Learning about divorce lawyers, including if you need a lawyer, how divorce lawyers charge, how to find a lawyer, and how to work with the lawyer you select is Step #6 in the process of your divorce strategy education.
Navigating and negotiating your divorce is personal. In fact, there probably could not be anything more personal. Unless you are inhuman, your judgment will be clouded by emotions to at least some degree and the process will not be enjoyable.
For divorce lawyers, navigating and negotiating your divorce is their job. They make a living on dealing with the “hard issues” and “uncomfortable conversations” so you don’t have to.”
Face it. As smart and prepared as you may be, divorce lawyers confront divorce head on, every day. Odds are they will handle your divorce better than you.
There is too much at risk for you to mess things up.
But Do You Really Need a Lawyer?
Having a lawyer is not actually required to get divorced in most jurisdictions.
The real question is should you hire a lawyer?
Most of the people reading this website likely have the type of situation that justifies hiring a divorce lawyer. Wake up to reality- if your divorce was going to have been easy it would have already been done and you’d probably have no need to read about how to do it.
If you are you are on the fence with whether you should hire a lawyer, ask yourself if your answer would be “yes” to any of the following questions:
Are you afraid of your spouse or uncomfortable discussing divorce with them for any reason (including past domestic violence or shame related to an affair/breakdown of the marriage)?
Is your net worth greater than $150,000 after including any money that either spouse might be hiding?
Will either you or your spouse be seeking ongoing financial support (such as alimony or child support) from the other person?
Have you been primarily unemployed or a “stay at home” spouse for more than three years?
Is there any disagreement concerning the details of how often each parent will see their children after the divorce?
Is there any real estate that will need to be sold or refinanced as part of the divorce?
Is there a court hearing for any purposes besides having the judge “sign off” on a settlement proposal reached between you and your spouse?
Are you unable to commit to spending at least four hours a week for several months to managing your divorce lawsuit and negotiations.
Is your spouse insistent on staying married?
Does your spouse ever make threats to you about what will happen in a divorce in a manner that makes you believe they intend to make the process difficult or are oblivious about how the divorce court process and law work?
Are there any potential adverse consequences to you, your employment, or business dealings if your divorce drags out longer than you think it should?
Are you afraid or at all intimidated about handling your divorce on your own?
If your answer is “no” to all of the questions above, than you probably will be fine handling your divorce without an attorney. Otherwise keep reading.
How Lawyers Charge
The price of legal representation varies by geography, lawyer, and the complexity of the divorce. The standard in the industry is for lawyers to bill you based on the time spent working on your case, with the time usually being measured in increments of one-tenth of an hour.
Nearly all divorce lawyers (at least the good ones) will require “money up front,” which is commonly referred to as a “retainer.” In South Florida where I practice law, the hourly rates for most of the divorce lawyers who limit their practice to divorce and family law range between $255.00 – $550.00 per hour, and the most common up front “retainer” fees range between $5,000.00 – $10,000.00.
Fixed Price Options
In my law practice, I recently began migrating away from billing clients by the hour and instead encouraging most of my clients to hire me on a fixed price basis.
Typically, this begins with my clients paying me a fixed price for my law firm to represent them from the preparation of a divorce lawsuit through the time their divorce case is expected to resolve (which is often the first mediation).
The fixed price paid by my clients will depend on the unique facts of their case, choice of attorney, and their preferred frequency of communication (people who want the option to speak to their lawyer several hours a week will pay more than the person who prefers to keep communication only to what is necessary).
The important thing with fixed pricing is that the price is known up front, and will not change. The client has the peace of mind of knowing what they are paying and the lawyer has the peace of mind of knowing that they are paid. This can result in both the lawyer and client being more free to collaborate and focus on resolving the divorce on fair terms as soon as possible.
Keep in mind though that a “fixed price” lawyer is not necessarily going to be a “cheap lawyer.”
Beware of lawyers who claim to charge “cheap flat fees.” Nothing about your divorce lawyer should be “cheap.” The old saying that “you get what you pay for” usually applies to the hiring of lawyers.
