Find a Good Family Law Attorney
Family-law attorneys deal with cases involving marriage, divorce, child support, adoption, and guardianship. Family-law is a branch of civil law completely separate from the criminal justice system. If you need a pre-nuptial agreement, want to file for divorce, or are considering adopting a child, you can benefit from hiring a good family-law attorney. Attorneys may be a dime a dozen, but not all are created equal.
Beginning the Search for a Family-Law Attorney
- Determine whether you need a family-law attorney. The first step in finding the right attorney is realizing that you need one. You also need to know which specialization your situation calls for. If any of the following apply to you, you would benefit from hiring a family-law attorney:
- You are considering a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement before getting married
- You are considering divorce, annulment, or legal separation
- You need to modify a divorce agreement
- You need guidance on child custody and support
- You are considering adoption
- You need help with a restraining order
- Determine the venue. Normally you will bring a legal case in the county where both parties live or in the county in which the opposing party lives. For example, if you are filing for divorce, you would want to file in the county where you or your spouse live. Most of the time legal cases will be handled by the county in which the plaintiff (the person filing the claim) lives.
- There are exceptions to this policy, such as when the individual is in the military or resides in more than one state.
- Search for a family-law attorney in the county where you will file your case. Begin making a list of possible attorneys as soon as you have made the decision to file a claim. The sooner you make a list and begin your search, the sooner you will have proper legal guidance. Attorneys who are familiar with the judges, court staff, local customs, and other attorneys involved locally in family law will best be able to serve your needs. Look for attorneys located in the county where you or the other party will file. You can find attorneys several different ways.
- The American Bar Association maintains a database of local bar associations. Most will have free referral services that can recommend qualified attorneys. These referral services often include a free consultation.
- Use your state’s bar association website. Each state bar association keeps a directory of attorneys on their website. Many of these sites, such as that for the Ohio State Bar Association, are searchable by both location and specialization. The state bar website may also list any disciplinary action that has been taken against an attorney for improper conduct.
- Use a public-interest website. For example, LawHelp.org focuses on helping low-income individuals find attorneys.
- Use an online directory. Many websites offer searchable directories of attorneys. Popular directories include those found at Lawyers.com, LawInfo.com, and FindLaw.com. Use more than one directory to get the best results.
- Check the local yellow pages. Look at the attorney ads in the yellow pages of your phone book. Write down any contact information for those who advertise family-law services. Also check for a family law sub-category, such as divorce, mediation, adoption, or guardianship.
- Use your favorite search engine to search for local family-law attorneys.
- Ask for a recommendation from family or friends who have experienced the same problem you’re facing. You may be able to get a good sense of whether a particular attorney will suit your needs.
- Ask your attorney for a referral. If you already have an attorney for other matters, but you need one that specializes in family law, your attorney may be able to give you some reputable choices.
- Do some research. Some simple online research can serve as a background check of sorts and provide a wealth of information about some of the attorneys on your list. Others may be difficult to locate online.
Some things to look for include:
- Websites. Most attorneys will have at least a basic website that lists their practice areas and contact information. Others will have websites with detailed information about their specializations, experience, and qualifications.
- Social media profiles. Run a quick search on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn for each of the attorneys or law firms on your list. Social media profiles and status updates can provide information about a person or business.
- News stories and press releases. These can be great sources of information about individual attorneys and law firms. However, when reading press releases, take them for what they are: public relations stories about the attorney or law firm who wrote them.
- Talk to friends and family who are familiar with any of the attorneys on your list. Ask them what it was like dealing with the attorney in question. Bring up any attorney that you may be considering based upon your initial research. Keep in mind that if you ask them about their experience with an opposing attorney -- for example, the attorney who represented the “other side” in a divorce case -- their opinions may not be entirely objective.
- Ask your friends about the nitty-gritty of their experience working with their attorneys. Were they transparent regarding their fees and services? Were they punctual for appointments and available for questions? Did they provide answers and seem informed?
- Check online reviews. Whenever possible, check online reviews for the attorneys you’re considering. It’s good to have as many sources of information as possible before you make your decision. Some sites offering attorney reviews include Avvo, Findlaw, Lawyers.com, and Martindale-Hubbell®.
- Narrow your choices. Once you have gathered the information above, use it to come up with a list of your top two or three choices. The factors that help you narrow your choices will depend on your personal situation, finances, and your "gut feeling" about an attorney.
- If you've asked for references from others and researched those references online, you should have a decent sense of who will be good candidates. However, you should definitely arrange to meet with at least two attorneys in person before you make a final decision. It's important to test your personal interaction with an attorney before you hire him or her.
- Call your top choices. Some attorneys may offer a free preliminary consultation on the telephone, even if they charge for an in-person consultation. If your choices offer a telephone consultation, take that opportunity to ask questions such as:
- whether the attorney charges for in-person consultations
- what handling your case is likely to cost
- whether fees are negotiable and what payment plans exist
- how long the attorney has practiced
- whether the attorney has handled cases similar to yours
- whether the attorney can provide you with references from other clients
- what outcomes are possible in your case
- who will have the primary responsibility for handling your case
- what information you should bring to your in-person meeting
Making a Final Decision
- Make some appointments. Call and schedule a consultation with your top two or three choices from the attorneys on your list. Many offer free initial consultations, but some charge for that. Be sure to ask about this when you call to make your appointment. Do not make an appointment with an attorney who isn’t forthcoming about the charge for a consultation.
