Finding and Choosing a Family Law Attorney
With thousands of licensed practicing attorneys just in California, and countless yellow pages ads and advertisements for seemingly countless family law attorneys and lawyers, how does one come to choose an attorney who can make a difference in their family law case, and consequently an important difference in their life?
Although it may seem like an overwhelmingly difficult task to sort through the various claims to find the right family law attorney or lawyer for you, the task is really not that difficult if you know how to approach the process, and the right questions are asked.
It would be ideal and would be best to find an attorney by recommendation from a friend or family member. It is important that the attorney recommended is one who has worked on a similar matter, in this case, Family Law and child custody. An attorney that has helped a friend in a civil dispute does not say much about their representation in Family Law and child custody.
It is important to initially limit the number of candidates down to a manageable number of four or less. This can be done by carefully checking the credentials of the available attorneys in the geographic area to see who has the most experience and expertise in the area of concern, in this case, Family Law and child custody.
The following links provide ways in which one can locate and search for an attorney:
- Custody Match - Find the right California divorce lawyer. Present your case to attorney's you choose and review profiles for free. Is your attorney a Custody Match Certified Attorney?
- State Divorce Attorney Directory - How to find the right divorce attorney, divorce lawyer, custody attorney, or family law attorney.
- State Bar Attorney Search - Search for an attorney in all 50 states by attorney name or bar number.
- State Bar Advanced Attorney Search - Search for an attorney in all 50 states by attorney info and/or location.
- How to Find An Attorney - Find an attorney through attorney public records, certified lawyer referral services, certified legal specialists, etc.
Know the Qualifications of the Family Law Attorney
Once a reasonable number of potential attorneys have been selected, one should find out more about each ones specific qualifications. Interview the attorney as though he/she was a potential employee. Remember an attorney is contracted out for his/her professional services and legal representation (i.e. Family Law and child custody). These professional services cost on average some $300-$350 dollars per hour in California. Therefore, it behooves the client to know as much as possible about the attorney they are hiring prior to retaining them.
The following is a list of recommended questions a client should ask any attorney or lawyer they are retaining or hiring. Although this list appears to be very long, it is actually incomplete.
- How long have you been licensed to practice law in this state?
- How many cases (divorce/child custody) like mine (be as specific as you can about the nature of your case) have you handled?
- How many cases (divorce/child custody) in the past year?
- Are you board certified in the area of family relations law? (Board certification recognizes a lawyer's commitment to family law, and his or her recognition by a state authorized body, to have particular expertise in family law matters. Certification requires intense peer review, demonstrated family law experience, and passing a difficult certification examination.)
- What percentage of your practice is family law related? (General practitioners usually do not have the same level of dedication to family law, and if the answer you receive to this question is less than 100% proceed cautiously)
- What family law organizations do you belong to? (The AAML, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is the most prestigious group of recognized family law counsel in the United States, and also the most difficult to gain admittance to, but you should at least expect membership in the family law organizations open to any lawyer, such as the ABA family law section. A lack of such membership may signal a lack of specific interest in family law matters.)
- Any other organizations do you belong to or member of (nonprofit, etc.)?
- What other relevant experience do you have in family law matters? (Experience as a judge, judge pro term, magistrate of referee often implies a longstanding dedication to and familiarity with family law issues, while having researched and published family law books or articles or taught family law courses, may reveal an interest (or a lack of interest where there is no teaching or publication experience) in family law matters.
- What can I expect my case to cost, how do you charge, and do you use a written fee agreement? (You should know in advance what the anticipated charges would be, and the attorney should also be willing to put everything he or she says in writing for you.)
- How much of my case will you handle, and how much will be handled by other or junior lawyers, paralegals. (Be sure you clarify that the person you interview will handle all or substantially all of your case, and that you will not be left in the hands of a newer, less experienced associate. Again, the lawyer should be willing to put in writing that he or she will handle all or virtually all of your case by him or herself, and if they are unwilling to do so, be aware that the lawyer you are interviewing may not be the one who actually represents you in much of your case!)
