Consumer’s Guide to Choosing a Divorce Lawyer
For most people, a divorce is the single biggest legal, financial and emotional upheaval that they’ll ever have to face. I think it’s critically important that you find the right person to guide you through it. Just because someone is a lawyer doesn’t mean that they are qualified or have the experience to help you with a family law issue as complicated as a divorce.
In this article and accompanying video, I’m going to give you some questions to ask and resources that you can use to evaluate potential divorce lawyers. I want you to be able to make an informed decision about who you hire to help you with this very important transition in your life. This information is not legal advice for your specific situation, it is intended to educate you.
You may find that some of these questions are so important to you that you want to use them to screen potential lawyers over the phone. You may be able to eliminate some candidates, depending on their answers, without spending your time or money meeting with them.
The first thing I recommend is that you go to the Texas State Bar website and look up any lawyer that you’re considering interviewing. Go to TexasBar.com and at the bottom of the page is a “Find a Lawyer” search box. This will show you basic information such as how long they’ve been practicing, their primary practice area, if they have any Texas Board of Legal Specialization Certifications, as well as information about their firm. At the bottom of the page for each lawyer is the “Public Disciplinary History” section. This section will tell you if they’ve been disciplined by the State Bar within the last 10 years.
There is also a link on the Texas Bar site that says “Need a Lawyer? Get a referral.” This link will take you to a list of the state lawyer referral services. In my opinion, I’m not sure it’s the best place to find a lawyer. You might think that it would be a list of all the lawyers in an area, but that’s not what it is. At the time I’m writing this article, the lawyer referral service in our area only makes referrals to lawyers that have paid to be on their list. It can be a little expensive, so in my area, there are a lot of very good family law attorneys that are not on their list. I was on their list when I first started my firm, but I haven’t been on it for the last several years.
Let’s start going through some of the questions you may want to ask when you’re interviewing potential divorce lawyers.
What percentage of your practice is divorce and family law?
You may have seen it listed on the State Bar website, but I would ask it to an attorney directly. As the economy has slowed down, I’m seeing more and more lawyers try to do some divorces on the side to try and stay busy. I recommend that you find a lawyer that spends the majority of their time doing divorces.
Divorces and family law make up at least 90-95% of what we do at my firm.
Are you Board Certified in Family Law?
With this question, you’re asking them if they are a family law specialist or not. The Texas State Bar considers Board Certified family law attorneys to be experts in the field of divorce and family law. Less than 1% of Texas lawyers are Board Certified in Family Law. A non-Board Certified lawyer might tell you that you don’t need someone that’s Board Certified because their hourly rates are higher. I think that’s a pretty bad reason for making a decision and it’s short sighted. We’ll talk about it more a little later in this video, but I don’t think hourly rates are a good way to compare lawyers.
Divorce is complicated…because people’s lives are complicated. Of course, there are good lawyers that aren’t board certified, but personally, I think it’s wise to have true experts in your corner.
How much experience do you have with situations similar to mine?
This is a great question to ask during an initial consultation after you’ve explained your situation to the attorney. I obviously, can’t answer this question myself right now until we have a chance to meet, but I can tell you we’ve seen just about everything in our office. We’ve handled everything from very simple divorces to situations involving multi-million dollar businesses and complex international custody disputes.
Do you have support staff?
There are two reasons for asking this question. First, if an attorney doesn’t have anyone to help with the work, then most likely everything done is going to be billed at the attorney’s hourly rate. Second, if you have a simple question or need something that doesn’t necessarily require an attorney’s involvement, you can often get a quicker and less expensive response by working with a paralegal. If the attorney that you’re interviewing does have support staff, you may want to ask what types of task they typically do in a case.
At Trusler Legal, we have 2 full time family law paralegals and we use them extensively throughout a case. In general, we have the paralegals do as much of the work as possible because it’s less expensive for the client.
Are there other attorneys at your firm that will be working on my case?