- Because many family-law cases are charged at an hourly rate rather than a flat fee, initial consultations may not be free but may be available at a significantly reduced rate. The lack of a free initial consultation is not by itself a cause for concern, and it has nothing to do with an attorney's suitability. However, most attorneys do offer free initial consultations, so you might consider those first.
- Gather all the documents the attorney has requested for the initial consultation. If you were not asked to bring anything, check the attorney’s website for a list of things to bring. You may consult or work with several attorneys over the course of your case, so it's a good idea to make copies of any documents you give to your attorney. Leave the originals at home for safekeeping.
Examples of things an attorney may want to see include:
- Your tax returns or pay stubs for at least the previous two years (especially in the case of divorce or child-support proceedings).
- Documents showing any stock certificates, bonds, retirement and/or pension plans.
- Documents showing family or shared debts, including mortgage, auto, student-loan and credit card statements. (These can be especially useful in divorce proceedings.)
- Any documents you have received from the court or your opponent's attorney, including restraining orders, documents granting you sole custody of children, or subpoenas.
- Any documents relating to previous family-law matters, such as previous divorce decrees, adoption records, child-support orders, visitation schedules, and restraining orders.
- Think about your case. If there are details you have forgotten, you may want to look them up. Be sure you know the answers to any questions the attorney may have. For example, if your case will involve your finances -- as in a divorce or separation -- knowledge about the value of your assets and the amount of your debt can be very helpful to an attorney.
- Make a list of questions to ask. The attorney will be able to answer some of them right away but may need further information or research before answering others.
Asking these questions will help you decide whether you communicate well with the attorney. Some areas to address in person, if possible, include:
- The cost of retaining the attorney. Of course, if you are considering hiring any of the interviewees, you will need to ask about time and expense. If you are on a budget, do not be afraid to discuss payment arrangements or a flat fee instead of an hourly fee. Many attorneys will accept regular monthly payments after your retainer has run out. Find out if this is the case.
- Their qualifications. While a website or social media page can provide basic information, nothing beats asking the attorney in person about his/her credentials. Don’t be afraid to ask an attorney where s/he attended law school, what certifications and memberships they hold in the area of family law, and what examples of successfully litigated cases they can cite. You can also ask how much experience they have working with clients in situations similar to yours.
- Take this time to ask specific questions about your case and how they would proceed with it. How will they help you achieve your objectives? What advantage does their practice offer compared to the competition? What financial and case support can you expect if you do not “win” your case?
- Create a list of questions that you can leave with your attorney. Lawyers often have busy daytime schedules and review documents during general “off” hours. Some things to ask about include:
- Does the attorney carry malpractice insurance? Good attorneys usually maintain up-to-date malpractice insurance. Ask the attorney to explain their reasons if they don’t carry this insurance.
- Can the attorney provide you with references from former clients? Be aware that an attorney cannot give you information about a former client without that client’s consent. They may need time to get consent or have their former client contact you.
- How will the attorney update you on the progress of your case? This may vary depending on the needs of your case, but you should feel confident that you will get the attention you deserve.
- How often will you be billed? If the fee is hourly, will you be billed for portions of an hour? There's no "wrong" answer to this. Just look for an answer that makes you feel comfortable.
- What is the best way to communicate with your attorney? Will you be charged for calling or emailing? You should feel welcome to Contact an Attorney with questions and confident that you will receive answers in a timely fashion (e.g., within 24 hours or perhaps two business days).
- Will the attorney give you copies of all the documents filed in your case? This should definitely be a yes.
- Is advance payment required? What terms apply if you terminate the case? Make sure that these terms are very clear.
- Who will be your primary contact for the case? It's common for senior attorneys to give junior associates at least some of the work in a case. This is fine, as long as you know whom you should contact with questions, and you feel comfortable that s/he can handle your case.
- How long might it take to resolve your case? While each case has its own circumstances, your attorney should be able to give you an estimate of how long typical cases in a particular area -- divorce, child custody, etc. -- usually take. Keep in mind that this is only an estimate.
- Go to the scheduled initial consultation. Be sure to bring all of the required documents and your list of questions. You may also want to:
- Arrive early. Most attorneys will ask you to complete an intake form before your appointment. Arriving early will give you time to complete the form.
- Pay attention to the staff. Take note of how the attorney’s staff interacts with you, each other, and the attorney. Any attorney you hire will delegate a certain amount of the work to his or her staff. You will probably be in direct contact with the staff. They are often the ones who answer the phone, return calls, collect required documents, and prepare the pleadings (formal, written applications to the court).
