Disclaimer: This article is intended to be a general resource only and is not intended to be nor does it constitute legal advice. Any recommendations are based on personal, not professional, opinion only. I am a lawyer, but do not practice family law. This article is for informational purposes to aid you in obtaining sound legal advice from a qualified professional.
When a lawyer comes into your life, it is often during a time of stress and high emotions. This goes double for a family law attorney, who help with divorces, custody arrangements, child support, adoptions, and countless other legal matters that affect those nearest and dearest to you. So it’s important that you pick the right person for your family. More than 90% of cases heard in the Bexar County courthouse (on the civil side) are family law matters, so it’s not surprising that you almost can’t walk down the street without tripping over a lawyer who says he/she can help. I don’t practice family law, but I have plenty of colleagues who do, both here and in other parts of the country. I polled them and am sharing their collective knowledge with you. Here are six of their most important tips:
1. Get a referral. Ask friends who have been through similar situations. Check out the State Bar of Texas or San Antonio Bar Association. Ask someone you know who is a lawyer. Even if he/she doesn’t practice family law, he/she probably knows someone who does. The great thing about asking a lawyer you know, is that you can get you a more personal referral. Your acquaintance may know someone who is great at dealing with a difficult ex. Or someone who is very good at making sure complicated issues are tied up nice and neat so you don’t have to go back to court. Or someone who is extra sensitive and will help you through especially emotional proceedings.
2. Stick with a specialist. You may love and trust your Uncle Ray. But if he makes his living by keeping a tech company’s legal matters in order, chances are he doesn’t know how to navigate family law intricacies. This isn’t to suggest you must hire someone who practices only family law. But whomever you hire, make sure he/she at least has familiarity with it. This is especially true here in Bexar County, where cases move through the court system significantly differently than in other places. You can look up any lawyer on the State Bar of Texas website and see which areas he/she practices in. You can also see which attorneys have been sanctioned by the Bar for misconduct!
3. This is not the time to DIY. That includes the online kits of forms to fill out and submit yourself. This is exponentially more important when there are kids involved. My colleagues universally agreed that they devote a fair portion of their business to fixing problems when someone decided they could do it themselves or used a lawyer who didn’t do an adequate job. It is better to spend a bit more up front than spend thousands of dollars to fix things later.
4. You get what you pay for—sort of. There are fantastic lawyers out there at all price ranges. There are solo practitioners just starting out who will cost you far less than the established large law firm partner. Generally, a higher hourly rate means an attorney has more years of experience or board certification. If a lawyer is board certified, it means he/she has significant experience and has passed a test proving his/her knowledge. This can be important if (a) your issues are very complicated; and/or (b) you expect things to get ugly. You may also choose to use a more experienced and/or board-certified lawyer because it brings you peace of mind. But if it’s not what you need, rest assured there are lots of other highly qualified lawyers out there. However, be wary of any lawyer who promises to get your legal issues resolved for a low flat fee. As with many things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ask the lawyer what happens if it gets more complicated. Find out exactly what you get for your money. Chances are good you will be better off hiring a lawyer who can pursue an individualized plan of action for you.
5. Communication is paramount. The biggest thing all of my colleagues agreed on is the importance of communication. This isn’t a store where you walk in, tell the lawyer what you want, write a check, and walk out with your purchase. The lawyer can—and should—explain the law, your options, and what possible outcomes may be. But he/she can’t promise anything. Because, ultimately, the judge makes the ruling. That judge’s job is to interpret the law. Your lawyer can tell you what he/she thinks will happen, what usually happens, and probably even what your worst (and best) case scenarios are. But he/she can’t predict the future (e.g., what your soon-to-be ex is going to do or how your situation may change during the course of the proceedings) or can’t read the judge’s mind to tell you what she will rule. It’s your job to communicate your needs, desires, and concerns to your lawyer. If he/she says something and you don’t understand, it’s your job to speak up. It’s the lawyer’s job to clearly explain the law and what to expect from the process. If a decision has to be made, the attorney should be able to give you your options so you can make the best decision for yourself. Financially, he/she should give you specific information on how he/she expects to get paid: What is the retainer fee? How long does that typically last? What happens after it’s gone? Make sure you understand how billing works. The last thing you want is to be surprised with a big bill and no resolution to your issues until it is paid.
6. Use your initial consultation wisely. The vast majority of family law attorneys charge a consultation fee. Some of those say they charge a fee but have the ability to waive or decrease the fee in certain situations. If you are in dire financial straights, it’s worth asking about. If a lawyer does not charge a consultation fee, proceed with caution. One colleague told me that she never charges a fee because her philosophy is that most people just need some guidance and help, and if she can make their life easier by providing information, that is better for them and more likely they will hire her firm. She’s a saint. She’s also the very rare exception. Unfortunately, most places that don’t charge a fee are what we call a “mill.” Their goal is to get you in and out. If you fit into the cookie cutter mold and nothing goes wrong, you’ll be fine. If something is out of the ordinary, you will be reading this post in a couple years as you look for someone else to fix the mistakes made by your first attorney. Not all attorneys who do not charge a consultation fee are bad—just proceed with caution. Ask why they don’t charge a consult fee. If you are satisfied with the answer, go for it!
During your consultation, the lawyer needs to know the basics of what you are looking for. This is a great time to figure out if you can communicate with him/her. If he/she talks for 10 minutes and you don’t understand what he/she is saying, ask for clarification. Does the lawyer show that he/she understands what you want to get out of this? Can he/she clearly tell you a plan of action and potential outcome? Is he/she open to questions?
Good lawyers are like navigators. You’re the captain. You tell them where you want to go, and they tell you how to get there. Once you pick your lawyer, trust him/her. Your attorney has been trained to do this and does it every day, and he/she has the benefit of being emotionally removed from your situation. There may be multiple routes that will get you to your destination and you get to choose which route to take, but you are paying him/her for advice and strategic planning. Trust the lawyer you have carefully selected to get you where you want to go.
One last note. If you cannot afford an attorney, there are resources out there, generally for very low-income families in uncontested divorces and some simple child support issues. St. Mary’s School of Law runs the Center for Legal and Social Justice; their phone number is (210) 431-2596. The San Antonio Bar Association has a quarterly clinic in which they can provide limited service if you qualify. You can get information here. And Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s application is here. All of these programs have stringent income guidelines because they work with limited funds and are largely run by volunteers.