Chances are that if you are asking this question in the ‘hectic time of divorce” you are already significantly behind in the process. That does not mean that you will not be able to find the right attorney and bring yourself up to speed but only that you need to begin to select a attorney soon. Importantly, thought, you should do so with a purpose keeping in mind what your intended goals are in the divorce process.
Certainly the process can feel overwhelming. After all, your entire life is about to change forever. You will be tasked with making decisions in a relatively short period of time that have the potential to profoundly affect your life and the lives of those that you love. With the weight of such heavy decisions looming the process of divorce can seem overwhelming, certainly hectic and, at times, leave you feeling helpless. The cure, for lack of a better word, for those feelings is knowledge. Once you have had the entire process explained to you by a competent and credible family law attorney who can tell you what the law is, what your rights are, and what to expect through the journey, the feeling of helplessness will slowly but surely change and you can begin to confidently move forward to the next phase of your life. This article is designed to help you find the right attorney to help you to that next step
The Three Legged Race
Most people, whether in school or the family picnic, have participated or laughed hysterically while watching the three legged race. Invariably the winners were the contestants who were best matched in size and in purpose and moved seamlessly together. Those teams that were completely mismatched failed miserably but provided the best laughs. Choosing a attorney to help you through the divorce process is much like trying to pair a team to succeed in the three legged race.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of this process is realizing that you are choosing a partner in this process and that the two of you are a team. You need your attorney and your attorney needs you. The process is hardly ever successfully accomplished if one or the other simply hands off responsibility for the divorce process to the other. As such, it is absolutely critical that you be comfortable with your attorney as your partner in the process and that you are both moving in the same direction at all times. A good family law attorney understands this and will, from your first meeting to your final judgment of divorce, explain this very concept and strive to educate you and to fully understand your concerns and your desired goals.
The first step begins with an initial consult where you will meet with the attorney and their team (should they have one). This is your chance to explain what is going on in your life and begin the education process. There is no doubt that from the minute you first contemplated a divorce that you have literally thought of a hundred different questions. Take some time before the initial consult to write those questions down so as not to forget them while you are there. Be sure to also take notes or draft a narrative of everything that has happened in your marriage whether it be financial issues, infidelity, children issues, etc. that you feel is important for your attorney to know. Chances are not all of those facts will be legally relevant but at least you will know one way or the other before leaving the attorney’s office.
What should you expect from the attorney? A good attorney will take the time to listen your story before diving into the law. After all, the law does not operate in a vacuum. The attorney must have the facts in order to tell you how the law applies to your particular case. If they are not willing to take the time to listen to your case this should be your first red flag. Also, important in some respects is whether your attorney inquired about your emotional or mental wellness. The divorce process can be traumatic and a good attorney knows that your mental and emotional wellness is critical to surviving and succeeding (yes succeeding) in the process. If there are any issues there, a good attorney will be able to provide you with a referral to a therapist to help.
After hearing your story a good attorney will tell you the law and how it applies to your facts. As a general rule, you should receive specific advice on equitable distribution (how the assets and debts are divided), alimony, custody/visitation, and child support. Those are just some general areas that must be covered. Depending on your particular circumstances there may be other legal issues that arise but at a minimum you should expect to receive a complete understanding of those issues.
Finally, at the conclusion of the initial consult you and your attorney should have a “game plan” in place. This is a loosely crafted approach as to how and when you and your attorney get to your stated objectives. You may or may not have had an idea of what you “wanted” in the divorce before you met with the attorney but chances are that after you got your crash course in the law that your goals have changed. Putting together a plan to get there is important for you as it gives you piece of mind that you are no longer aimlessly afloat in the process. It is also important for you AND your attorney so that there is no confusion as to what is trying to be accomplished.
A seasoned attorney will no doubt have their initial consults down to an hour give or take a few minutes but should you not feel satisfied that you have all your questions answered a credible family attorney should have no problem spending additional time to answer those questions. Again, establishing a good repor and with your attorney and defining a game plan going forward are the most important things that happen in this initial consult. If at the conclusion of the meeting you do not feel as though you have established both of these components DO NOT feel compelled to move forward with that attorney. Thank them for their time, pay their initial consult fee, kindly tell them that you will review their retainer agreements, and feel free to call another attorney. A good attorney will completely understand and simply wait to hear back from you. Not every attorney is the right fit.
Friends and Family
With divorce rates as they are – approximately 50% of all marriages end in divorce – chances are that you have friends or family members who have gone through the divorce process. You should not hesitate to contact that person and ask them about their attorney. Aside from finding someone that can relate to what you are going through, you are going to get an unbiased and honest opinion on their attorney’s performance.
When deciding who to ask you should take a moment to be a little critical and determine which one of my friends or family members who went through this process is most like me in terms of personality. Again, what you are looking for in your attorney is a partner in the process and if there is a like-minded individual out there that successfully partnered with a family attorney to get through the process then chance are they can do the same for you. Keeping in mind much of what was discussed above, you should be sure to ask your friend or family member if their attorney educated them, guided them throughout the process, and accomplished their desired goals.
Here you should be careful not to rely too much on novice legal advice. Anyone that has gone through the process will have more “legal” knowledge than you but, in most instance, you will come away more confused than when you started. Gather as much information as you can about the attorney, not the law, and decide if the attorney sounds like a good fit and proceed from there.
Jack of All Trades and Master of None
Florida restricts attorneys from claiming to “specialize” in any particular practice area. That said, you should be looking for a attorney whose practice is primarily, if not exclusively, focused on family law. What you will find when you begin your search for a credible family law attorney is that almost every attorney claims to be able to get you divorced. You should explore that attorney’s website and see how many other areas of law that attorney claims to practice. The more areas of practice listed, the less likely that they are particularly competent in any of those areas. If they do not have a website, move on. This point cannot be emphasized enough. In Florida, family law has its own set of statues that govern divorce. Florida also has its own set of rules of civil procedure and forms that dwarf those rules that apply to other civil cases. In addition, new law is made weekly through the decisions of appellate courts throughout the State. If you are not teaming with an attorney familiar with all of these areas you are not teaming with a credible family law attorney.
You Get What You Pay For
An important, sometimes the most important, consideration in choosing an attorney is cost. Here you should keep in mind the old saying “you get what you pay for.” Some attorney’s hourly rates will be higher than others. Keep in mind that those rates are (or should be) commensurate with the number of years that the attorney has been practicing. Some attorneys require a large retainer up front before they start. Others will begin with a smaller retainer and bill you down the road after the retainer is used up. There is no right or wrong approach here.
What you should keep in mind is that a seasoned and credible family law attorney will cost more per hour. That said, their experience should translate in to more efficient work and less hours so in the end you will save money with a seasoned attorney. Another important consideration is whether you are hiring a solo practitioner or someone who has associate attorneys working with them whose hourly rates are less and can take on some of the ministerial tasks of your case to save you money.
In the end what you should look for is an honest assessment by the attorney of the projected cost of your case AFTER you have developed a game plan in your initial consult. A credible family law attorney will tell you what you need to hear (the true potential costs) as opposed to what you want to hear (a sales pitch to get you to sign the retainer).
Counselor, Litigator, or Both
The divorce process can seem overwhelming. Remember, the right knowledge is the key to overcoming those feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed. The key to getting the right knowledge is to find the right family law attorney. Keeping in mind much of what was just discussed, hopefully you will find the right fit for you and your needs.
Would you like to gain more information on this topic.
Karen Lungarelli, Esq.
1001 Brickell Bay Drive, Suite 1200
Miami, FL 33131