- Will this case involve work from a second attorney, multiple attorneys (to avoid duplicative efforts get this in writing or make sure it is in the fee agreement), as this can exponentially increase your fees?
- When you go for your first appointment with the lawyer, make sure they make you feel comfortable, listen to you, and give you the time you need to explain your case. Talk to friends, especially friends who have used these particular lawyers before, who may have insight into what to expect, and if you know anyone with special insight into the local legal field, such as lawyers, legal secretaries of court personnel, call them and find out what they know of the lawyers reputation, experience, expertise and work ethic.
- Finally, go with what your head and gut level instincts tell you. Do not choose a lawyer just because they are the cheapest, nor because they are the most expensive, but try instead to find the one that will do the best possible job for you. If you later become dissatisfied, talk to your attorney about your concerns, but remember it is your life, and if the problems persist and do not get resolved to your satisfaction, consider changing lawyers.
Know the Qualities to Look for in a Family Law Attorney
The consumer or client when searching for an attorney for legal representation or legal counsel should consider the following qualities.
- Will this attorney or lawyer act rather than react when handling matters pertaining to my case (are there any signs of passive or hostile demeanor)?
- Will this attorney or lawyer control my case instead of letting opposing counsel or the lawyer on the other side, or the judge, control things?
- Is this attorney or lawyer knowledgeable enough about the laws related to child custody and at the level of using his/her knowledge to control the judge?
- Does this attorney or lawyer have credibility with the judge and other attorneys in this particular area of family law (sometimes outside attorneys are good for litigation, but not good for reaching settlement or cooperation)?
- Will this attorney or lawyer plan ahead by devising and implementing a strategy for success? Will this include contingency plans?
- Will this attorney or lawyer treat me with respect, care about how I feel, and help me through this process?
- Will this attorney or lawyer return my telephone calls promptly?
- Will this attorney or lawyer refuse to be intimidated by anyone, including judges and the opposing counsel?
- Will this attorney or lawyer be mindful of attorneys fees and not spend my money without a compelling reason and also keep me informed about fees and costs?
- Will this attorney or lawyer be supportive in representing my interests?
Hiring the Family Law Attorney
The consumer or client should consider the following at the time of hiring or retaining an attorney for legal representation and/or counsel.
- Reading the attorney-client retainer agreement or contract over very carefully and thoroughly before signing - If the attorney or lawyer you are considering hiring does not provide you with a copy of his or her standard contract at your interview, you should ask for one immediately.
- Understanding the purpose of the attorney-client retainer agreement - The attorney-client retainer agreement lays out the ground rules for the attorney-client relationship and is "supposed" to build "good will" between the client and attorney. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The fee agreement should be fair, reasonable, and fully explained to the client.
- Understanding the financial terms and conditions - Be sure you understand the financial terms and conditions the attorney is offering you. It comes as a shock to many clients when they learn that they are billed for each minute for talking on the phone to their attorney and for the time their attorney spends on the phone to the opposing counsel.
- Obtaining an action plan - It is imperative that the attorney provide you with some sort of action plan as to how he will be representing you in your case.
- Carrying out the action plan - Many times attorneys or lawyers appear at first that they will be assertive, aggressive, and in control of the litigation and then, for some reason, fail to deliver on that promise.
Communicating with your Family Law Attorney
The consumer or client when communicating with your attorney or their legal counsel should consider the following.
- Be honest with your attorney and provide requested information promptly - If your attorney asks you for information, it may hold up his/her work until it is received.
- Have a legitimate reason to call your lawyer - Do not make needless phone calls to your attorney. If there are several items that you would like to discuss, it may be best and more productive to set up an in-person meeting (one hour on the phone will most likely cost the same as one hour spent in and in-person conference).
- Keep a written record of everything - Events will occur that you might think are legally significant but are not.
- Be courteous to your attorney - You may have some disagreements with your attorney in regards to your case, it is best to try to stay in a calm and business and professional relationship when communicating with him/her.
Common Mistakes Clients make that Attorneys can Capitalize On
The consumer or client when represented by an attorney should consider the following common mistakes.