How to Find Divorce Lawyers Worth Hiring
You should meet with and interview at least two, and preferably three attorneys before you finalize your selection. Taking the time to interview several lawyers will give you the opportunity to hear several viewpoints on how to handle your case as well as an opportunity to find a lawyer with whom you most comfortable.
So, how do you come up with the initial list of which lawyers you should interview if you do not already have a rolodex filled with the names of divorce lawyers?
You should first try to get in touch with the people who are likely to know who the best divorce lawyers are in your area. This means reaching out to each lawyer you know, as well as any reputable accountants, marriage counselors, clergy, and anyone else who is likely to deal with divorce lawyers or people who get divorced on a regular basis.
Another category of people you can consider reaching out to are other people in your network who have went through a divorce. While you’ll end up having to listen to some of their divorce stories and unsolicited advice, you should be able to get the names of a few more lawyers to think about hiring (or stay away from).
When you ask for referrals you should people to give you their top three recommendations on who you should consider hiring.
If you are not getting much feedback, or want to keep from talking to people you know, you should consider looking up the numbers of several tax and estate planning lawyers in your area and ask the lawyer’s staff to give you the names of some of the lawyers they refer to regularly.
A tax or estate lawyer usually has clients with significant assets with whom they keep a close and personal “counselor and advisor” type relationship. These attorneys will not risk their client’s wealth or well-being by referring to an incompetent or unscrupulous lawyer.
Narrow the List to Interview
As you ask around enough for referrals you will probably notice that several lawyers are recommended more than others. These are the lawyers you will want to put on your short list of those to interview.
Once you have this list, you should call the offices of these lawyers and ask to schedule an appointment to meet and interview the lawyer. When you call, you likely will not be able to instantly get on the phone with the lawyer, and will instead speak first to the lawyer’s legal assistant or paralegal.
If this person is not friendly or helpful, it is probably a warning sign of a lawyer to avoid.
During this phone call you should ask the paralegal to explain the portion of the lawyer’s practice that is devoted to divorce and family law matters. If the lawyer does not practice exclusively divorce and family law, you should also consider looking elsewhere.
Finally, keep in mind that many of the “in demand” divorce lawyers charge a “consultation fee” for interviews equal to their hourly rate.
This is because the interview will involve them taking time away from their other clients to give you legal advice. Also, by meeting with you, the lawyer will not be able to represent your spouse.
How to Interview a Divorce Lawyer
The divorce lawyer interview is your time to evaluate how you might “get along” with each of the lawyers you are thinking about hiring as well as their office staff.
In addition, the interviews provide you with an opportunity to get your open questions answered, and to get several initial opinions on (1) whether what “you want” is realistic based on the applicable laws and local judges and (2) the best way to proceed “strategy wise” towards getting obtaining your goals for the divorce.
To make the divorce lawyer interviews productive, you want to make sure that you have written down your reasons for seeking the divorce, your goals for the divorce, your open questions about law and strategy, a summary of your assets and liabilities, and a rough idea of your current budget and expected “after divorce” budget.
As far as what to say in the interview, consider covering the following topics, in the order listed:
Give the lawyer a background of your marital history and basic statistical information, such as how long you have been married, number of children, etc.;
Tell the lawyer about the employment history of you and your spouse, and the current income of you and your spouse;
Go over your summary of assets and liabilities with the lawyer;
Go over your current budget and anticipated “after divorce” budget with the lawyer;
Tell the lawyer what your initial goals are when it comes to dividing property and dealing with any support claims. Also tell them if you have any other goals for the divorce;
Ask the lawyer to tell you their initial reaction to your goals and proposed settlement. Get the lawyer to tell you whether they think your suggested settlement is fair, or whether they think you would be entitled to more or less of a settlement under the law. Try to get the lawyer to give you as many details as possible and write down their reaction. If the lawyer approves, try to record their advice so that you can replay it later;
Ask the lawyer what their suggested action plan would be for resolving your divorce, and their best idea of what they foresee happening with your case based on what you have told them so far. Get the lawyer to give as many specifics as possible, including a timeline of events;
Go over your list of outstanding questions and have the lawyer explain anything that you have not yet had answered;
Ask the lawyer to explain what they anticipate you would end up paying them to handle your case, and the details of how they charge clients. Get them to tell you:
The hourly rates of themselves, their staff, and the other lawyers in the firm that you would be working with;
Whether the lawyer has any fixed price options;
The amount of money that you would have to pay up front to hire the lawyer and whether such a payment is refundable (many established lawyers require “non refundable” retainer fees); and
Which members of the firm would be handling the work on your case if you hire the firm;
Ask the lawyer to detail their experience handling divorce cases, including the answers to the following questions:
What proportion of their practice is dedicated to representing clients in divorce cases and how long has this been the case;
Does the lawyer handle trials or involve another lawyer to help them if your case goes to trial;
What portion of the lawyers cases are settled without the need to go to court;
Has the lawyer spoken at any seminars or authored any articles on divorce law issues that might come up in your case?