- Leave your children at home. Because children are often part of a family-law case, especially in divorce and custody proceedings, your attorney may not legally be able to discuss your case when your children are present. It's probably a good idea to leave them with a babysitter.
- Take notes. You should feel free to keep notes during your appointment so that you will be clear about what the attorney(s) said. You may also want to record your initial reaction to each attorney or staff member you encounter. That information can help you narrow your list of candidates.
- If your initial consultation is over the telephone, you should be careful to take detailed notes. Ask pertinent questions and get contact information for sending in additional documents if needed for review. Provide the attorney with a callback number in case you get interrupted or disconnected.
- Make a final choice. After having met with a small list of candidates and researched their background, expertise, and staff, you should be well prepared to make a decision.
- Choose an attorney who makes you feel comfortable. If you feel like you won’t get along with the attorney, if you don’t feel like they answered your questions clearly without too much “legalese,” or their ethics or practices are questionable, consider interviewing additional candidates.
- Choose an attorney who is skilled in the specific areas you need. For example, if you’re considering adoption, find an attorney who can cite examples of successfully handling similar cases.
- If at any time during your working relationship you feel that you need to fire your attorney, you have the right to do so. Be straightforward with the attorney, and express your concerns before terminating any contract or agreement. If you have another attorney, s/he may be happy to work with you to address your concerns.
Avoiding Bad Attorneys
- Do not hire an attorney who has solicited you. It is against the Legal Rules of Professional Conduct for an attorney to contact you if you have not already expressed interest in his/her services or given him/her permission to contact you.
- Make sure the attorney gives you time to make a decision. Attorneys are forbidden to pressure you into any fee arrangement or other agreement. They should give you time to consider any arrangement you make. If you feel like you're being pressured, find another attorney.
- Ask for the attorney's background and credentials. These should be given without hesitation. If the attorney seems unwilling or hesitant to give you this information, look elsewhere.
- Verify your lawyer’s background and credentials with the local or state bar association. The American Bar Association has a directory of state and local bar associations. You can call to verify the information your attorney has given you; in some cases it may even be available online.
- You can also check whether s/he has any ethics violations or disciplinary actions on his or her record. If the attorney has been disciplined multiple times or has been suspended, you should hire someone else.
- Avoid hiring an attorney who suggests anything unethical. Attorneys are bound by very strict codes of ethics and professional conduct. Never hire an attorney who encourages you to do anything illegal or unethical. For example, an attorney who suggests that you lie about your income in a child custody case should be rejected.
Never hire attorneys who make unethical offers.
- You should avoid attorneys who make specific promises about the results of your case. A "guaranteed result" is impossible, and it's unethical for an attorney to promise you that s/he will get you "the result you want" if you hire him or her.
- Attorneys are required to fully and competently represent you if they accept you as a client. They cannot shape the quality of their representation depending on how much you pay, and they cannot promise different results if you pay more. For example, if a divorce attorney tells you that your case will have a greater chance of success if you pay for his/her “platinum” package vs the “basic” package, do not hire that attorney. This behavior is unethical.
- It is fine to let attorneys know during the initial consultation that you are interviewing other candidates for your case. Attorneys expect that potential clients are interviewing other attorneys, and appreciate your honesty about it.
- You should always speak directly with a service provider before paying them for anything.
- If you feel like you want to fire your attorney, consider your reasons for this before taking any action. For example, if you’re unhappy with a court ruling, you might feel like taking out your frustration on your attorney. Consider, however, whether another attorney could have reasonably produced a better result.
- Legitimate reasons to consider terminating your working relationship with an attorney include a lack of professionalism, a lack of compassion or dedication, a lack of understanding, or a significant disagreement about how your case should be handled.
- Many state bars have free “fee dispute resolution” programs that can help you if you and your attorney cannot agree on the billing.
- Minor problems with your attorney can often be resolved by talking with them. If you are having a problem with your attorney that you’re finding difficult to resolve, but you don’t want to file a formal complaint, check with your local or state bar association. Many have “attorney-client assistance” or “liaison” programs that can help you address your issue.
- If your case is settled out of court and you are entitled to money, your attorney cannot refuse to pay you what you’re owed.
- Beware of any attorney who refuses to allow you to regain possession of your documents, as in the case of your deciding to get a second opinion. The choice of which attorney you work with is entirely yours.
- Be wary of an attorney who does not offer any form of free initial consultation.
- Not all attorneys abide by the law. If you believe that your attorney has committed a crime against you, contact the police and the state bar. Crimes committed by attorneys often involve theft, identity theft, embezzlement (theft or misappropriation of funds held in trust), and financial or contractual breaches.
- Conflicts of interest may include the fact that the attorney has previously worked with the other party in your case, is related to the other party, or has a direct interest in any matter concerning the case. Make sure you tell the attorney the names of everyone who will be involved in your case to confirm that there will not be a conflict of interest.
- All states have regulations regarding improper attorney conduct. Improper and/or unethical behavior includes breaking confidentiality, conflicts of interest, failing to meet deadlines or statutes of limitations, and violating financial terms. Contact your state bar association to find out what action you can take if your attorney has behaved unethically.