There's no other way to say it: Using a lawyer can make a genuine difference in how you feel during the process of separation and divorce. A lawyer who truly listens to you and responds appropriately can greatly reduce your fears, uncertainty and confusion. A lawyer who doesn't listen to you, or who botches your case, will make you feel a whole lot worse. Maybe that's why lawyers have gotten such a bad rap. But not all lawyers are going to make you feel worse. Most lawyers are going to make you feel better, if only because you can get confirmation of your predictions about why things have happened the way they have and where things are going.
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What kind of a person should you hire as your attorney?
It follows from this that you need to select as your attorney/advisor a person with the human qualities you most admire. Because the lawyer with whom you consult, and whom you might decide to retain, can also profoundly affect the course of your life and your children's lives, now and for some time to come, you want to make your selection very, very carefully. You don't, in other words, necessarily want to hire the first attorney you meet with.
But let's not jump the gun here. How do you decide whether to even consult an attorney? When and how do you make the decision to retain legal counsel for your separation and divorce? Then how do you go about picking the right attorney for you? How do you find out about the legal fees and how much you will be responsible to pay for legal representation?
These are all important questions. But you don't have to engage an attorney full-time to get the positive sense of enhanced well-being that can flow from an affiliation with an attorney suited to your personal needs. Provided your marriage was relatively short, you have no children and property issues are uncomplicated, having one or two meetings with a lawyer who understands your concerns and who can suggest ways for you to attain your goals might give you the tools you need to represent yourself. Those tools can empower you despite all the turmoil people experience during the early stages of separation. Even if you were married for years and accumulated considerable property but intend to manage many details of your separation without the constant oversight of an attorney, having a sympathetic and sensitive lawyer with whom you can periodically consult can provide peace of mind in a way nothing else can.
A top-notch lawyer may be beyond your means, but that is no excuse for “going it all by yourself” if you don't absolutely have to. If you choose an attorney wisely, using the techniques recommended in this website, you should be able to navigate the treacherous emotional waters of separation and divorce with far less difficulty. Your mental and emotional state will be less disrupted by the process of divorce if you associate with an attorney who has a solid understanding of both the law and human nature. If you pick the wrong lawyer, your life could become sheer hell.
Working for your interests
Using an attorney can also make a difference, of course, not only in how you feel but also in how you fare. Your ignorance, or false assumptions, about the law can hurt you, and hurt you big time. If you never talk to an attorney about your spouse's settlement proposal or if you never have settlement papers reviewed by someone who can advocate for your interests, you could get the short end of the bargain without even knowing it. The lawyer you choose, of course, has to be smart enough about the law to tell you the things you should know.
Even if you still trust your spouse, this is not a time to be foolhardy. You may be entitled to things you don't even know about. Just as bad, your spouse may be consulting with an attorney without your knowing about it, so the playing field may not be as even as you believe. Don't assume, in other words, your spouse's good intentions just because your spouse tells you that his or her offer to you is fair and equitable. You can listen, as much or as little as you care to, to what your spouse has to say, but judge your spouse's offer yourself, based on all the information you need in order to evaluate that offer. You can get a lot of the legal information you need from this website. In addition, we strongly recommend that you have at least one meeting with an attorney to check out your understandings with an objective, trained person.
Why you shouldn't procrastinate
A lot of people put off going to see a lawyer. Delaying a visit with a lawyer is usually a major mistake. It is not hard, however, to understand the reasons so many people whose marriages are breaking up procrastinate in consulting with an attorney. One of the most common reasons for not going to see an attorney is denial and a fear of being overwhelmed. Denial may have psychological roots (“my marriage isn't really all that bad, things are going to get better,” or “lawyers are scary, and I'd feel too intimidated,” or “I can't talk to a stranger about all the distress I'm having or I'll fall apart”). Denial also may be linked to financial worries (“I can't afford the fees that lawyers charge,” or “even though I have the money and know I need a lawyer, the lawyer is going to bleed me dry and I don't know how to keep that from happening”). If you decide you need a lawyer, you should usually be able to find ways to surmount these psychological and financial barriers to getting legal representation for yourself.
Understanding how an attorney can help
Another reason that people don't go to speak with attorneys is a lack of understanding about when and why lawyers should be consulted (“I don't need a lawyer right now,” or “There's nothing a lawyer could do for me that I can't do for myself”). This reason for delay stems basically from a lack of familiarity with what lawyers do. Occasionally it stems from personal arrogance (“I can do anything better than anyone else”). Most people do realize, however, that lawyers have specialized knowledge and skills, but these same people may not recognize that separation and divorce law is full of highly technical rules and traps for the unwary. The law is like poker, and maybe just as risky: If you don't know all the rules and how to play to win, you can lose the game.