Ask the lawyer how client phone calls are handled. Does the lawyer or law firm have a system in place for answering common client questions and scheduling return phone calls? Who will you be able to speak with if the lawyer is unavailable? Does the lawyer employ paralegals to help clients with the common “day to day” questions that often come up during a divorce case?
Ask the lawyer to compare themselves and their firm to the other lawyers you are interviewing. Take note as to how the lawyer differentiates themselves from the other lawyers. Is it done with grace or does the lawyer trash his or her “peers?” If the lawyer is trashing other lawyers with good reputations in your area it might be a sign that they lack the ability to get along with the attorney, which is not helpful when your ultimate goal involves having your lawyer work with your spouse’s lawyer to resolve the legal issues in your divorce;
Ask the lawyer if there is anything additional they think you should know or questions that you should be asking but have not yet asked.
Ask the lawyer if they can arrange for their staff to email you a copy of the written agreement you would need to sign to hire their firm.
Take note of how long it takes the staff to get you this document.
If the staff takes a long time to get you a document that allows the lawyer to ultimately receive your money than it might be a sign that the law firm will not be responsive to you once they have your money.
How to Pick Your Lawyer
After you have interviewed several divorce lawyers you should be at the point at which you are ready to hire one and move forward.
For some people, one of the lawyers they interviewed immediately jumps out to them as the attorney they want to hire. For others, they have been impressed by several (or all) of the lawyers.
If you have not been impressed by any of the lawyers than you should consider interviewing several more.
Otherwise, consider basing the selection of your attorney on the following criteria, which are listed in order of importance:
Listening and communication skills: Did the lawyer listen to what you had to say and answer your questions or did get the feeling that the lawyer was disinterested and was just waiting for you to finish talking so that they could say what they wanted to say with an “I’m the expert so you better listen to me” attitude? You need a divorce lawyer that is going to listen to you and not just tell you what they know. If the attorney is not listening during the initial interview they will probably not be listening to you later in the case. If your lawyer is not capable of listening to find out what is important to you than you will be unhappy.
Experience with divorce cases: Does the lawyer limit their practice exclusively divorce and family law cases? In this context, “family law” refers to issues closely related to divorce, such as child custody, prenuptial agreements, and lawsuits between people after a divorce that involve their divorce agreement. If the lawyer does not limit their practice to divorce and family law, you should think twice about hiring the lawyer. There is only so much time in a day. If only a fraction of the lawyer’s business is divorce related they will not be as efficient and will not have the relationships with judges and familiarity with new developments in the law that a lawyer who only handles divorce work is usually going to have.
Paralegals & Non-lawyer Staff: You need to carefully evaluate your interactions with the non-lawyers (including paralegals, secretaries, receptionists, etc.) that work with the attorney you interviewed. Were these people professional and pleasant with you? Did they make you feel welcomed and comfortable? Did they answer your questions? If you are answering “yes” to all of these questions there is a good sign that the law office has a “culture of client service,” which is exactly what you need.
