Divorce is never easy: Two people are dividing up their entire lives, with children, homes and assets involved. The process can be long and difficult, so it is imperative to choose the right attorney from the onset.
“You want to make sure you know what you’re signing up for—that you know the way your lawyer practices—and pick the one who best fits your needs,” says Margo Green of Green Cordonnier & House.
When choosing a divorce attorney, the first key is to find someone who has extensive experience in the areas of family law and divorce, according to Susan Hais, a divorce attorney with Hais, Hais, Goldberger, & Coyne. “It’s not just about having experience as a lawyer, it’s about being a lawyer who is particularly experienced in that field,” she explains. “You don’t want someone who’s just a sporadic practitioner.”
A client also should make sure that his or her potential attorney is willing to go to court and litigate, if it comes to that, instead of just settling or mediating the case. “We all have to be excellent negotiators, but we also have to be excellent trial lawyers,” Green says.
If a divorce case goes to trial, the best divorce attorney to have is one who is trusted by the court and can reasonably present the case, says Kirk Stange of Stange Law Firm. “I worry that sometimes there is a belief out there that an aggressive attorney is what a lot of people should look for,” Stange notes. “I think judges are looking for an attorney who can give them an accurate picture of the case. If you’re aggressive all of the time and take positions that are on the fringe, the judges may tune you out over time.”
Having a reasonable and experienced divorce attorney can be especially important when dealing with custody and large asset issues, which quickly can become contentious. A lot of domestic relations attorneys choose not to handle custody cases because “custody work is the highest-conflict, since it means the most,” Hais says. “The cases are considered messy, and you need to have a lot of energy, a thick skin, and be willing to fight for your client.”
When a client has a lot of assets to protect, he or she should look for attorneys who have an array of experts at their disposal to appraise the property, review investment and retirement accounts, and evaluate tax and insurance issues. “I wouldn’t want someone to ‘cut their teeth’ on an expensive, high-conflict divorce,” Hais says.
Clients involved in contentious divorces need lawyers who can help them focus on their goals, rather than any sort of retribution toward their spouses, experts say. And if those goals are unreasonable, the right attorney should be upfront with their clients. “You want an attorney who is going to tell it to you straight and not amp up the case,” Stange says. “Clients don’t need to be just told what they want to hear in order for the fees to escalate, when in reality that outcome may not be likely, given the circumstances.”
The cost of an attorney is an important aspect to consider, according to Green, and she acknowledges that “no divorce lawyer who is honest can tell you how much a divorce will cost, but they can at least give you an estimate of how much they think the litigation could cost.”
Each attorney agreed that unreasonable rates and attorneys who are inaccessible and fail to return phone calls are all red flags to watch out for. And while an attorney may not become a client’s close friend, the correct lawyer can ease the difficulty of divorce. “You are not hiring a divorce lawyer to be your best friend,” Green notes. “You’re hiring an attorney who is skilled and experienced in reaching the results that are in your best interest—that’s what counts.” LN