Here’s everything you need to know about picking, managing and knowing when to fire a divorce lawyer. Read on for the seven types of lawyers to avoid, and the 10 qualities of the ideal divorce attorney.
Unfortunately, the prevailing stereotype of a divorce lawyer is that of a bottom-feeding, money-grubbing opportunist who will gleefully exploit your pain to satisfy his law firm’s billable-hours quota. But is that fair?
As a former divorce lawyer who is now a full-time divorce mediator, I truly don’t think so.
I’ll freely admit, though, that our profession does have an image problem. And to be perfectly honest, part of the reason is that (sadly for the rest of us) there are some lawyers out there who do embody this bottom-feeder caricature. These folks, who justifiably develop a horrible reputation, unfairly taint the entire profession in the eyes of the public.
That’s all well and good, but how can you, as a consumer, possibly discern between a strong advocate who will work hard to deliver great results, and the sort who, you suspect, may exploit you under the guise of fighting for your rights? Is it possible to be a good judge of character when you’re also confused, emotionally vulnerable, and need to make a quick decision about something this important?
It’s a tall order, but I think it’s very possible. You should start by asking around for recommendations, vetting potential legal professionals online, and bringing a trusted friend or family member with you to each initial consultation. Make notes in advance of the meeting(s) so that you can make the most of the time you and your potential new lawyer have together. Don’t be afraid to ask tough and specific questions, and listen carefully to the answers.
And as you listen, pay attention to your gut feelings (I’m a firm believer in trusting your gut), and watch for the following red flags. While people don’t fit into neat and tidy categories, and some may exhibit a combination of these qualities, you should run fast in the opposite direction if you encounter any of the following “types” of divorce lawyers:
The “Pit Bull” Lawyer
This lawyer fans the flames of conflict, speaks in fight/ war metaphors, always treats going to court as the preferred option, is allergic to settlement discussions, and seems to take pleasure in the idea of vilifying or “destroying” your ex. He actively courts you, speaking seductively of his courtroom prowess and acting like your very life depends on hiring him. The idea that someone so powerful and incredible wants to work with you can feel very exciting (especially when you’re angry), but ask yourself this: What will be the financial and emotional costs of “winning” here? And whose interest does this approach really serve?
The “Billable Hours” Lawyer
This lawyer typically works at a huge firm with billable-hours quotas that she needs to satisfy in order to protect her partnership status. She demands huge retainers, surprises you with massive bills (and expresses irritation/impatience when you question them), and does colossal amounts of work (that you can’t see value in) without asking you first, including excessive amounts of legal research. You’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars and have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. All you know is that you are constantly being asked to “trust” her, and you see very little tangible progress on your case.
The “Too Important for You” Lawyer
This lawyer is incredibly nice, caring, and charismatic—until he lands you as a client and gets your first retainer cheque. After that, he ghosts you, taking forever to respond to your emails or telephone calls and making you chase him down. He seems to have an exaggerated sense of his own importance, acting like his time is too valuable to waste on you, and delegating almost all of your work to a junior lawyer. But you didn’t hire his junior; you hired him. And you resent that he wasn’t transparent with you about what to expect when you did.
The “Father Knows Best” Lawyer
This lawyer treats you like an ignorant child who has no right to have a say in the process. Like an old-fashioned authoritarian father from the 1950s, he dictates what should happen, doesn’t let you see his correspondence to your ex’s lawyer before sending it, and either dismisses your questions or answers them in a condescending manner that clearly conveys that you and your questions are annoying and/or stupid. You feel intimidated by him and are filled with anxiety whenever you need to get in touch.
The “Ivory Tower” Lawyer
This type has a stellar understanding of the academic and procedural side of the law, but seems to be fall short on the human side of things. She runs her cases by the book and takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach, seeming to forget that there are real live people, including children, behind the “fascinating case” she’s working on. She either doesn’t connect with your practical goals and concerns, or just doesn’t seem to care.