Lawyer/Staff Interactions: How does the lawyer appear to get along with their paralegal and non-attorney staff? Recognize that the lawyer and their paralegal and non-attorney staff will be working for you as a “team.” With this being the case, you want to look for a law office that “works well together.” If you get the feeling that the lawyer is resented by their paralegal and non-attorney staff than it might be a sign that you will end up resenting the lawyer too.
Price: Notice that price is listed last. How much a lawyer costs should not be your primary consideration. Oftentimes, you get what you pay for when it comes to divorce lawyers. Consider focusing more on whether the attorney is comfortable having a conversation about anticipated legal fees. The lawyer will probably not be able to give you an exact price, but they should be able to give you a range of what you should expect to be paying to resolve your case at certain points between filing the lawsuit and having a full blown trial.
Tips for Working with Your Lawyer
Once you have hired your attorney you are about ready to stop learning and “get going.”
But as you work with your lawyer there are a few things you should keep in mind that can increase your likelihood of having the Best Divorce possible while also keeping your legal fees under control.
These items are, in no particular order, listed below:
Be upfront about your goals. Tell your goals to your lawyer, preferably both in person and in writing, as soon as you begin working with the lawyer. Make sure that your lawyer is continuing to work in pursuit of your goals, but make sure to recognize your goals may need to be adjusted if your lawyer tells you they are not realistic.
Listen to your lawyer. Their job is to give you unbiased advice and they have handled far more divorces than you have. You are paying them to help you get a terrible situation over. If you do not follow their advice than you are asking for problems.
Do not be afraid to speak up. If you do not understand or agree with something being communicated by your lawyer than you should speak up immediately. It is the lawyer’s job to answer your questions and make legal concepts understandable. Do not be afraid to tell your lawyer if you do not understand something or disagree with their advice. If you do not speak up the lawyer will probably not know of your concerns or of the need to clarify their advice.
Try to get a written action plan from the lawyer at the beginning of your case. It is probably worth your money to have your lawyer provide you with at least a basic written “plan of action” for your case as doing so allows both you and the lawyer to be on the same page with what will be happening and then to stay on track.
Utilize the lawyer’s non-lawyer staff. Many of the best divorce lawyers have a great paralegal and/or legal assistant who is available to help clients with most of the “day to day” issues that arise in divorce cases. The cost of these paralegals and legal assistants will usually be a fraction of the lawyer’s hourly rate.
Be efficient with email. Email is an outstanding way to communicate with your lawyer because it allows you to have time to frame your questions and have a record of your lawyer’s answer to your questions. However, keep in mind that you will probably be paying more for a lawyer to answer questions in an email than to talk through an issue with you in person or over the phone. Putting advice in writing takes more time, which will lead to higher legal fees if you are paying your lawyer by the hour.
Aggregate your questions on non-emergency issues. One way to help keep your legal fees down is to track or write down all of your questions for your lawyer about issues that are not emergencies or time sensitive and then ask for all of your questions to be addressed in one email, phone call, or meeting. It is usually going to be far more efficient for your lawyer to answer ten questions in one meeting/phone call/email than to have ten meetings/phone calls/emails.
Seek clarity as to anticipated legal fees associated with contemplated actions. Your lawyer will not be (or should not be) offended if you ask them to explain how much a contemplated action will cost in legal fees. When you are evaluating strategy alternatives, you should know the anticipated costs associated with each alternative.
Remember that your lawyer has other clients. There are always going to be times when your lawyer is not immediately available to speak to you. Sometimes they are in court or in a deposition and you might have to wait a day or two to get the lawyer on the phone to address an issue that is not an emergency. This is especially true if the lawyer is in trial. If the lawyer has taken the time to build a law practice focused on client service, they should have a paralegal or another attorney in their office that is “on call” to help you address anything that happens in their case while they are in trial and if there is a true emergency than the lawyer should be able to speak to you during a break from the trial.
You need to pay your legal bills on time and promptly raise questions about the bills you receive. You should not be shy about questioning any of the bills you receive from the lawyer. But unless there is an understanding in place regarding timing of payments, you should pay the lawyer’s bill. Consider whether you would want to dress up in a suit and go to work for someone if you were not being paid?