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Divorcing? How to Hire and Control Your Attorney

My personal experience makes me aware of how my behavior as an attorney can affect a client and of the potential long-term effects caused by a divorce or custody action. Many clients do not control the progress of their cases or the behavior of their attorneys, nor do they know they have the right to do so.

Clients have the right and responsibility to:

  1. interview the attorney, and get a fee agreement in writing.
  2. tell him or her what to do.
  3. question and perhaps negotiate the attorney's billing charges.
Because of the high stress factors surrounding the divorce process, many clients are intimidated by their lawyers and therefore permit them to control, even though the client isn't comfortable with the manner in which the case is being handled.

Sadly, many family lawyers become hardened to the effect their actions have on the opposing party, or are simply unconcerned with the consequences of litigating to win at any cost.

They are hired to advocate and litigate on your behalf. Sometimes, however, your future best interest will be served by refraining from being overly aggressive.

Family lawyers are not psychotherapists and many have never had any training in counseling. They are trained to win. But "winning" for you in all matters related to your divorce may not ultimately achieve the best result for either you or your children.

Here are some rules for hiring a divorce attorney. 1) Interview several. 2) Don't pay a retainer and sign a contract simply on someone's recommendation. 3) Question to test not only her knowledge regarding divorce or custody, but also to gain insight into her opinions and outlooks concerning family matters.

Ask the following:

  • How many family law cases have you handled in the past twelve months? What percentage of your practice is focused in family law? (This is a specialized area of the law, and experience, as well as continuing education, is crucial.)
  • What is your attitude regarding mediation? Have you ever referred a case for mediation? How many have you referred in the past year? To whom? (Mediation is gaining popularity and is now often required in Allegheny County for custody matters.)
  • What is your hourly rate and the hourly rate of all who may work on my case? Can you increase these rates during the course of my case? If so, what rate increases have been implemented in the past several years? Why? (Many cases continue for years.)
  • Who will be working on my case? Will there be more than one attorney? (Attorneys often employ other professionals in specialized areas. With more people involved in your case, the higher the probability that costs will rise.)
  • Do you provide monthly detailed billings? If so, check the math and the time charged. Is it reasonable? (If you spent ten minutes on the telephone with your attorney and the bill reflects one-half hour, you must question this charge.) Ask for details.
  • How much of a retainer is required? Is it refundable? Most family lawyers require a retainer, and the amount depends on the complexity of a case. Compare and ask questions...Should I agree to pay a non-refundable retainer? The answer is "No" if you can negotiate it. Once you have paid $1,500 or more to an attorney who has never worked for you, it is difficult to be objective in evaluating that attorney's effectiveness. You should negotiate this requirement so you can obtain a refund within 30 days of the unearned balance.
  • Ask for a description of the attorney's policy with respect to "minimum charges" concerning your bill. Some law firms charge a minimum of 2/10 of an hour no matter what. This equates to 12 minutes of work. For example, if your attorney's hourly rate is $250, the minimum charge is $50. I have examined billing statements where attorney's have been unable to reach a client, but have charged the minimum rate every time the phone is dialed. The result? Hundreds of dollars charged for calls that never produce communication.
  • Ask about the correspondence policy for letters from opposing counsel. Discuss whether enclosure cover letters are necessary. A minimum charge of $25 or more for a letter that simply forwards other documents may be something you wish to avoid.
In summary, you must control your divorce attorney.
  • Remain intellectually alert and act as the decision-maker for yourself.
  • If you find yourself too emotionally involved to make decisions regarding your divorce or believe that your self-esteem is too low for you to be assertive, seek the assistance of a counselor.
  • Always try mediation first. Even if the idea is rejected in the beginning, don't be afraid to bring it up again as your case progresses.

When attorneys are aware that clients are watching and questioning their actions, they'll be more cautious concerning the time spent and the advice given.