- Having unclear objectives: One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to go through the litigation without knowing what you hope to accomplish.
- Giving way to the other side's mental engineering: Another common mistake you must not make is to allow the other side's head games to bother you.
- Becoming overly distressed and/or discouraged: Now that you have read something about how a divorce progresses, you can probably see the similarities between a divorce and many of life's other challenges.
- Using your lawyer as a therapist: Many times, you will be tempted to talk to your lawyer about your personal problems, particularly since he or she is right in the middle of the action. This is one of the biggest and most costly mistakes a client can make.
- Expecting to get justice by going to court: Many people naively believe that, if they can just get the judge to listen to what their ex did, the judge will make things OK. Well, it doesn't work that way. Why not?
The Custody Coach can help address and minimize many of the common
mistakes clients often make and affords many other benefits, such as
reducing overall attorney fees and costs with the potential for greater
results. It is imperative that a clients expectations are reasonable and realistic and
that they are properly educated, organized, and prepared in regards to their
child custody case. Attorneys rarely do this properly as attorneys generally
do not have the time nor the desire to do so. In any case, this would be far
too costly for the client.
The Attorneys Hidden Agenda
Family law attorneys or lawyers often bill on an hourly basis for their services. There are some that will work at reduced rate, provide pro bono services, and some that might take a case on a contingency basis.
However, for the most part, if you are dealing with issues related to divorce and child custody, in California, you can expect to pay on average somewhere around $300.00-$350.00 dollars an hour for an attorneys services. In addition, an attorney will generally require a "true retainer" fee, which is often non refundable, of some $5000.00 or more to retain their services and to take your case.
It is extremely important to understand how family law attorneys bill their clients, the type of work they bill clients for, and how they can inflate billing statements and overcharge their clients. Remember, attorneys who bill hourly, and most do, are paid for the amount of hours they spend on your case times their hourly rate. Therefore, it behooves the attorney to litigate and become busy in their client's case.
Litigation for the most part, is an attorney's best friend. This often entails needless work, exaggerated time spent "reviewing", "drafting", and "editing" documents or time spent on the telephone, duplication of efforts from associates or other junior attorneys, and frustration of cooperation between the two parties (opposing counsel) to further frustrate settlement.
This behavior has become quite commonplace among many family law practitioners today, as ethics and conduct in this field regards to billing practices have become suspect and very controversial. The bolstering up of one's case in order to create needless work in order to remain gainfully employed through litigious behavior is what I refer to as the "Attorney's Hidden Agenda".
Who are the Likely Candidates of an Attorney's Hidden Agenda?
Individuals who find themselves enmeshed in their cases, those who find themselves doing an excessive amount of research and work and are highly intense and emotional, are easy prey for attorneys. I am not saying at all that one should not research or do homework, in fact, I would highly encourage this. What I am saying is if there is an excessive amount of material, points, and details that is presented to an attorney by a very intense and/or emotional client, this will make the client highly susceptible to an attorney's hidden agenda.
How does one Protect themselves from the Attorney's Hidden Agenda?
It is best if the client can initially organize and limit the amount of information to only significant points. Often times a bulleted list of key events and/or significant points that are relevant to the case in question with a time log is sufficient. Generally, it is best to then allow the attorneys to request more information or supporting documents, which should be ready to be handed over.
Generally, the best and most efficient way to communicate with an attorney is in an in-person conference where the client brings a list of all documents/questions/concerns to the conference and the attorney addresses these concerns in the meeting. In this scenario, the client will have the attorney's complete and undivided attention and all documents/question/concerns can be addressed in a face-to-face meeting. Furthermore, attorneys that charge an hourly rate, will charge for an hour of their time spent reading an e-mail, reading a fax, on the telephone, or in an in-person meeting. Therefore, in-person conferences with an attorney will give the client the most value for their money.
Most of the work that appears on your billing statements is work that is untraceable by the client. For example, "drafting", "reviewing", "editing", "researching", etc. However, there are some things that can be traced, such as hours spent at a hearing, in-person conferences, and telephone calls to the client. One of the best and easiest way to monitor any blemishes in an attorney's accounting for attorney fees is to keep a record of telephone calls.
