3. Interview Attorneys & Educate Yourself
In our prior post we talked about building your support team. If you can afford one, an attorney should be on your support team. We often are asked, “do I have the right attorney?” That question is both complex and simple but answering it correctly is vitally important. Having the right attorney can make the difference between your case going to court or your case settling. It can make the difference between you spending or savings tens of thousands of dollars if not more. It can make the difference in what your custody schedule, financial situation, and safety are moving forward.
A. How to Find an Attorney
a. The first step to employing an attorney is finding an attorney. Luckily in the current technological age, finding an attorney is easy. Finding the right attorney though can be much more difficult. One of the keys to finding the right attorney is finding an attorney who understands domestic violence, who is focused on the best interests of you and your children, and who will assist you in achieving the outcome you want as much as possible.
b. Local domestic violence resources and centers are always a good resource to use. They will typically have a list of attorneys they refer clients to. For North Carolina, local DV resource centers can be found here
c. Another option is online searches. Two things to keep in mind though with online searches: 1 – the attorneys listed near the top or first (whether on Google, Avvo, Justia, etc.) aren’t listed there because they are necessarily the best; the ones listed first pay an extra fee to be listed first. Often, that cost is going to be passed on to you. 2 – if you are reading online reviews, make sure you determine who is making the posting. Any person can post a review, whether they were a client or not. Many of the negative reviews on an attorney’s page are written by the opposing party – that one-star review that might turn you off to an attorney may have been written by the abusive husband who was put in jail by the attorney.
d. Your network may be the best option though. Your fellow survivors who have gone down the path you are starting probably have recommendations for a good attorney you should contact or bad ones that you should avoid. Personal referrals are typically the best way to find a good attorney.
B. Interview Multiple Attorneys
a. Many victims make the mistake of automatically retaining the first attorney they meet with. While you may get lucky and find the right attorney right away, that isn’t always the case. You wouldn’t test drive one car and then automatically spend tens of thousands of dollars on a brand-new car, why do that with an attorney?
b. Many attorneys offer free consultations or low-cost initial consultations so there are a number of available individuals you can meet with prior to making your decision. That can help you determine what a reasonable outcome is, what reasonable costs are, and what you need in an attorney.
C. What to Ask the Attorney
a. When you meet with an attorney, it’s important to be honest with them. An attorney can typically address and resolve anything if you are open and honest with them. They also cannot give you an accurate forecast of what is going to happen with your case if they do not have an accurate picture of where you are.
b. Once you’ve covered the basics, you should have questions prepared to ask your attorney. These would relate not only to your case and what possible outcomes might look like, but also things like cost, timeline, and the attorney’s style.
c. As far as outcomes, ask the attorney about the law in your area. Domestic violence is pretty much always going to be a factor in custody but how it contributes in other areas like finances and property varies greatly. Start determining what is reasonable for your situation.
d. Complex contested litigation can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and take multiple years before everything is resolved. Get an idea of the cost and timeline you are looking at can help you prepare for the future. Also make sure that you ask your attorney about their hourly rate – locally, rates can range from $150.00/hour to more than $400.00/hour and over the course of hundreds of hours of work that makes a massive difference in price. Have a budget in mind and don’t hire someone you cannot afford long-term. They may withdraw from your case right before trial and you will not have time to find someone else to represent you in court.
D. What to Consider or Ignore
a. Experience: It can be fairly easy to determine online how much experience your attorney has. You’ll need to consider whether a newer attorney will be able to handle your case. A younger attorney may also tell you what you want to hear because they don’t have enough experience in court to give you a realistic expectation. Older attorneys with decades of experience though can be much more expensive and sometimes won’t put as much work into your case. You should also make sure that your attorney has experience in family law and domestic violence. Someone who did criminal or insurance law for 10 years and has just switched to family law may not be any more experienced than someone who just graduated law school.
b. Goal/Style Alignment: Make sure that you and your attorney have goals and styles that are aligned. If you want to work out a settlement with your ex, don’t hire an attorney that only does litigation. Conversely, if you don’t want to be strong-armed into settlement or to work in a collaborative law setting, make sure that you hire an attorney that is able and willing to litigate. Otherwise, you either won’t get the outcome you want or you’ll have to switch attorneys in the middle of the process.
c. Connection/Trust: The most important component of the attorney-client relationship is trust. You must trust them and they must trust you. If that is missing, the representation won’t be fruitful and likely will not last. If you don’t connect with your attorney, trust your intuition and don’t retain them. Make sure that your communication styles mesh as well. Some attorneys like to talk on the phone and some prefer e-mail. Some will text with clients and some will not. Make sure that what you prefer and what the attorney will do match.
d. Staff: Consider how big the law firm is and how much staff the attorney has. If you are going to need immediate responses and to touch base with someone regularly, you’ll probably need a bigger firm so that someone is available. The other side of that equation though is that you won’t always be working with the same person and you’ll often be speaking to support staff and paralegals instead of the attorney. More staff also tends to equal higher costs to cover the attorney’s overhead. Smaller law firms may give you more personal contact but there may not always be someone available at a moment’s notice.
e. Gender: It may sound surprising, but we generally advise ignoring the gender of the attorney. Many victims are hesitant or don’t want to work with a male attorney which is totally understandable. However, several of the attorneys that we specifically warn against and are the worst at understanding domestic violence in our local area are women. Never assume that because the person you are taking to is a woman, that they will understand and take your side.
f. Guarantees: If an attorney ever makes you a guarantee (which they shouldn’t because it is typically unethical), you should take it with a massive pinch of salt. Every case is different so nothing is ever for certain. Remember, judges are human and everyone makes mistake. Unfortunately, there are also some judges who give less weight to domestic violence than they should and that can drastically affect the outcome. Nothing is ever guaranteed so don’t think that your attorney is making you a guarantee and ignore them if they do.
E. How to Educate Yourself
a. There are lots of resources online, locally, and within your support network that can help you educate yourself. Most every court is going to have their local rules online and each state also has online access to their laws. Many states also have child support calculators which are used to determine child support and some have the same for alimony. Using these can give you an idea of a general range of financial support you may be entitled to. Click here for North Carolina’s.
b. Be very careful though because not everything you read online will be true. Also, nothing online or in a general presentation is going to be specifically tailored to your individual circumstances. No two cases are ever the same so no two outcomes will be identical. The more you research and know though the better you will be prepared for your future and the more you can help your attorney with your case. Don’t neglect to research your attorney and read about their background and experience.