People often don't realize, too, that you don't just need a lawyer when you've been sued or have to go to court. Properly timed legal advice can help prevent certain problems from ever arising; and properly timed legal advice can potentially reduce the dimensions of existing problems. This kind of preventive use of a lawyer can save you heartache, time and money. If you decide you need a lawyer, go see an attorney now, as soon as possible, rather than putting off the appointment.
Simplifying the process of finding the right lawyer
Finally, people delay speaking with an attorney because they don't know how to go about finding the “right” lawyer for their particular problem. Consumers of professional and other services can be confused by too few or too many choices. Yet you've dealt with such questions in other parts of your life over and over again. Consider how frequently you face such questions: Have I picked the right babysitter for my children? Is this the right dentist or doctor for me to see? Which grocery store would be best for my family? Should I send my children to this public school?
Then consider how you've made these choices about the services that will best suit your needs. Sometimes you've applied common sense and economies of time and money to your choice (“I'd rather drive to the store two miles from my home than to a very similar store twenty miles away”). Sometimes you've relied on a personal referral because it leads you to exactly what you were looking for (“This is the only dentist in town who seems to be able to calm down frightened patients”). Sometimes you've picked a business or a professional based on general reputation (“They'll give you better repair service on your new Toyota than any other dealer in a two-hundred mile radius,” or “They get so many calls from all over the state that they know more about IBM computers than any other store around here can possibly know”).
The selection of an attorney who feels right to you is not so different from all these other kinds of choices that you make all the time regarding goods and services. You first think about what your priorities for legal services are. Then you decide how to gather information about the lawyers who would be available to you, so that you can see how certain lawyers mesh with your personal priorities. Finally, you make a choice based on criteria such as the amount of time and money you can put into finding the particular lawyer who will do the best job for you, the professional's reputation for specialized skills, the general reputation of the lawyer's firm within the community, and whether you sense this is a person whom you can trust.
Gathering the information you need is not as difficult as you might think. One easy way to gather information about attorneys is to ask people you trust and respect for leads, including not only the names of lawyers but also referrals to other people who might be able to suggest names. Friends, relatives, neighbors, casual acquaintances and work associates are possible sources of leads, as are people you do business with. In particular, mental health professionals and clergy who engage in crisis couples' counseling and general marriage counseling will probably have considerable information to share with you about the local domestic relations bar. You should also try to find out some of the names of a lawyer's satisfied clients (although you probably won't be able to obtain this information from the attorney directly, for the reason that a client or former client's name remains confidential unless the client consents to the disclosure). Then talk to clients or former clients about their personal experiences with the lawyer. People in your area who have actually been through separation and divorce can be your most valuable resources in selecting an attorney, as they will have formed opinions about their own lawyers and opposing counsel. You might also talk to other lawyers you know about a particular family law attorney's reputation.
State Bar referral list
The North Carolina State Bar maintains a referral list of attorneys willing to consult in specific subject areas for a minimum consultation fee. Meeting with a lawyer on this list may, or may not, help you locate a lawyer who has the appropriate experience and depth to manage your case. The North Carolina Bar Association also has a Family Law Section, representing those lawyers statewide who are interested enough in domestic relations law to maintain membership in the family law sub-group. You should be able to obtain a list of the current members of the Section from the Bar Association offices. The Bar Association also sponsors some special programs you can inquire about, including the pro bono (no charge) Volunteer Lawyers Program. Attorneys who have signed up for the VLP will sometimes take on family law cases at no charge. However, this program has only minimal resources; and you cannot count on getting help from the VLP, which receives many more requests than it can handle.
Another source of information are the courthouse personnel who regularly interact with local attorneys. These first-hand observers of attorneys in action may be far more valuable to your decision-making process than lawyer advertisements or the listings in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. Still, advertisements and directory entries can provide additional information about the kinds of cases a lawyer handles, where he or she went to school, and the colleagues with whom the lawyer practices. You might also ask, when you start visiting lawyer's offices, if the firm has a brochure that you can have. Brochures will give you additional insights into the way the firm operates and what it seeks to accomplish for clients.
The specialized training and knowledge of a lawyer you are considering is also something to inquire about. A lawyer who stays current with changes in the law of property distribution, custody, child support and alimony will most probably give you more expert advice. Similarly, a specialized lawyer's advice can be more custom-tailored to your needs and goals because a specialist's depth will provide him or her with more creative and flexible solutions to new problems. As you do when you decide between a general medical practitioner and a specialist, you need to diagnose the complexity of the issues in your case before settling on the lawyer who could most properly advise you.