I highly recommend that all calls by clients are made or received on a cell phone when communicating with your attorney. This will generally give the client a little more incentive to not waste time and get to the point. This also allows the client to compare monthly cell phone statements with attorney's billing statement. If there appears to be any indication of "padding the bill", and often there is (I've seen averages of 2-5 times greater), this will immediately raise question as to the credibility of the work performed by the attorney, his or her ethics, and conduct. This will set up a nice case for arbitration and encourage settlement and/or a reduction of fees overcharged by the attorney.
Don't be afraid to address a billing question with your attorney after reviewing your first monthly statement. Look closely at the bill for overcharging of telephone calls, conferences/meetings with client, reviewing or drafting documents, etc. Attorneys should not charge you for discussing the bill and this will be an excellent foreshadowing of your attorneys demeanor and or reaction on how he will handle bill disputes with clients in regards to payment. If your attorney appears to have a sense of entitlement, is hostile, defensive, and unreasonable, most likely he or she will be this way after several monthly statements pile up. This may be a good time to substitute out your attorney while it is early on in the process or begin documenting his work and preparing in advance for arbitration.
- Read carefully the Attorney-Client Retainer Agreement prior to signing.
Look for statements regarding fee increases and make sure you review very closely and ask questions when needed prior to signing. Any disputes with your attorney (i.e. arbitration) will require a review of the signed Attorney-Client Retainer Agreement. It is imperative that you know and understand what you are signing.
- Review monthly billing statements closely for overcharging of fees and mistakes in accounting.
- Look for exaggerated accounting of telephone calls, time spent at hearing, depositions, conferences, and/or meetings that client has attended.
- Look for duplication of efforts on the billing statement made by involvement of other Associates, Paralegals, attorneys, and junior attorney's.
- Check attorneys background for any disciplinary action taken against him/her.
The following links can assist in checking the background of an attorney and to see if any disciplinary action has been taken against him/her. This should be a red flag.
If one is in this uncomfortable and difficult dilemma with their attorney, I would strongly suggest obtaining my coaching services to begin assessing, organizing and building a case against the attorney.
A case with some valid arguments and findings presented well in arbitration can significantly impact the fees the attorney will receive (must be a reasonable amount), and in some cases no fees at all.
Planning and strategizing is very important, as the panel of arbitrators will be made up of attorneys. If one is unprepared and the case is not presented well, one can lose their case even when claims have merit. There are specific statutes, codes, and case law geared towards arbitration that can significantly influence arbitrators in their decision-making and awards.
Client or Attorney Request for Arbitration of a Fee Dispute
In California, arbitration of attorney-client fee disputes is voluntary for the client but mandatory for the attorney if the client commences arbitration. The California Business and Professions Code (B&P) Section 6200 requires members of the State Bar of California who have offices in California to arbitrate disputes with their clients if the dispute concerns fees, costs or both. The subject matter of the arbitration must be limited to issues of attorney fees and costs and the arbitrator may not issue an award based upon any claims for affirmative relief against the attorney for damages or for claims based on alleged malpractice or professional misconduct.
In addition, B&P Section 6201 requires that an attorney shall forward a written notice to the client of the client's right to arbitrate prior to or at the commencement of any proceeding or service of summons or claim against the client. Section 6201 (a) provides that failure to give such written notice shall be a ground for the dismissal of the action or other proceeding (refer to B&P sections 6200 through 6206).
First and foremost it is imperative that you address your fee concerns with your attorney first. If your attorney is not receptive then it is important to put your concerns in writing and send them to your attorney via certified mail. At this point, if your attorney is not receptive or you and your attorney disagree on the amount of fees charged, any discrepancies can be handled by mediation and arbitration as a serious step towards resolving fee disputes and reducing your attorney fees to what you believe to be reasonable and fair.
