areas such as family law, there may be a large range of possible outcomes and there will be times that the advice will be "I do not know." If a lawyer promises a particular outcome ... be very suspicious.

G. 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. 

H. Keeping You Informed

A good lawyer will keep a client informed. Ask every lawyer you are interviewing how he/she does that. If you have a question about a matter, can you discuss it with the lawyer? You should insist on remaining fully informed, because you will be unable to make good decisions if you are not.

II.  FEES

Did the attorney fully answer your questions about fees? To ensure you completely understand, you may want to ask:

  • What advanced fee/cost deposit, if any, is required, and is that likely to cover the entire cost? Is any part non-refundable?
  • 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.)?

Most attorneys will not commence work without receiving a deposit. Ask whether the deposit is a separate retainer fee, or will be held in trust as security for fees.

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 more skilled attorneys can potentially save you indirectly, for example by properly addressing financial and tax issues, making sure that questions are appropriately raised, and in thinking through possible options to make sure they are complete and can be implemented. A more skilled attorney will also be more likely to be able to craft an agreement that is "out of the box" if that is more suitable to your needs.

III.  FINDING LAWYERS TO INTERVIEW

The first step is to find a list of potential lawyers. Be sure to look at the website of each, and try to learn what you can about them.

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 reviews skeptically. Family law attorneys, by virtue of their work, don't always get flattering reviews, which sometimes are not even checked as to whether they were the client of the attorney who is reviewed.

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.