How do I hire a Lawyer?

Purchasing legal services is a very expensive purchase and if it is done wrong, the consequences can be far-reaching. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize whether they have hired a good lawyer or a bad one until their case is over and it’s too late.  Doing a little research in the beginning may save a great deal of anguish in the end.  After all, if you wouldn’t buy the first car you look at why would you hire the first lawyer you talk to?

The best way to hire a lawyer is by knowing his or her work and reputation in the relevant legal field. Few military service members or spouses know a domestic relations attorney in their area who also has experience in military issues. In fact, many people going through a marital separation don’t know which state’s laws apply to their case.  

The internet is a good place to start looking for a family law attorney who has experience and knowledge dealing with the various military issues involved in a marital separation or divorce.  Start your search with the specific practice area that you are seeking followed by the city or county where you or your family currently reside.  

For example; “Military Child Custody Lawyer in Norfolk, Virginia” will give a sailor stationed at Naval Base Norfolk several potential attorneys with experience in military divorce law and child custody practices near the base.

Also, the legal assistance offices on base (or post) frequently can refer you to (or give you a list of) local attorneys who represent service members and dependents in the local courts. These are not free attorneys but domestic relations lawyers who market their services to the military community are usually familiar with military divorce issues.

Review each attorney’s website and description of himself or herself, but don’t be overly impressed by awards like: “Voted SuperLawyer in 2010, 2011, 2012!” Ask yourself, who is voting?

Usually, the selection is not based on a survey of judges, attorneys, or even clients, but based on advertising purchased from SuperLawyer magazine. In exchange for purchasing advertising in the magazine the attorneys are named “SuperLawyers” of the year. Often there are many “SuperLawyers of the Year” in the same year.

Similarly, awards by the American Bar Association, The Trial Lawyers Association as well as state bar associations do not necessarily mean that this lawyer excels in the areas of law you need. Usually, these awards are given for work done (or friends made) within these organizations (ie; schmoozing). If you are doing enough schmoozing to be voted President of the State Bar Association, it does not necessarily mean that you are also taking care of your client’s needs.  

Instead, I advise that you read the on-line reviews from past clients and see what they say.  One negative review does not make a bad attorney, but if you see several clients all complaining about a lawyer’s lack of responsiveness perhaps you should heed their warnings.  After weeding out the lawyers who don’t practice family law in your area and those that have no experience with military issues (the first criteria is more important than the latter) as well as those that got bad reviews, then you should set up appointments with the best three divorce lawyer candidates.

These appointments or initial consultations may or may not be free. Don’t avoid an appointment with an attorney because he or she charges a fee for this initial consultation.  Don’t let this scare you off. Just like a restaurant sells its meals, a lawyer sells her time. Most good attorneys are busy and do not give away their time. You would not rule out a restaurant because it doesn’t give free samples; do not rule out attorneys for the same reason. Getting the right attorney for your case is well worth the initial consultation fee.

Things to ask/look for in a Lawyer:

In choosing a lawyer, you should look past the “love me” wall with the elegantly-framed degrees, certificates, awards, and photos of the attorney with famous people. Because an attorney appears prosperous, does not mean that he or she is going to work hard for you. Many times, he or she won’t be working on your case much at all but will assign the work to an associate attorney or paralegal (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

The first requirement of a Domestic Relations (or Family Law) attorney in your area is that the lawyer actually practices domestic relations law in your city or county courthouse.  An attorney who practices Family Law regularly can often handle those cases more efficiently.  He or she won’t be wasting time learning the law or creating forms.  

If an attorney has just a few family law clients each year and usually works on criminal or personal injury cases, he or she may not practice Family Law enough to really know the law in this area. Many of the lawyers I encounter who practice Family Law as a sideline seem uncertain of what to do and put their clients at a significant disadvantage both in court as well as in settlement negotiations.

In addition to being familiar with the latest Family Law cases and statutes, an attorney should be familiar with the court he or she is practicing before. Many of the issues in a divorce are decided based on the judge’s personal prejudices.  Knowing a particularly judge or Family Law Magistrate’s past rulings (or the general disposition of the court) towards awarding alimony, child custody, division of assets and debts and other issues can provide valuable insight.