Majority of times attorneys will try to settle before going to arbitration. Attorneys generally do not want to take time away from their daily work to arbitrate over fees. Why? Simply, because they cannot bill a client for hours associated with arbitration. Attorneys generally would much rather come to a settlement and "cut their losses" rather than argue over fees. I also believe, that arbitration of fees does not help much with their reputation among their colleagues. In addition, attorneys may have fees adjusted based on their conduct and handling of the case, which would not be in the best interest of an attorneys reputation.
In addition, clients may file a compliant with the state bar at anytime. Clients whose fees are reduced in arbitration can also state this in their complaint to the state bar and could lead to disciplinary actions taken against the attorney or in some cases total disbarment. Since registering a complaint against an attorney and requesting arbitration are distinct and unrelated actions, you may want to file your complaint with the state bar as early on as possible. Refer to "Registering or Filing a Complaint with the State Bar" below.
As a Law Professor that I personally spoke with stated, "attorney's generally have much more to lose by going through arbitration than the client does." So if this is the case, why doesn't everyone file for arbitration? Good question.
If you were considering arbitration, I would strongly encourage you to consider my arbitration coaching services to help you analyze, strategize, organize, and help you to present your case. Remember, the panel of arbitrators is usually made up of other lawyers and/or attorneys. Preparing for arbitration is an art and can significantly reduce attorney's fees if you are properly prepared. There are specific guidelines, codes, statutes, and case law that are specific to arbitration and attorney fees that can significantly impact your position. In addition, the way your information is presented can determine the outcome of the arbitrator or arbitration panel's decision.
The following links provide some information and some alternative solutions for the consumer/client who has concerns about attorney fees and/or their attorney's conduct in handling their case.
- Alternative Solutions - Alternative solutions if you (1) believe your attorney fees are too high (2) need to find a new attorney (3) are having difficulty communicating with your attorney (4) are having difficulty obtaining files from your attorney.
- Arbitration of Attorney Fees - California Business & Profession (B&P) Codes 6200-6206.
Registering or Filing a Complaint with the State Bar
According to the State Bar of California, "all lawyers who practice in California must live up to ethical standards imposed by the California Supreme Court and the State Legislature. As an arm of the California Supreme Court, the State Bar investigates and prosecutes complaints against lawyers."
Therefore, one should register a complaint with the State Bar if the attorney or lawyer in question acted improperly in handling their case and/or if the attorney's behavior was unethical, as defined by the Rules of Professional Conduct and/or the State Bar Act.
For disagreements where one believes their attorney did a "poor job" in representing their case or other related disagreements, one should consider some alternative methods of settling attorney-client disputes, when available.
Depending on the seriousness of the offense, disciplinary action may be taken against the attorney or lawyer by given a warning, put on probation, suspended from practicing law for a period of time, or total disbarment (prohibited from practicing law in the State in which the attorney was disciplined).
The following links provide some information to help assist the consumer/client in registering or filing a complaint with the State Bar.
Malpractice Suits and/or Considerations against an Attorney
An attorney or lawyer can be sued for malpractice when he or she fails to provide quality legal services to their client. If the lawyer, through an error or omission, fails to provide services that meet the minimum standard of care of a licensed attorney in that particular state, then one has grounds to sue their attorney or lawyer for malpractice. One should check with their state for the details and legal definition of malpractice.
The party suing for legal malpractice must generally show proof, on a more compelling than not basis, that each of the following four elements have been met in order to prove acts of negligence by their attorney:
- An attorney/client relationship.
- A duty on the part of the attorney to the client.
- A breach of that duty.
- Damages as a direct and proximate result of the attorney's breach of duty.
In addition, each state has a specific period of time, statute of limitations, in which the plaintiff (client) can sue his/her attorney. In California, a plaintiff must generally file his or her lawsuit within one year of the attorney's acts of negligence or within one year from the date the client reasonably should have discovered the attorney's acts of negligence, unless the attorney still represents the client.
According to the President of Attorney Services of Southern California, "every attorney's worst nightmare is a legal malpractice suit". The following links/articles are provided to help educate the consumer/client who is considering filing a malpractice lawsuit against their attorney.