The “Frustrated Therapist/Best Friend” Lawyer
This divorce lawyer allows you to vent about your ex endlessly (at his hourly rate), and/or seems to be personally invested in sticking it to your former spouse. He may share inappropriate information about his own divorce and complain about his own ex. He might ask you questions that really don’t seem relevant to the legal issues you’ve engaged him to help you sort out, and seems to focus more on egging you on or providing emotional support than on trying to find a way to get the conflict resolved. He may genuinely care about you, but there seems to be a bit of role confusion here.
The “Wet Behind the Ears” Lawyer
This lawyer may be smart, committed, and hard-working, but is clearly very young and/or inexperienced. This is not necessarily a bad thing if your case is relatively simple and low-conflict as she may work extra hard to bridge the experience gap, and her rates may not be as high as some other divorce lawyers’ rates. But lack of experience can be very problematic if your case is in any way complex, if you have to go to court, and/or if your spouse’s lawyer is much more experienced and can easily intimidate and out-negotiate yours.
I think I may have hired the wrong lawyer. What do I do?
If you get yourself into a relationship with a lawyer who fits one or more of these descriptions to an uncomfortable degree, you need to seriously consider whether it’s in your interest to remain in this relationship. Talk to a trusted friend or family member and get a second opinion from another divorce lawyer. There are as many ways of handling a family law case as there are lawyers. Another lawyer might suggest an approach that is much better suited to your situation, and may have a personality that you find much more comfortable to work with.
The Ideal Divorce Lawyer
Whether you’re just embarking on your separation, or are further along in the process and need to make a change in your legal representation, you should be looking for the following abilities and qualities in any lawyer you interview:
- Experience and competence. Look for a lawyer who’s been around a while, knows the law inside-out, and has a good track record.
- A backbone. She should not be easily intimidated by an aggressive lawyer on the other side.
- The ability to be chameleon-like. The lawyer is settlement-oriented, but not afraid to be tough if necessary.
- Good communication skills. He should listen respectfully, quickly grasp the issues and challenges you are facing, and communicate without “talking down.” He should also ensure, at every step of the process, that you understand and are on board with both his overall strategy, and the specific work he is doing.
- Realism, not idealism. Your lawyer should be able to assess, objectively, the strengths and weaknesses of your case and share them with you honestly —not just tell you what you want to hear.
- The ability to work within your budget. You and your lawyer should be on the same page where budget is concerned, and if you can’t afford her, she should tell you. As your case progresses, she should do her utmost to communicate clearly and regularly about fees and the nature of the work being done.
- Openness to your questions and feedback. It is your lawyer’s job to answer your questions throughout the course of your relationship, and you should never feel as though you’re being ignored or blown off.
- A client-first philosophy. A good lawyer puts your need for resolution first—and finds the best and most cost-effective way to get you to the finish line.
- Compassion and concern for the children’s best interests. You want your advocate to be a human being, not a robot. In family law, it is essential that lawyers demonstrate true insight into how litigation affects the kids, and that they do their utmost to protect those who are the most vulnerable.
- A personality. Your lawyer should be approachable, and should possess the interpersonal skills to work effectively with other lawyers.
The bottom line: For every “bad apple” lawyer out there, there are many good, honest, client-centered advocates who have most—if not all of—the qualities of the “ideal lawyer,” and who can do the job well. If your gut is telling you that your relationship with your lawyer or potential lawyer doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to shop around. You have lots of options and your new lawyer can even help you extricate yourself from your old one painlessly. Do your homework and move on if you have to. As with a bad marriage, it’s a mistake to stay in a dysfunctional lawyer-client relationship due to inertia, history, or fear…especially when you don’t have to.
We wrote an e-book called 11 Ways to Keep Your Family Weeknights From Spinning Out of Control. To get it for FREE, simply subscribe to our newsletter recapping the best of thenewfamily.com and the podcast!