My cousin (who is also an attorney, but not in Arizona and not in family law) sent me a message a few days ago, on behalf of her friend who is getting divorced.  Jana’s question was, “how does Amy choose a divorce attorney and what questions should she be asking?”  

By the time I was finished with the email, I realized that there are probably lots of “Amy” people in the world (both men and women) who are bewildered, confused, scared, and stressed, but still need to make a smart decision.  Here’s what I told Amy ~

First, you should decide what kind of divorce you want: do-it-yourself with legal consulting and/or drafting of documents, mediation, arbitration, Collaborative Divorce, negotiated settlement, or litigation. Those are listed in order of expense from under $2,000 to $50,000 and up.  There’s more information on our Services page that describes these options.  This is probably the most critical step in the process, because not all attorneys are suited to all types of divorce.

Then, when you have decided what kind of divorce you want, you should call several therapists and NON-family law firms and ask for a referral to a family law attorney for (i.e.) mediation. If you get the same name twice, you’ll know that the person is at least somewhat respected by their peers. I don’t recommend asking friends for a referral because most people who get a divorce either think their attorney was the best or worst that ever lived with no frame of reference other than their own divorce.

Now that you have an idea of what kind of divorce you want and have a list of attorneys to call, you should get in touch with at least three for a consult.  If someone offers a free consult, I would be a little suspicious because you will definitely get what you pay for.  I, and some other attorneys, will charge a reduced rate for the initial consult, so you should ask when you book your appointment if they offer a reduced consult fee or if you can meet with the attorney for a period of time less than a full hour.

Take note of how the phone is answered and how you are treated when you book your appointment because it’s likely that is the person you’ll be dealing with most of the time during your representation. If the person who takes your call is dismissive or rude, then it’s probably going to be a less than satisfactory relationship.

You should meet with more than one attorney to find one who suits your personality.  A bad fit with your attorney can be a very unhappy situation — and I speak from personal experience. When you meet with the attorney, you should ask these types of questions:

  • What is the relevant law that governs your situation and the usual outcome? For example, in Arizona, we have either joint or sole legal custody, but the likely outcome for two fit parents is joint legal custody unless there are extenuating circumstances. In other words, don’t waste resources fighting for something that is an unlikely outcome.
  • What are the required steps in the legal process for the type of divorce you have selected and how long does it ordinarily take?
  • What is the average cost of this type of divorce and does the attorney offer a flat fee rate (all paid at one time with no hourly billing), a payment plan, a sliding scale, credit card payments, etc.?
  • What are the things that you can do on your own to cut costs (i.e., make your own photocopies)?
  • Are there certain things that the attorney will do to help her keep fees down such as using paralegals and assistants do some of the work? 
  • Is your retainer refundable?
  • How often will you get billing statements and what type of detail will they include?
  • Will the attorney work with you to keep conflict to a minimum and let you know honestly when you are out of line?
  • Are there certain people that the attorney will not work with? What happens if your spouse hires one of them?
  • Will the attorney “unbundle” or offer a la carte services on an as-needed basis?
  • What is the attorney’s “best” and “worst” case scenario for your divorce?
  • What other services will you need for the divorce (i.e., home appraisal, business valuation) and how will those professionals be selected?
  • Does the attorney have a disciplinary record? (You can contact the State Bar of Arizona for this one!)
  • What will it take to get started and will the attorney give you a fee agreement to review? If not, I would be wary. I recently saw a fee agreement that the attorney had refused to provide to the client for months (after representation!) and now I know why. It was like an instant malpractice suit looking for a place to happen.

So that’s my short course in choosing an attorney. Most important, of course, will be your gut feeling about the staff, attorney, the office, and whether or not you feel listened to and valued as a client.

Choose Peace ~ It’s Attorney Friendly!