How to Choose and Have a Good Relationship with Your Divorce Attorney


     You’re getting divorced, or you are divorced and you have the ex from hell that thinks the attorneys need to be involved in every situation you encounter in your co-parenting career (yes, it’s a career because it is a lot of freaking work). Both of these are a shit position to be in for a million reasons you already know so I won’t list them here. Since we live in the litigious United States, this means we have to lawyer up and hire a divorce attorney to look out for our best interests. This is expensive and upsetting because only you know your family, but what you don’t know is how to navigate the court system.

What to expect from the process and hiring a family law attorney:

  1. Expect a retainer fee of $5,000. A retainer fee is the “deposit” you give an attorney. They work, use these funds as they go, and let you know when that amount is used up.
  2. Expect to continue paying after the retainer fee is utilized. This money will go faster than you think and the attorney will do one of two things:
    1. Make you pay another retainer fee so they know they are getting paid for their time.
    2. Start sending you monthly bills as work is completed.
  3. If you take this all the way to Trial, expect a separate Trial retainer fee. Trials are expensive to prepare for and expensive to attend.  It is not unusual for an attorney in most areas of law to request a Trial retainer fee.
  4. Expect this to take a year or more. Divorces and modifications take forever, especially when one of the parties is bitter and argumentative. Further, everyone complains about the government and the lines at the DMV. You do realize the Court is the government too, right? The attorney cannot make the Courts move faster.

What to look for when choosing a family law attorney:

  1. Do your research. Look them up on the Bar website in your state.
    1. It will show if they have had any disciplinary actions. People bitching is one thing, but a verified complaint, where the Bar sides with the client, means there was true fault. You need to know this.
    2. Additionally, it tells you when they graduated from law school. There is nothing wrong at all with baby attorneys and in fact, you may get one with fewer cases who will do more work for less money. However, only you know your case and how complicated it is, which decides how much experience you need.
  2. If they don’t make you sign a Retainer Agreement, don’t use them. This agreement protects the attorney as well as the client. It sets forth what you both can expect from each other, how and when the attorney expects payment, and most importantly, what their representation covers. People think that’s “my attorney” they handle all my divorce issues. Nope. Read your agreement. It may say they are only negotiating a settlement for you, or that their representation goes up through Trial, but they don’t “do Trials”. Make sure you know what services you are paying for.
  3. Get someone who is family law only or does family law. You wouldn’t go to a General Practitioner if you have heart problems, you would go to the Cardiologist. Do not go to an attorney that “practices everything” or has a “general practice”. I was told not too long ago that you shouldn’t buy a copier/scanner/printer/fax machine combination. That basically means it does each job to a mediocre standard. That you should buy the thing that has been toiled over and produced to do one thing really well.  Attorneys are no different.

How to have a good relationship with your attorney:

  1. Stop calling them. There will be weeks (or in some cases months) of no movement on a case for whatever reason. Calling daily simply pisses off the attorney and staff. Also, they are charging you for these “status update” calls to tell you, “no, still nothing, and as I told you Steve, I’ll call you as soon as I have an update”.
  2. Only call for legal reasons. This probably seems like a no-brainer but I wouldn’t write it if I didn’t see it. If you want to know what is legal in a certain situation then by all means call. However, if you’re calling daily just to vent about your ex, call your therapist. They may not be cheaper, but they may take your insurance. I once actually said to a client (back when I was a paralegal), “You are calling me again because your ex-wife didn’t send back a shirt that you purchased. You are paying the firm $150.00 per hour to speak to me about a $10.00 shirt from Target. This is not a good financial decision for you.”  Honestly, this is not a legal question unless you actually want to sue them civilly outside of family court for the clothing you’re missing.
  3. Pay on time. You’ll quickly go to that mystical place called the backburner if your bill is late. You have to do your part if you want the attorney to do theirs.
  4. Produce what is requested quickly and accurately. Family law is famous for the amount of paperwork involved. When you are divorced, there is what is called, Mandatory Disclosure or Discovery (at least in Florida). These are questions you will be asked as testimony (but it is written unlike a Deposition, which is oral testimony) and documents you will have to produce (mostly financial, such as tax returns, bank statements, pay advices, etc.). Support staff members are happy to sort through your production but remember they are billing you to do so. If you show up with one tax return when two are requested, no pay advices because HR is annoying, and a grocery bag full of receipts, they are going to bill you to go through it, then bill you to email you a list of what is still left since you didn’t give what was requested, and then bill you for the next set you bring in, to correct the issue. Read requests very carefully and send them everything they have asked for in an organized fashion. This will be you biggest money saver.
  5. Remember that this attorney is handling your divorce but not additional legal matters. Thanks to television, people have the wrong idea about hiring an attorney. Hopefully if you read above, you didn’t hire the “family attorney” that is handling your divorce, as well as your traffic ticket. They aren’t your friend, they aren’t going to golf with you (even though of course they golf…..because attorney), and don’t call them when you have a dead hooker in your trunk at 3:00AM. They are simply handling your divorce and that’s what they are paid for especially if you’ve have found an attorney who charged you a flat rate (which you won’t).

All in all, these are manageable and we’ve all done at least one of these.  Do your homework and do what is asked and it will save you a ton of money and heartache. That money should be going to your children, not divorce attorneys. Their children already go to expensive private schools.