Many attorneys list a wide variety of practice areas. While an attorney may be able to represent clients in a few related practice areas (for example, many probate attorneys also have a trusts and estates practice), an attorney who claims to practice in 8 or 9 different areas of law probably is mediocre in at least half. You would not seek treatment from a Neurologist who also claims to specialize in Cardiology, Podiatry and Psychology.  Be wary of the lawyer who specializes in everything.  

If you are a military service member, retiree, dependent, uniformed service employee, or federal government employee there are particular rules that may substantially affect your case.  Also, if you have a Security Clearance embarrassing facts or accusations may come to light that could jeopardize your clearance (and your career).  In many cases, it may be to your financial advantage to avoid a final divorce and simply remain separated. You should inquire about the attorney’s background and experience in handling military divorce cases.  Ask if he or she is aware of the impact of divorce on your military benefits, pension and career.

Finally, be wary of the attorney who promises to make your dreams come true.  Almost always a client is worried about his or her case when she decides to hire a lawyer.  It’s very easy for an attorney to take advantage of the client’s anxiety by telling the prospective client exactly what he or she wants to hear.

If a lawyer tells a prospective client who is accused of a crime that he can get the client off, that is exactly what the client wants to hear.  Of course, no lawyer can guarantee an acquittal (particularly before he has seen the prosecution’s evidence), but giving the assurance is more likely to get the prospective client to scratch out a check.

Remember you are not paying for an outcome – only the judge controls the outcome of the case.  Instead, you are paying for the attorney’s expertise and efforts on your behalf. Those are the traits you should be evaluating during your initial consultation and throughout the representation.

Asking an attorney about his or her “win/loss record” is irrelevant in deciding whether he or she is a good lawyer.  Lawyers don’t win or lose cases, they present evidence and argument.  It is the strength of the evidence that wins or loses the case.

Sometimes, a lawyer does not have enough favorable evidence on his side and the court rules against his client. Often the outcome of a case has little to do with an attorney’s skill or effort. Clarence Darrow is widely considered the greatest trial lawyer of his time, however, he lost the biggest case of his career (the Scopes monkey trial).   

In a Family Law case, if a lawyer tells you that he can get you everything you want and you won’t have to compromise, he or she might be telling you what you want to hear instead of what you should know.  If the prospective attorney cross examines you on a sensitive issue (or questions you closely about the case), she is working for you even if it seems like she is against you.  An attorney cannot properly access a case without understanding both sides. A lawyer who accepts everything her client says at face value is not helping the client.

In the end, you are trying to determine whether the lawyer has sufficient experience and knowledge of the issues involved in your case.  Also, does the prospective attorney seem like he or she is going to work hard on your behalf – respond to your calls and e-mails (within 24 hours), contact your witnesses, review documents, conduct discovery, research the legal issues and prepare you and your witnesses for trial.

Your attorney should be prepared and know your case well before your court date.  When both lawyers are prepared for trial, it is the facts that usually matter most.  However, if one side is unprepared then the evidence takes a backseat to the advocacy (or lack of it).

I have been in court many times opposing a lawyer who clearly did not understand the relevant law, did not know the facts of the case, or just did not know how to present his or her client’s evidence.  Sometimes, the client or a key witness is not prepared for cross examination and comes apart on the witness stand. That collapse is often the attorney’s responsibility.  The client and key witnesses should be well-prepared to answer difficult questions on cross examination before they take the stand.  In the end, effective lawyering is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration.

Finally, a lawyer is your advocate in the courthouse but your counselor in his office.  In court, the lawyer should be emphatic in his support for his client’s position but in his office the lawyer should be advising the client objectively. If you are wrong or your position has holes in it, then you should find that out in your lawyer’s office and not on the witness stand in front of the judge.

Evaluate whether your lawyer is going to be someone who will tell you the truth about your case. The attorney who lets you go into court with a losing case is not doing you any favors.  Working for you often means making sure you see the holes in your case.