Choosing a lawyer

Separation and divorce can be one of the most challenging and important experiences of your life. Choosing the right lawyer and the right process is critical.

If you are unhappy in your marriage and considering separation, it’s wise to have an early meeting with a lawyer to be sure you understand your legal rights and obligations and appreciate the consequences of proceeding with your separation or waiting to do so. It is also important to know582Q1497 your process choices early so that you can present them to your spouse when you’re ready to move forward.

Your first consultation with a lawyer is an opportunity for you to get to know that lawyer’s approach, philosophy, demeanor and experience.  You should interview the lawyer carefully to make sure that he or she is a good fit.

A first consultation is normally an hour and a half and should cover the following topics:

  • an explanation of the process choices available to you to resolve your separation (mediation, collaborative practice, traditional negotiation, arbitration, court)
  • some help from the lawyer to decide which might be the best process for you and your spouse
  • an explanation of the lawyer’s experience, training and preferred approach
  • a discussion of the dynamics and background of your case to ensure that you make any important immediate or temporary decisions wisely
  • answering any legal or other questions you may have
  • a discussion of anticipated costs and timeframes
  • a discussion of next steps

In order to decide whether the lawyer is a good fit, you may want to ask her or him the following kinds of questions:

How many years have you been in practice? Do you specialize in family law? Do you specialize in family law?

What training have you received in negotiation, communication skills, mediation skills and/or collaborative practice? Do you practice collaborative law? Are you a mediator?
How many collaborative and mediation cases have you handled?

What percentage of your cases do you litigate? What percentage do you refer to mediation or mediate yourself, settle by negotiation, settle by or refer to collaborative practice?

What is your preferred approach to helping clients resolve their cases? How do you see your role as my lawyer?

What should I consider in deciding the best process for me? What are the pros and cons of each process? Which process is likely to be most cost­effective for me?

What do you think I should consider when choosing a lawyer? What can you tell me about yourself that will help me decide whether I should retain you?

What kind of support will you provide to me? How will I be involved in my case? What can I do to be as effective as possible?

How much do you charge and how will I pay for your services? How can I keep my costs down? How will you be as cost-effective as possible?

As you meet with a lawyer, you may want to pay attention to the following:

Does the lawyer ask you about your goals with respect to outcome and process?

Does the lawyer listen carefully to you?

Do you feel respect and empathy from the lawyer?

Do you 582Q1463feel the lawyer will be realistic and straightforward with you? A good lawyer will be honest with you, encourage you to be reasonable, let you know when you are [perhaps inadvertently] acting against your own self-interest, and not overpromise.

Did you feel the lawyer appreciated your intangible, non-legal goals (perhaps to maintain a constructive working relationship with your spouse, protect your children from conflict, achieve emotional and financial well­being and closure).

Did he or she take a balanced approach and maintain a sense of respect and openness to your spouse’s perspective and goals?

Does the lawyer have experience in the process you wish to follow (mediation, collaborative practice, court etc.).  What is his or her preferred way to practice?

Does the lawyer have good working relationships with other related professionals i.e. accountants, social workers, counselors, child specialists and financial planners?

Did the lawyer convey the capacity and confidence to advance your interests and help you negotiate a wise settlement?

Did the lawyer demonstrate an awareness of delivering value and being as cost-­effective as possible?

Retaining or waiting

At the end of the initial consultation, if you feel the lawyer is right for you, you could retain him or her by signing a retainer agreement and providing an initial retainer. The lawyer will begin immediately to work with you as you decide. If you have chosen the collaborative process, your lawyer will help you decide how best to approach your spouse to invite him or her to proceed collaboratively. If you’ve chosen a traditional negotiation process, your lawyer may agree to write to your spouse to invite him or her to retain a lawyer to begin negotiations. If you’ve chosen court, your lawyer will speak with you about the information needed to prepare your court documents and explain the timing and cost of the court process.

If the lawyer isn’t right for you, or you aren’t sure, or if you aren’t ready to proceed with your separation, you can pay for your consultation and defer the decision to proceed until you’re ready.

During a separation process, particularly at the beginning, emotions often run high, ranging from a sense of feeling confused and overwhelmed to profound grief, hurt and anger.  The challenge is to make wise choices amidst all of this, because your early choices will affect outcome and relationships.  Be careful to choose a lawyer and a process that can help you minimize the emotional and financial costs of divorce, preserve important relationships and help you achieve your best possible outcome.