Do I Need A Lawyer for my Divorce or Custody Battle?

Everyone knows that a divorce can be expensive--devastatingly so, in some cases.  For this reason, you might want to represent yourself without support.  Of course, everyone deserves their day in court without destroying their financial positions; however, there are many solid reasons why retaining an attorney will benefit you in the long run.  

You may be thinking: you're a divorce lawyer; of course you would recommend that I get an attorney.  Perhaps, but I can tell you that all of my friends who practice family law retain attorneys for their own divorces.  In fact, I've represented lawyers and judges in the dissolution of their marriages.  A lawyer who isn't intimately familiar with the nuances of divorce and custody actions may miss some details that have a significant legal impact.  Plus anyone--including lawyers--can get emotional about their own family matter which tends to cloud good judgment.  Two heads are better than one, especially when one of the heads is not personally involve in the case.  

Reasons to Retain an Attorney for Your Divorce

Judges can't give legal advice; as such, if they see you are missing someting, they can't step in and advise you.  I once reprented a father in a custody dispute where he and the mother never married.  Acocrding to the law at the time, she was entitled to request four years of back child support.  This would have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in her pocket, regardless of the judge's prospective custody determination.  She din't have a lawyer, so she didn't even know to ask for this.  Had she retained an attorney, this crucial issue wouldn't have been missed.

Judges are human, too.  Your attorney knows the predilections of the judges.  Each judge has wide lattitude to interpret things like the best interest of the child standard, which resolves issues of custody and visitation.  For instance, some judges may favor a parent based on his or her gnder.  Some judges may be prone to higher awards of spousal support, while others are not inclined to award spousal support at all.  Some judges almost always grant joint physical custody, while others are more open to awarding one parent primary physical custody.  Having an experienced lawyer gives you the chance to weed through judges' predispositions, and possibly disqualify a judge who is likely to make unfavorable rulings.

It is especially important to have an attorney represent you at trial or evientiary hearings.  It takes years of study and practice to learn the convoluted and complex rules of evidence.  For example, the hearsay rule deems inadmissible any out of court statements made my the declarant; however, most states have well over a dozen exceptions to the hearsay rule.  An attorney's familiarity and experience with hearsay rules and exceptions can make or break your case.  Another tricky area during trial involves the admission of evidence.  In addition to testimonial evidence, there is often physical evidence that must be introduced and admitted during trial.  There is a special way to properly lay a foundation for this evidence that a lawyer will know how to do.  These are technical procedural rules that you must know going into a trial.

The best way to find an attorney is through a recommendation from a friend or family member.  People love talking about their divorces, so don't be timid when it comes to asking around.  If a recommendation is not an option, you can read feedback and reviews on websites like Google, Yelp and Avoo.

Take advantage of the fact that most attorneys offer free consultations.  Consulting with multiple attorneys has its benefits.  First, it's not just about the attorney's knowledge; you should also consider her bedside manner.  Two attorneys may have the same education, experience, and background when it comes to matrimonial matters, but one may be a better listener and be more sensitive to your issues.  

Second, you want to make sure you feel comfortable sharing unfavorable things about yourself to your lawyer.  The more you hold back from your attorney, the less she can help.  Disclosing unfavorable details early on can hlp your lawyer minimize potential damage.  The unfavorable things are boudn to come up eventually, so ti is best that your attorney knows about them from the start.  Third, you want to see how each attorney runs his or her office.  I know of high-priced and highly distinguished attorneys who charge $1,000 for a consultation, and over $500 per hour, and their paralegals do 95% of the work on each case.  Half of the time, the attorney is out of town and completely unavailable.  Visiting a lawyer's office will give you a peek at how your case may be handled.

Questions to Ask During a Consultation

What is your retainer and what is your hourly rate?

A retainer refers to the money you deposit with your lawyer.  He deposits the retainer in his trust account, bills against it, and takes it out of the trust account once earned  Think of a retainer as a down payment to get started.

In what increments do you bill time?

Some laywers bill in 1/4 of an hour increments, or 15 minute increments.  This means that the minimum amount of time the bill for a task is 15 minutes.  Even if they work for one minute, they bill for fifteen.  If they work for 5 minutes, they bill for 15 minutes.  If they work for 16 minutes, they bill for 30 minutes, because any minute worked over the first 1/4 of an hour is billed for the next 1/4 of an hour.  More commonly, lawyers bill at 1/10 of an hour increments, or six minute increments.  This means that if they work for 5 minutes, they bill for 6 minutes.  And if they work for seven  minutes, they bill for 12 minutes.  

To show you the potential impact of billing increments, let's say that Attorney A bills in 1/4 hour increments, and Attorney B bills in 1/10 hour increments, and each works for five minutes.  If they both charge $250 per hour, Attorney A will bill $2.50 for five minutes of work, while Attorney B will bill $25.  As you can see, it makes a difference.

How do you bill for emails and text messages?

Some lawyers add this to their hourly rate.  Some charge per email of text.  This can also make a huge difference in your bill.

How many staff members will be assigned to my case?

Having multiple staff members on your case is both good and bad.  It's good because staff members ae cheaper, and it's potentially bad because it may distance your attorney from you and the case.  Find out from the beginning who your point of contact is for certain items.  While you might not need your attorney to call you to remind you of your court date and time (that is something that can and should be handled by a paralegal), you will want to discuss case strategy and such with your attorney.  Make sure that when you need to reach your attorney, you will be able to do so.

Will you have an associate working on my case?

As with staff members, having an associae (a junior attorney) work on hyour ase isn't necessarily a bad thing because it cn save you money.  Regardless, you deserve to know who is doing the majority of the work.  Will the associate be drafting pleadings, attending court appearances, conducting depositions?  If both the partner and the associate attend court, do you have to pay the hourly rate for both?

How easy (or difficult) is it to reach you?

The number one complaint among clients of attorneys is that they have a hard time reaching their attorney.  Communication is key in your attorney-client relationship and establishing guidelines up front and early is the best way to go.

Do you provide itemized billing?

An itemized bill provides you with valuable insight about your attorney.  It tells you who works on your case and what was done.  It's a tool for you to see exactly what is going into your case.

How often do you litigate rather than settle your cases?

Hopefully your case will settle quickly and easily.  However, in the chance that your case proceeds to trial, you want to maximize your potential for success by having an attorney who has trial experience.