Part 4. Choosing a lawyer

Much has been written about choosing a divorce lawyer (for instance here, here, and here). I am becoming something of an expert on the subject (having used/hired five or six different lawyers) and represented myself for the majority of the time in my case.

The advice on the first link above is quite sound as far as it goes:

  • Research the firm’s website and review all biographical information or any other relevant information that could give you an idea about the divorce lawyer’s specialization or expertise.
  • Type in the lawyer’s name on an Internet search engine and see what pops up. Has the prospective lawyer written any articles or informational pieces that provides you with a sense of comfort?
  • Check to see if the divorce lawyer is in good standing by contacting your state bar association .
  • Look in the yellow pages to see if the prospective lawyer has advertised. Do you feel compelled by the ad? Is it tasteful? Is it helpful?
  • Do you have any special needs ? Would an attorney who can speak a language other than English be more helpful to you?
  • Are you able to schedule an initial consultation with the prospective lawyer easily? If a lawyer has a hard time making appointments to discuss new business, it might be even harder to get his/her attention when your case is underway.
  • Is the lawyer pleasant? Do you feel comfortable and confident with this person and/or their staff? Can he/she answer your questions in full and ease your concerns?

The Fundamental Problem

Hiring a lawyer is fundamentally different from buying any other product or service in today’s world. There is just not a lot of accurate information on the performance of individual lawyers and/or law firms. Unlike Amazon, you can’t look up a lawyer and read customer reviews (although this site is trying to get something started).

Why is this? One reason is that Amazon sells thousands of copies of each book whereas the average lawyer may only have 100 cases active at a time.  If only one in a thousand people posts a book review on Amazon then on average only one client every 10 years will feel strongly enough to post a legal review. Also, many legal clients may not be computer savvy and therefore the chances of a review are even less.

Another reason is that clients seldom have accurate information to report because a) they don’t have much repeat business so they can’t build an assessment of the lawyer’s competence over time and b) they often don’t know if the lawyer actually did a good job for them or not. This is magnified in divorce cases where there is no clear winner or loser (there being multiple issues such as custody, child support, property, and alimony in most cases).

A third reason is that lawyers have set up the system to protect themselves. In Nevada, for instance, the State Bar attempts to restrict disgruntled clients from publicising the outcome of fee disputes and ethics violations (although see this story). In fact, in Nevada, you cannot even access the history of a lawyer’s fee disputes or ethics violation even when you are a party to a formal dispute before a bar arbitration committee! There is also the possibility of defamation suits and other such tactics.

More on How to Choose

In one phrase ‘word of mouth’ – you have to get objective information from people who have had a chance to observe how your lawyer works over time and up close. Fear of lawsuits will keep casual acquaintances from  speaking honestly but you need to find a friend willing to speak out – a court employee, another lawyer, a judge(?).  Of course, most people don’t have many contacts in the family court. In my case, I found a local father’s rights group to be a good source of information on father friendly (and ethical) lawyers. They even offered an open night once a week to meet some local attorneys. If you know someone who has been through the system and was happy with their lawyer then that might also be a fall back position but they might not actually know if they lawyer was good or not if, like most, they don’t know much about the legal system.

In my case, I received a referral from the local law school, which simply pointed me in the direction of the biggest names in town. In my experience, using the lawyers with the biggest reputations in town may not be a good idea.  These firms often charge clients an arm and a leg to access their reputations but often they are so busy they don’t have time for a ‘small’ case – you often end up with the junior associate instead of the well known partner (even a junior will charge $250-300 per hour with a partner upward of $500 per hour). It doesn’t mean these firms are not good at the law – but keeping your interests in mind is a completely different thing.

Another HUGE tip in Nevada (and perhaps other states) is that lawyers commonly contribute to judicial election campaigns. It is a simple matter to access the public records of campaign donations to find who your judge is beholden to (see here for Nevada). It may not guarantee a decision in your favor but it will at least neutralize a similar advantage that might accrue to the other side.

Bill of Rights

Interestingly, some firms are promoting a client bill of rights (such as the one reproduced below from this site):

I.   Your Right To Be Heard.  Nothing is more important in our client relationships than communication. All clients’ phone calls are answered immediately or returned within 24 hours – guaranteed. We also provide every client with a telephone number, available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, including weekends and holidays.
II.   Your Right to Fair Billings.  Clients have the right to understand the fees, before they enter into an agreement for legal services. If you are a Client that has retained our Law Firm on an hourly basis, you have the right to a statement itemized by date, description of event, specific amount of time, and the charge.
III.   Your Right to Know the Status of Your Case.  You will be apprised of all pertinent events, dates, and given copies of letters, memoranda, and materials, as you deem appropriate.
IV.   Your Right to Convenient Meetings.  As a convenience to our clients who work weekdays, we offer evening and weekend appointments.
V.   Your Right to be Treated Courteously.  You will always be treated fairly and professionally, by all attorneys and staff. We appreciate your business and understand that we would not exist if it were not for your patronage.
VI.   Your Right to Efficient Professional Service.  You are entitled to an attorney capable of handling your legal matter competently and diligently. We cannot control how fast courts, government offices, outside entities, or our opponents will process matters, but for our part, delay is unacceptable.
VII.   Your Right of Confidence.  Anything that you speak to us about will be held in the strictest of confidence, unless you direct us to make a disclosure.
VIII.   Your Right to be Present.  You will be notified about, and are always invited to attend, all meetings, hearings, depositions, etc., that affect your case.

I find it useful to quiz potential attorneys about whether they will adhere to these rights.  The flip side is to consider the consequences of not abiding by these rules – often there are none – unless you specify them in the retainer agreement. However, it can be very difficult to get an experienced attorney to accept you as a client if you want to alter the ‘standard’ agreement (which gives the attorney a great deal of protection).

Of course, when I contacted a similar firm offering a client bill of rights they demanded to be given absolute authority to make all decisions in the case without question – this I consider to be a huge red flag – you might as well say ‘write me a blank check’. So much for client rights!

You also need to be careful in selecting a lawyer when your ex-spouse displays evidence of a personality disorder (such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder or even parental alienation). Most lawyers have little experience dealing with these cases, although research shows that most high conflict disputes are driven by personality disorders rather than substantive legal issues (see this link for an excellent extended discussion of the issues and how legal practitioners need to handle these cases differently).  

If you are in this situation of going to court against someone with a personality disorder you need to test if your attorney shows any appreciation at all for these issues – but be prepared – 99.9% will not. I even found that my attorneys did not read the information I provided them on the issue in order to enlighten them. After all, conflict equals billable hours! What incentive do lawyers have to get things settled quickly?

Lessons Learned

Choosing the right attorney for your case is not easy because of an almost complete lack of information on attorney ability and performance

If possible, use your network to find out ‘the real deal’ about your potential attorneys (also difficult)

Follow the money to find which judges are being funded by which attorneys

Attempt to negotiate some basic client rights (but expect a tough sell)

Next step

After you have used the preceding techniques to narrow down your choice of attorney, you will need to sign a retainer agreement. This will be the topic of my next post.

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