We know that things happen occasionally that need immediate attention. In those situations, you want to know that there’s someone with experience you can talk to if your attorney is unavailable for some reason.
We absolutely have more than one attorney at the firm. Each client usually has a primary attorney, but we regularly back each other up when it’s needed.
Do you have malpractice insurance?
Many lawyers may not like this question…particularly if they have to answer No. Some lawyers may think that a person that asks this question is just looking for someone to sue, but I disagree. I don’t think people should ask this to find a target, I just think it’s important to be an informed consumer. The Austin American Statesman said that the State Bar had done a survey and found that the question of malpractice coverage was important to 80% of the people that responded. That same article said that more than half of Texas attorneys do not carry malpractice insurance and about 2/3 of sole practitioners do not have coverage. So, if it’s something that’s important to you, you may want to ask about it.
At my firm, we do carry malpractice coverage.
What resources do you have for me to educate myself and/or help me work through the divorce process?
I can’t tell you what kind of answer you should be looking for to this question, but I can tell you what our answer is…
In terms of education, we believe very strongly in educating our clients. We have this site, which is our Divorce Education Website (we actually have more than one website) that’s available for you to get information about divorce through a variety of articles and a growing collection of videos such as our online Austin Divorce Seminar. We also have Audio CD’s available such as our Austin Divorce Guide and Collaborative Law: Divorce with Dignity.
In terms of helping you through the divorce process, our No Nonsense™ Divorce workbook is a great tool for couples to use to work through some of the issues in their divorce on their own without paying a lawyer every step of the way. For couples that need an agreed divorce, it’s a very good option. The workbook is a step-by-step guide with fill-in-the-blanks and checkboxes that are easy to understand. We even have video guides that go with each section of the workbook to help you understand what you need to do.
What forms of payment do you accept?
This mainly applies if you’re planning on paying with a credit card. Not all firms accept them, so if you need to pay that way, you’ll want to make sure you can.
My firm accepts all forms of payment, including credit cards.
Do you have payment plans available?
If you’d like to be able to make payments instead of paying in full up front, you should ask whether or not that’s going to be an option. We do offer payment plans at our office.
Do you offer flat or fixed fees?
Some lawyers offer the option of paying a fixed fee for services instead of charging by the hour. So if you’d like a flat or fixed fee as an option, you should ask about it. We offer fixed fees for many of our services at Trusler Legal.
What are the hourly rates of the people that will be working on my case?
This is an important question to ask, but you need to be very careful of making a decision based on price alone. I don’t recommend hiring someone just because they’re cheap. If someone is cheap, it may be for a reason. It could be that they don’t have a lot of experience.
In many cases, that the hourly rate of the attorney may not be the best way to estimate the overall cost of your case. Currently, our paralegals bill out at between $100 and $150 an hour, our associate attorneys are between $200 and $275 and hour and my rate is $375 an hour. But since we shift work to the paralegals to keep the costs down (when it makes sense), the average hourly rate that a lot of our clients pay is actually between $125 and $185 an hour.
And that doesn’t include the cases that we handle on a fixed fee basis. There is no hourly rate at all in those situations.
Are you comfortable with them?
You’ll be going through a difficult process with your attorney and there’s a good chance you’ll have to discuss areas of your life that you normally don’t talk about with people. If you’re uncomfortable with your attorney now, it’s probably a bad sign.
If you’re looking for a lawyer that can talk to you about the possibility of handling your case collaboratively, then there’s really just one question you need to ask.
How many collaborative cases have you completed?
This question is only going to apply to you if you want to do a collaborative divorce. Most people that are interested in a collaborative divorce simply ask the question, “Do you do collaborative divorces?” That’s the wrong question to ask. Any lawyer that’s taken a short continuing education course can answer yes to that. What you really want to know is are they any good at it? If you’re serious about finding an experienced collaborative attorney, I would be wary of hiring anyone that’s done less than 5 or 10 cases. At the time I’m making this video, I’ve done more than 150.