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Separated? Four Steps To Take When Hiring A Lawyer


Four tips to hiring a lawyer to make your divorce as smooth as possible.

The ambiguity if separation can be personal torture. It shatters your self-worth and confidence, add to your financial stress, challenge your identity, and increase worries about taking care of your child(ren).  Worse yet it the length of separation; a 2012 study completed at Ohio State University indicated that the average length of first separation was three years! If you know the relationship is going to end and that you are going to hire a lawyer, why wait? It is best to get educated, make your divorce as smooth as possible and try to control legal costs by taking these four steps:

Step 1: Do Your Home Work
Hiring a good lawyer is the most important decision you’ll make in your divorce because a good lawyer should be several things for you: coach, advisor, representative, case manager, and aid in legal cost control. You need to take your search very seriously and do your homework.

Most important to understand is the philosophy and demeanor of your lawyer; is he/she a collaborative lawyer or one that creates conflict; mild mannered or high strung; wise or inexperienced. Additionally, not all lawyers were at the top of their class and it is your job to weed out the bad. Get out your weed whacker and start chopping by doing the following:

  • Conduct an internet search to research lawyers; is an excellent site. It lists lawyers that received peer recognition and professional achievement in their field.
  • Read the lawyer’s web site; note the quality and tone.
  • Ask for referrals from friends/relatives/coworkers; tell them the type of lawyer you want to represent you.
  • Find a lawyer with a similar personality; he/she represents you so your lawyer should mirror your personality and philosophy.

Step 2: Develop Questions
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to start interviewing to finalize your selection.  Develop a list of questions unique to your situation. Here are a few insightful question/observations to get you started:

  • Why did you get into family law? This will help you understand if family law is really a passion or just a way to make money. You want someone passionate about family law.
  • How long have you been in practice and how many clients have you represented? This will tell you the lawyer’s experience level. You want a lawyer that is fairly experiences – a history of 20 to 30 clients.
  • How many client have you represented with <state your specific situation>. This will ensure you are not the first type of case he/she will handle.
  • Look around his/her office. Are their pictures of family/friends? This will tell if the lawyer is family oriented or not. You want a family oriented lawyer – he/she will better empathize with you.
  • Does his/her office feel impersonal with an expensive or a modest décor? This will tell you if the lawyer is money motivated or not. You don’t want a money motivated lawyer (higher legal bills).
  • Is his/her office cluttered or neat? You want a neat office because an organized lawyer will translate into a lower legal bill.

Most lawyers will offer a 60 to 90 minute free consultation; take that as an opportunity to get educated and determine if that lawyer is a good personality fit.

Step 3: Understand The Retainer Agreement
Once you’re ready to hire a lawyer, the lawyer will ask you to review and sign a retainer agreement. This agreement, at minimum, outlines:

  • Responsibility of the lawyer to you and you to the lawyer
  • Responsibility for costs and which type of costs,
  • Lawyer’s billable rate or flat fee,
  • Terms of legal bill payment,
  • Retainer amount,
  • Rights of either party to terminate/cancel the agreement,
  • Refund policy if the agreement is canceled/terminated.

At minimum the retainer should feel right. If it feels too one-sided, then discuss it to see if the lawyer is willing to change the agreement. If not, move on to the next interview.

Step 4: Develop A Mission Statement
Okay, if you’ve reached this stage, congratulations for doing your homework. It is important to understand that, as stated above, your lawyer represents you, not the other way around.  I know this seems like a harsh statement, but it’s true. You are paying your lawyer because of his/her expertise and experience. It is no different than a company hiring a consultant. You should think of it the same way. Similar to a consultant, you should work to develop a strong relationship.

I made my relationship with my lawyer simple by creating clear direction - telling her my mission; “All I want is what is fair and equitable”. I must have said this a hundred times during my divorce. This helps your case in several ways because it will:

  • help you make decisions by providing a framework
  • create clear direction for your lawyer
  • make for more efficient negotiations.

All three will result in shortening the duration of your case, lowered your legal bills and create settlement reflecting your intentions.

In the end, by doing your homework, developing questions, understanding the retainer agreement and creating a mission statement, you will make the best of the situation and keep your legal fees down. Best of luck to you.

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