In North Carolina, the State Bar permits attorneys to become certified in Family Law by passing a written examination and producing other proof of ability in the field. Lawyers who have become board-certified in Family Law have demonstrated their overall experience and grasp of matrimonial and divorce law. These practitioners sometimes charge higher rates; but you may actually save money by choosing a specialist. You may find that a board-certified lawyer can do the work at a faster pace and with less new research than generalists who know far less about the subtleties of matrimonial and divorce law. A list of board-certified attorneys is maintained by the Bar and will be given out on request.
Before you make a final decision . . .
Most vital, of course, is that you meet any attorney who has been recommended to you before you decide if the lawyer is right for you. Your first contact with the lawyer may be by telephone. Sometimes the phone conversation alone tells you enough about the person to let you know whether you want to move on to the next step and actually schedule an office appointment. If you do decide to attend an initial meeting, plan to conduct your own interview of the lawyer to learn whether you feel your needs will be understood and adequately addressed by this particular lawyer.
This point cannot be made strongly enough. No matter how strongly a particular lawyer has been recommended to you, selecting an attorney is a highly personal matter. No one else should make this decision for you. This is, after all, the person you are possibly going to retain to safeguard your rights during a time of great emotional upheaval for you, to structure a settlement that is as favorable as possible to you, and to advise you on such highly technical matters as the potential tax consequences of a proposed settlement. Your sense of who the lawyer is as a person will be extremely important in predicting how much, and what kind of, attention the lawyer will give to your case.
The first meeting
Here are some signals you should watch for in the first meeting. If the lawyer you meet with does not strike you as a person in whom you can rest your confidence, as a person who will zealously act in your best interests, or as a person who can reach a resolution of your case efficiently and sensitively, look on. If your meeting did not result in a feeling of personal rapport or if you felt the lawyer was not very attentive to your questions and concerns, look on. Don't engage the lawyer if he or she appears to be disorganized, or if you can't follow most of what the lawyer is telling you, or if you suspect the lawyer doesn't know the field very well.
Trust your first impression
First impressions are often lasting impressions. If you are uncomfortable with a lawyer's practice philosophy or style during an initial meeting, it is not likely you will grow to like the attorney a great deal more as time goes on. In one sense, picking a lawyer is a matter of personal taste. You are probably not going to feel very good anyway as you go through separation and divorce, given the huge emotional and financial issues you may be dealing with. There is absolutely no reason, then, to make yourself feel even worse by selecting a lawyer you just plain don't like.
Policies and fees
Pay attention as well to your responses to the information you pick up during an office interview regarding the lawyer's policies, including attorney fees. At the outset you should be given a clear explanation of the attorney's billing and collection policies. Will you be billed at an hourly rate? If so, what is that rate; does it vary among personnel in the law firm; are there different hourly rates for office and courtroom work? How will you be charged for other expenses such as photocopying, secretarial time, postage and like items? Are you expected to pay in advance of receiving services? If there is a “retainer” (initial advance deposit), is it refundable or non-refundable if the work is terminated or completed before the entire deposit has been used? Is a flat fee (a fixed price for a defined legal job) available from this law practice? Will your billing statements be sufficiently detailed for you to determine what exact work has been performed? Will there be a written fee agreement between you and your attorney?
Especially in domestic relations law, where the issues are so emotionally charged and clients are understandably under very great stress, the issue of fees can poison the relationship between client and lawyer if misunderstandings aren't cleared up early on. You are entitled to know how you will be charged for the work done for you, what other fees might be assessed to your case, and how you are expected to pay your bill. Don't settle for vague answers to questions about fees. No lawyer is likely to know exactly how much it will cost to handle your case; but every lawyer should be willing to tell you as much as he or she can about fees.
If the fee quoted to you is so low that it is almost too good to be true, that may be a very bad sign. Low fees usually mean one of two things. Either the attorney is hungry for business (which may mean the lawyer is green behind the ears or that other people have found out this lawyer is not very good), or he or she doesn't really expect to finish your case for the quoted fee (which means the retainer amount is no indication of how much you will eventually spend). Do some sleuthing to determine if the attorney is a novice or if the quoted fee is unrealistic in light of the work that will need to be done.
If the quoted fee is unrealistic, that can also be a sure sign that the lawyer has lots of clients signing up at those bargain-basement prices. All those clients are poorly served because the lawyer has too little time to spend on each individual's case. Waits (for appointments, for returned phone calls, for work to be drafted, for court dates) will be long in such offices; and you may wind up seeing you have just gotten lost in the crowd. You may also wind up paying the “cheaper” lawyer more money in the long run, based on such a lawyer's lack of specialized knowledge and inefficiencies in the lawyer's office. In sum, large caseloads do not translate into quality legal services. Stay away from the lawyer who appears to offer large discounts.
Please visit our Meeting with an Attorney page for information that will be very helpful in preparing yourself for your meeting with an attorney. Our page on Attorney Fees will give you an idea of how much it will cost to hire an attorney.